Understanding employee engagement – needs versus wants

Employee engagement is arguably the Holy Grail of a successful business. Engaged staff are typically motivated, happy and productive; creating competitive advantage and helping a company reach its goals.

It is, therefore, something that remains near the top of management’s agenda. However, while the benefits are clear, achieving employee engagement is no easy feat.

One of the biggest barriers is the common misunderstanding between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ and their respective importance to individuals. The main difference is that a ‘need’ is something that individuals already inherently possess, whereas a ‘want’ is something they don’t have but would like. For a business to engage its workforce, it is crucial that the distinction is made, understood and reflected in practice.

Here’s how to understand employee engagement needs versus wants:


As mentioned above, each of us is born with a set of basic needs which must be met just for us to survive, such as eating, sleeping and breathing. A well-known and recognised concept that categorises them further is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Without getting into the theory too deeply, Maslow listed the needs as psychological, safety, social, esteem and growth, believing that personal contentment depends on the fulfilment of each.

These needs essentially encompass stability, belongingness, independence, mastery and realising personal potential – all of which are applicable to the workplace. It stands to reason, therefore, that employee engagement relies on the satisfaction of these needs.

Ways in which employers can work towards this goal is by providing job security, inclusion in a team, accountability, recognition, training and progression. This is demonstrated by the fact that one of the biggest reasons people leave an organisation isn’t because of their salary, it’s due to lack of development or a poor culture.

Accepting and appreciating these basic human needs is key in achieving employee engagement. Whether a simple ‘thank you’ for a job well done (esteem) or the opportunity to study a professional qualification (mastery and progression), this can have a huge effect on morale.


Wants tend to be the things that provide some sort of instant gratification, giving immediate happiness. The most common ‘want’, of course, is financial and it’s probably the easiest way in which businesses can apparently motivate their employees. After all, a salary increase is always very much welcomed.

However, money isn’t everything. Studies have shown that employees value other benefits and behaviours above their wage, believe it or not. That’s because this ‘want’ is a short-term motivator. Employees are temporarily thrilled to see their bank balance bolstered, but soon enough, they realise it hasn’t had any impact on their basic needs. A £500 increase does not affect job satisfaction or career prospects.

The problem with giving a financial award of any kind is that many managers use it to ‘paper over the cracks’, when real issues cannot or will not be addressed. In addition, the annual increase award system – or lack thereof – can cause widespread disharmony among colleagues. As such, financial reward can actually serve as a demotivator and not at all as it was intended. Consequently, employers must understand that a suite of benefits might be more appropriate and successful in engaging staff.

How to achieve employee engagement

As evidenced above, there are many steps that a business can take towards engagement. Carrying out a ‘litmus test’ to assess the workforce’s current mood is a good place to start; roll-out a staff engagement survey to gain an insight into employee morale, asking what it is that they really need. Emphasise that the responses will be used to make some positive changes to both the reward strategy and management techniques.

Another effective measure is to make ambassadors of those members of staff that are already motivated and engaged. Ask them to share their secrets with colleagues in an attempt to inspire others to change their mindsets.

It will take time for any organisation to gain employee buy-in, naturally and it’s worth remembering that there will always be some individuals who simply won’t ever be happy, no matter what you do.

That said, creating a culture in which people can go home each night feeling satisfied, i.e. through implementing a staff recognition scheme, initiating a volunteering programme, creating values by which everyone must behave and treating them all fairly, can make a huge difference to morale; ultimately leading to improved employee engagement.