Whether you’re an employee or business leader, you can use the ladder of success to figure out what rung you’re on during the tumultuous Great Resignation and hiring crisis and then make a plan of action to move your career or company farther up the hierarchy. You can use psychologist Abraham Maslow’s framework to move up the rungs of success. Starting at the bottom rung (physiological needs), you must meet all five levels at each rung to move from the bottom to the top:

  1. Physiological needs
  2. Safety And Security
  3. Compassion and Belonging
  4. Self-Esteem
  5. Self-Actualization.

As you read the descriptions of each rung, check out which one you land on and what you need to do to move up to the next one and what goals you can set to move the rest of the way to the top.

1. Basic Physiological Needs

At the bottom level, your well-being must be your top priority. You can’t live without food, water, restorative rest, sleep and oxygen. You can’t meet a pressured deadline or be productive if you’re hungry, thirsty, tired or exhausted. You advocate for your own self-care as the foundation of job productivity and career success, starting with healthy eating, adequate sleep and regular exercise. You aim for a full, integrated life in work, play, relationships and spiritual needs. You pay attention to your stress level and mental health and strive for daily breaks, vacations, work/life balance and time off to incubate and hatch creative ideas and recharge your batteries so you can return with renewed energy to perform at your highest potential.

2. Safety and Security In Your Work Environment

The health, safety and security of your work environment contribute to your overall success. To perform optimally at work, you must feel safe—physically, psychologically and financially in terms of job security. You need a secure and safe workspace free from distractions or threats. When lighting is too low, temperature too cold or hot or offices too noisy, it’s more difficult to knock out that project or meet a short deadline. If you’re a leader, you advocate for a company workplace safety plan or Environmental, Safety and Health Policy Statement that protects you and others from injury or work-related illness and ensures that offices are secure from intruders.

You’re also an advocate of psychological safety making sure you’re shielded from threats and intimidation. Studies indicate that bosses are the biggest sources of stress among the workforce and that employees don’t feel safe confiding in their employer about a mental health issue. You advocate for physical and psychological employee safeguards. If you’re a leader, you send a message that you care about employees as human beings, not just worker bees. And you create an atmosphere of openness, comradery and teamwork that boost job engagement, morale and the company’s bottom line.

3. Empathy And Belonging To And From Colleagues

If you tried to collect all the tears shed by the American workforce, they would fill an ocean. A sense of belonging is central to who we are as human beings at work, home or play. Studies show that empathy is a pivotal tool in today’s global market. Your success as a colleague and leadership effectiveness rest on your ability to express empathy and communicate to coworkers and employees that they belong. Rae Shanahan, Chief Strategy Officer at Businessolver, released the Empathy Study, which shows that when employees believe organizations provide programs that demonstrate empathy, it ramps up productivity (48%) and motivation (42%), reduces turnover (39%) and creates a sense of belonging in the organization (36%).

Research shows that inclusion and empathy motivates employees up the ladder toward their goals. Progression at this rung requires that you communicate and lead with compassionate directness and emotional honesty. To accomplish this, it takes an awareness of your own emotional intelligence and an understanding that empathy and consideration for employees goes a long way to foster a successful team. You recognize your own emotions and those of others and interact with integrity and judiciousness through difficult, unfair or pressure-filled work challenges. You build trust and empower teams to build belonging, authenticity and innovation. You advocate for a trusting and understanding environment—a safe workplace where you and coworkers can unbutton feelings and share with each other and leaders who understand.

4. Self-Esteem Needs Met

At this level, you’re fully aware that your self-esteem is vital to your success and that of your organization’s bottom line. You make a special effort to keep your “tallcomings” on par with your shortcomings. And if you’re a leader, you boost the self-worth of your workforce. Studies show that organizational self-esteem fosters job satisfaction, company loyalty, higher motivation, job performance and lower turnover. If you’re an employee who feels good about yourself, you’re able to focus better, need less time off and have better interpersonal relationships with coworkers.

You practice optimism on a daily basis, which helps you scale the success ladder faster and higher than pessimism. If you’re an optimist, you focus on possibilities, potential and solutions instead of deficits, past regrets and problems. If you’re a manager, you delegate work responsibilities, instead of micromanaging, and your encouragement of independence sends a message to employees that you trust their performance abilities. And when your employees know you believe in them, it helps them believe in themselves, and when they believe in themselves, they can accomplish more for the organization. You don’t let the rapid pace of work demands dwarf your acknowledgment of a job well done. You dole out “atta-boys” and “atta-girls” to yourself and give credit to others where it is due. You give yourself pep talks and affirmations, encourage employees to be their best selves and reward them for meeting their quotas or other accomplishments.

5. Self-Actualization In The Workplace

At the highest rung on the pyramid, you’re a self-starter and actualize your talents and skills and support coworkers to reach their full potential—even if it means they might find a promotion or higher-paying position elsewhere. You have a growth mindset—which means you engage in lifelong learning and resilience, accept failure and success equally and remain confident in your pursuits after a letdown. You adopt and share the mindset that setbacks happen for you, not to you. You’re a creative risk taker willing to stretch beyond customary bounds and stick your neck outside your comfort zone. You welcome shortcomings and mistakes—no matter how painful, frustrating, big or small—and envision them as lessons from which to learn. You ask yourself, “What can I manage or overcome here?” or “How can I turn a roadblock into a steppingstone?” You’re a master of self-correction, good problem solver, solution focused and serve or lead with integrity. Eight qualities beginning with the letter “C” indicate that you’ve reached the level of self-actualization: curiosity, calm, clarity, compassion, confidence, courage, connection and creativity.


  • Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Journalist, psychotherapist, and Author of 40 books.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychotherapist in private practice, and award-winning author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books that have been translated into 15 languages. His latest books are CHAINED TO THE DESK IN A HYBRID WORLD: A GUIDE TO WORK-LIFE BALANCE (New York University Press, 2023)#CHILL: TURN OFF YOUR JOB AND TURN ON YOUR LIFE (William Morrow, 2019), DAILY WRITING RESILIENCE: 365 MEDITATIONS & INSPIRATIONS FOR WRITERS (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). He is a regular contributor to Forbes.com, Psychology Today, and Thrive Global. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, ABC's World News Tonight, NPR’s Marketplace, NBC Nightly News and he hosted the PBS documentary "Overdoing It: How To Slow Down And Take Care Of Yourself." website: https://bryanrobinsonphd.com.