Meeting Needs: Connecting Total Rewards and Servant Leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf, visionary and author of Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Greatness and Power, said:

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from the one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types…

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit, or at least not be further deprived?

As we consider the total rewards we provide our employees–compensation, benefits, work/life balance, recognition and growth–are we meeting the highest priority needs of our people?

What are the highest priority needs of the people we serve?

Fortunately, we have some good research and models to understand the needs of people.

Compensation professionals may be familiar with motivational theories, but one model stands out as both a needs theory and motivational theory: Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As depicted in the following diagram, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs identifies five levels of needs: physiological, safety and security, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. According to the theory, people are most motivated by their lowest order unmet needs. (I was taught Maslow’s pyramid no less than six times in business school, by six different professors, so there must be something to it. It’s worth understanding, even though the same professors explained there are–and why there are–exceptions to it.) Read on.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


How can we determine the needs of our people?

Now that we understand the range of needs, how do we measure each type of need within a population such as a workforce? Is there a “Maslow-meter” that measures which needs are not being met, and therefore are most motivating, for a person or group of persons?

Total Rewards Can Meet Any Level of Need

Yes, you read that correctly. Total rewards can meet any of the needs shown on Maslow’s hierarchy. Consider the role of each segment of total rewards, and how those rewards match up the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy:

Maslow and Total Rewards
Generally, a “complete” total rewards package targets all levels of needs represented by Maslow’s hierarchy. (c) Freelance Total Rewards Pte. Ltd.

The above diagram is part of Freelance Total Rewards’ 2-day course on Total Rewards Strategies. I have presented the above diagram as a blank worksheet (no checkmarks) and simply asked the participants (rewards and HR professionals) “What needs are met by each area of total rewards?”  Without exception, the above pattern emerges, although some table groups come up with different results. For example, a group might agree that Growth-job promotion, for example–can be self-actualizing, boost your esteem and improve your standard of living as well (physiological). Others have noted that a promotion can help you find a mate (love and belonging)! But the point is clear: whatever needs your current or future employees have, you can address them by looking at the entire range of total rewards carefully.

A Few Questions to Consider:

  1. Are the highest priority needs of your current employees the same as your future employees? Or are your workforce demographics changing?
  2. Are the highest priority needs of the decision maker the same as the needs of your current and future workforce? Will decision makers’ needs create noise when communicating your proposals? What’s in it for them? A great leader–Stevan Porter, President, Americas for InterContinental Hotels Group–asked me one question when I proposed benefits changes affecting employees at all job levels: “How will this affect a room attendant working at a Holiday Inn?” This is servant leadership: considering the highest priority needs  of the least privileged (for some, just paying the rent each month.)
  3. What needs can be met without adding cost? How about nurturing a culture of respect and appreciation (esteem), or ensuring performance reviews are done well (enabling growth)? How about skipping the company onsite fitness center–mostly used by those who don’t need it, and shoring up life and disability insurance which is used only by those who do (security) or including preventive care or smoking cessation which arguably pay for themselves, and support several levels of need?


Organisations that carefully consider the needs of their people can design total rewards practices that better address those needs, to attract, retain, motivate and serve the people who possess the talents needed by the organisation. By considering not just needs, but highest priority needs, you can be more serving, and get better results attracting and retaining talent.

(c) Freelance Total Rewards Pte. Ltd.

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