The Change Communications Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943, Abraham Maslow famously introduced us to his ‘hierarchy of needs’ – a psychological pyramid of human motivation starting with basic physiological needs at the bottom (breathing, food water etc) through to safety, belonging, esteem and finally self-actualization a the very top.   The hierarchy has become one of the best known and most referenced psychological theories regarding human motivation and change.   So, inspired by Maslow, I’ve put together my own version of the ‘hierarchy of needs’ in the context of change communications.  In many ways, this is just a different take on the change curve, but here I’ve tried to map out the communication needs of workers facing organisational change.  The key point here is the importance of understanding what people go through during change and why their communications needs reflect their own psychological motivations.   So here we go …

Let’s start at the bottom, with what we should call security.    A natural human reaction to any change, or threat, is made in the gut via the oldest and most primal part of the brain.   Actually, it’s the amygdalas to be precise (see my recent post on this).   The instinctive question is ‘what does this mean to me?’ and almost certainly the psychological response will be to perceive the change as a threat.  The first priority then for our audience is to evaluate the extent to which the change will impact their security – will I still have a job, will I earn less money, will I still be able to support my family, will I lose what I value?    From the comms perspective, any other message is likely to fall on deaf ears, or its value will be muted.    But it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to satisfy these needs immediately – especially if the change has a negative people impact – so our focus will be to establish the basics around why the change is happening, what the future looks like and how we intend to get there so that people can internalise and interpret accordingly.   Support, clarity, dialogue, listening, reassurance, empathy and patience is the name of the game here.  Only when our people have this need satisfied, or at least acknowledged, will they be ready to move on.

The next question is ‘OK, so even if I don’t lose my job, will my role change – will I have to do something different?’.   This will spark a whole range of exploratory questions to ascertain the level of threat and the likely impact of personal change.  The key focus here for the individual is to find out exactly what will be different so he/she can come to a conclusion about what it means to them.   Of course, some people may welcome the opportunity for change because they may not be happy in their current role or may seek change or advancement.   Some people may even want to leave the organisation entirely  (although they will only do so if they can satisfy their need for security, like a big fat redundancy cheque!).   The comms need now moves to picture-painting, answering questions, conversations, timescales.  There will be frustration if needs aren’t met, so expect that and plan for it.

The needs then become more nuanced.   I think identity will come next.   So having satisfied the first two needs around security and role, the next big question will be ‘where do I fit?’.   This means understanding more about what the organisation will look like in the future – what team and department will I be part of?   Status will play a part here too.   Will I come out of this change in a better position, with a clearer sense of purpose, with good colleagues around me?   How will I contribute to the organisation?   Here is when we need to  ramp up the engagement.   People will begin to feel part of the future so they’ll be seeking answers around ‘what it will be like’ and what the wider organisation will look like.   It’s probably only at this stage that they’ll start showing true engagement around the big picture as they contemplate their position within it.

So next will be what I would describe as value.   If I’m satisfied up to this stage, I have reassurance around my security, I have an idea of how my job will change and I know more about where I fit.   So now I’m needing to know more about how I’ll do my job in the future.   What new skills will I need to learn?  Will my skills be valued in the organisation (and in the marketplace)?     To meet needs here we’ll need to provide clarity around things like operating models, capabilities and training.   Engagement will increase here as individuals look to understand what’s expected of them in the new world.

Which takes us onto the penultimate stage of my little pyramid – opportunity.   As our people gradually have their core needs met, they will start to look beyond the ‘here and now’ to what comes next.   They will seek and explore opportunities from the change, so their needs will become more forward-looking and personal.   They may ponder opportunities for advancement, they may seek new challenges and they may have ideas to contribute.  They may also be keen to play a more active role in shaping the future so this is a good time to engage them with opportunities to get involved.  By now, they’ll be through the change curve and exploring what the future holds.

Finally, we come to the top of the tree – fulfilment.   Like Maslow’s final stage of self-actualization, this is about the need to reach ones potential.  In our context, this is achieving that level of engagement that leads to mastery, commitment and the pursuit of excellence.    We all have a need to be the best we can, but we must understand that other needs come first.   As change managers and change communicators, we have to be patient, plan our interventions and work hard to satisfy our audience’s needs.   I’ve always believed that change communication is as much about understanding human behaviour as it is about good communications practice.   I hope this explains why.

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