Getting More Mojo from Maslow

In order to survive the struggles of the economic recession, we need to reframe difficult business experiences as opportunities to find meaning in our work.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist who was imprisoned in a Nazi death camp and wrote the influential tome Man’s Search for Meaning once lamented, “People have enough to live by, but nothing to live for; they have the means, but no meaning.” This is a predicament of modern man. Once we’ve addressed our basic needs in life, what do we strive for?

Modern man is a worker bee. To us, business means busy-ness. We work 25 percent more hours per week than we did a generation ago, not counting the time we spend e-mailing colleagues from home or while we’re on vacation. As we toil away to keep up with the cost of living, we often fail to recognize the high spiritual price we pay for being more focused on means than meaning.

But why? Research shows that this approach can be counter-productive. Gurnek Bains, lead author of Meaning, Inc: The Blueprint for Business Success in the 21st Century, says that meaning directly drives employee commitment and engagement. Industry-leading companies like Google, Genentech, and Southwest Airlines—which regularly appear on lists of great places to work—have learned that the key to raising performance levels is to create a sense of real meaning for employees. “This has a tangible and demonstrable impact on business results. Now that other forms of competitive advantage have become commodities, creating a sense of meaning for people will be what makes the difference for most companies in the future.” It is critical, then, to transform the economic challenges of the recession into opportunities for us to understand and infuse meaning into our work.

When I started my company, Joie de Vivre Hospitality, nearly a quarter century ago, I decided that the name of the business should also be its mission statement. Joie de Vivre has since grown into America’s second-largest boutique hotelier, based on our commitment to “creating opportunities to celebrate the joy of life.” We distilled our credo into a two-word mantra, “Create Joy,” which is stamped into the blue rubber bracelets that all new employees receive during orientation and that many veteran staffers routinely wear.

But one learns the difference between a glorified mission statement and a belief system that guides behavior when a company faces a “once-in-a-lifetime” economic downturn— and, really, we’ve faced two of these in the San Francisco Bay Area in the past decade. In late 2001, I was struggling. I had 1,000 employees, and I didn’t know how I was going to make payroll. The combination of the dot-com crash, 9/11, and a worsening economy had put Joie de Vivre at risk. One afternoon, I walked into a local bookstore in search of a business book that would help ease my financial pains—or at least give me a clue about how to survive. I quickly realized that what I really needed was some serious personal guidance. So I moved from the Business section to the Self-Help section of the bookstore (conveniently located next to each other), where I reacquainted myself with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, one of the most famous psychological concepts to explain human motivation.

I suppose that a guy who names his company “Joie de Vivre” should naturally gravitate toward self-actualization. Maslow is known as an early leader in the human potential movement; he believed that psychology was too obsessed with our worst behaviors when a lot can be learned from our best practices. He first popularized the axiom, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail,” aptly describing his peers’ over-emphasis on neurosis in the mid-20th century. Re-reading Maslow helped me to see one of the most neglected facts in business: the fact that we’re all human. And, no matter what our role—CEO, line-level employee, customer, investor— in a particular business is, we each have a hierarchy of needs that determines what’s important to us. Late in his life, Maslow started applying his hierarchy of needs to organizations and businesses. Unfortunately, he died in 1970 (at age 62) before he could closely examine how his theory might shift from the individual to the collective.

During that downturn nearly a decade ago, I started “channeling Abe” to see how I could apply his theory to my company. I figured the worst that could happen is we’d go bankrupt, so why not learn something along the way? I distilled the Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid from five to three levels, or key themes, which make up what I call the Transformation Pyramid: survive (safety and physiological); succeed (esteem and love/belonging); and transform (self-actualization). These themes aren’t just relevant in business; they’re fundamental in life. I looked at how to apply them to the three most important stakeholders in Joie de Vivre: employees, customers, and investors. For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on employees.

Maslow concluded that individuals’ deepest motivations sit at the top of the pyramid—and take on an inspirational quality. For example, in his research on people’s relationship with their work, he asked dozens of nurses, “Why did you go into nursing?” “What are the greatest moments of reward?” and “Tell me a moment so wonderful it made you weep or gave you cold shivers of ecstasy.” The nurses answered by describing peak experiences that were virtually life-altering. Nurses who were most able to express a peak experience seemed most “called” by their work.

In A Simpler Way, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers wrote, “People do not respond for long to small and self-centered purposes or to self-aggrandizing work. Too many organizations ask us to engage in hollow work, to be enthusiastic about small-minded visions, to commit ourselves to selfish purposes, to engage our energy in competitive drives. Those who offer us this petty work hope we won’t notice how lifeless it is … when we respond with disgust, when we withdraw our energy from such endeavors, it is a sign of our commitment to life and to each other.” Maslow helped me understand that my Employee Pyramid was defined by money (survive), recognition (succeed), and meaning (transform).

We all have basic needs that need to be met, and our work compensation package is the means to that end. But Gallup has shown in multiple surveys that money is not the primary reason that people leave a company (in fact, it usually comes in fourth place). People join a company, and they leave their boss. Recognition, which addresses people’s success needs and usually taps into one’s sense of social belonging or esteem needs, is what creates loyalty in the workplace. But money and recognition are external motivators for doing any job. Those who are engaged in something they’re passionate about—such as the nurses Maslow interviewed—have transcended the bartering relationship that defines most relationships between employer and employee. They have tapped into an internal motivation that fuels them. They are inspired by what they do. They have moved from just focusing on the tasks they do each day to imagining the impact of their work. As they become more aware of that intangible we call meaning, employees move to the transformational peak of the pyramid.

Most companies get a little lost in the ether at the top of the pyramid, because it’s easier for bosses to “manage what they can measure,” and it’s simpler to do a benchmark compensation survey than to try to gauge meaning. Someday we may have a “Corporate Meaning Index” just like we have a Dow Jones stock index, so that we can quickly scan who is playing at the top of the pyramid and who isn’t. In studying my own company and dozens of other meaning-driven businesses, I’ve come to realize that workplace meaning can be dissected into meaning at work and meaning in work. Meaning at work relates to how an employee feels about the company, their work environment, and the company’s mission. Meaning in work relates to how an employee feels about their specific job.

I believe that meaning at work is far more important than meaning in work. When employees believe in the work of the company, the whole Hierarchy of Needs is satisfied. Those employees clearly have their basic needs met because they have confidence in the financial stability of the company, which means they have job security. Believing in the company’s mission also typically creates deeper alliances among employees because the sense of being part of a connected crew and the pride that comes from group success satisfy our social or esteem needs. Finally, their self-actualization needs can be met by feeling that we are part of an organization making a difference in the world, plus there’s a halo effect that may render the work they do day-to-day even more meaningful.

One of the most profound decisions I made during the depth of that last downturn was to start managing the business based on meaning and to start measuring meaning in various ways, from asking questions on biannual work-climate surveys to querying line workers in monthly staff meetings, “What’s the best experience you’ve had in the past month here at work?” The question I really like to ask our employees goes something like this, “Most of us think of our job in terms of ‘What am I getting?’ What if you asked yourself daily, ‘What am I becoming as a result of this job?’” Helping our employees reframe their work, changing their tasks to make their jobs more meaningful, and creating a democratic culture in which employees help define our business strategy has helped Joie de Vivre’s turnover rate drop to one-third the industry average. We were recently crowned the “second best place to work” in the San Francisco Bay Area, a remarkable feat for a service company that’s full of people cleaning toilets in a region full of high-tech companies famous for plush corporate campuses.

I learned quite a bit about meaning in business during the last downturn, but this downturn has been full of lessons, too. During the dot-com bust, my desire to learn tended to be organizational, but the worldwide Great Recession has led to more personal lessons. I’ve found myself on an emotional roller coaster the past couple of years. I’ve had five friends or colleagues commit suicide, primarily due to stresses at work, and I’ve seen countless companies in the travel and design industries dissolve under the pressure of this relentless economy. My greatest epiphany resulted in a series of what I call “Emotional Equations” (also the title of my next book, due out in 2011) that help remind me how the world works. The most profound equation that I’ve used for myself and for the managers in my company has been despair = suffering–meaning. I learned this from reading Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

As teenagers, we learned algebra and found there were constants and variables in an equation. That’s true in life, too. The constant in a concentration camp, or in a recession, is suffering. There will always be suffering. Yet, the variable in life is meaning: How do we find a sense of meaning, even in the most difficult times? This is a question that I’ve asked my employees and myself, because if you can find meaning in the rubble, you will lessen your despair. That’s how this equation works: more meaning equals less despair. Yet, most of us in a difficult time put our attention on the suffering. Life and business are all about where you place your attention. If Frankl can live through a death camp by rediscovering the importance of meaning in our lives, we can live through a painful recession by reframing difficult economic experiences.

Chip Conley is the founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, California’s largest boutique hotel company, founded in 1987. He is also the author of Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow.

The Meaning of Business


In light of the economic crisis, companies have a historic opportunity to transform the way they do business and provide customers with more value-rich, sustainable, and meaningful products and services. With this special series on “The Meaning of Business,” design mind invites business leaders from various industries and disciplines to explore new, innovative models of value creation.

A New Era of Meaning - An Introduction
By Tim Leberecht
Chief Marketing Officer, frog design

Articles in this series