Trying to Find the Right Career and Job for You? Use This Hierarchy of Needs Approach

Finding a good fit between your personality and your career happens when there’s synchronicity between your tasks, the environment you’re in, and the value you both provide and receive from your responsibilities.

Research backs up the theory that personality-job fit is critical. Studies show that when your professional world is consistent with who you are as a person, you experience your work as more meaningful. The effect is greatest when your work matches your values and brings you a sense of self-esteem.

Fitting your job and career to your personality not only makes you more adaptable and resilient to changing demands, but it also translates to better performance on the job. People with the best fit between their personality and their job earned up to a month’s salary more each year because they were happier and more productive. A strong fit is also linked to greater engagement, energy, enthusiasm, and innovation at work.

So viewing current and potential roles through the lens not only of what you need to survive but also what you need to thrive is a way to ensure you’ll be more effective, satisfied, and impactful at any stage of your career.

Here’s how to evaluate whether a job is the right fit for you based on what I call a hierarchy of professional needs, which you might recognize as a play on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. You can apply this strategy to your current job to understand what kind of needs gap you’re dealing with and you can use it in your job search as you’re evaluating potential roles.

Basic Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs illustrates his theory that individuals can only grow and reach their full potential if certain basic requirements are met. The same idea applies in the workplace, where your basic needs fall into three categories:

Physical Needs

Physical needs form the foundation of the pyramid and encompass all aspects of your actual workspace, whether you work at home or you go into an office. Finding the best level of stimulation helps you feel stable and at peace while creating an ambience that allows you to focus and reap the best of what you have to offer.

Questions to consider:

  • How quiet or private do you prefer your workspace to be?
  • Are you excited or repelled by the idea of working in a high-energy environment?
  • What type of atmosphere allows you to feel engaged and present—from the colors and room accents to the lighting?

Relational Needs

This band of the pyramid includes all the interpersonal aspects of your job, from how frequently you interact with colleagues to the sense of trust and belonging you feel in the workplace. You might be an introvert or an extrovert. And you may love teamwork or people management even if you also enjoy working alone. Either way, think about the qualities of your professional relationships that bring you joy and deep satisfaction.

Questions to consider:

  • How frequently do you want to interact with colleagues?
  • How much of your time do you like spending in meetings or collaborating with others, and how excited does that make you?
  • What do you need from your workplace relationships to feel like you’re accepted and that you belong?

Organizational Needs

The third level of the pyramid requires you to evaluate the type of organizations you would like to work for. Organizational needs include not only the ways in which a company functions like its size, culture, and leadership style but also what it brings to the world, its reputation, and what it stands for in the marketplace.

Questions to consider:

  • What kind of leader motivates you and is it essential to you that their values mesh with yours?
  • How important is it that your company has a mission that you’re passionate about?
  • What type of organizational culture do you thrive in (one where decisions are made by consensus or by seniority, for example)?
Growth Needs

Once your basic needs are met, you can begin to think about your growth needs, which stem from a desire to advance as a person.

Health and Lifestyle Needs

Think about your work-life balance and the conditions that will drive optimal physical and mental health. The key is to take responsibility for the logistics and parameters that govern your energy and your overall well-being.

Questions to consider:

  • How much control do you need over scheduling your day, and how often do you need breaks?
  • What time would you ideally get to work and leave at the end of the day?
  • What degree of flexibility can you not live without?

Learning and Performance Needs

At the top of the pyramid sit duties, skills, and strengths you want to utilize in your work. There’s no gold standard because fulfillment looks different for everyone. Some people may meet their needs by pursuing work that is their passion while others care about just earning enough to pursue things that matter to them outside of work. Pinpointing your needs requires you to reflect on how you aspire to grow in the future.

Questions to consider:

  • What do you consider to be your special gifts and talents?
  • How much do the key tasks associated with your role energize or drain you?
  • What interests or skills do you care about getting better at or applying differently?
4 Tips to Help You Clarify Your Needs

Defining both your basic requirements and ideal conditions can help you make small tweaks that create better fit—whether in your current role or as you search for your next job. If you’re not quite sure how to figure out what you need and want in a best-fit job or how to get from there from where you are, here are a few tips to help you get unstuck.

1. Look to the Past

Consider your past roles (this can include temporary projects or volunteer gigs) and what you liked most about them. What really lit you up? What were you doing? What do you wish you could carry forward or expand on? On the flip side, think about what conditions of the job you hope never to deal with again.

2. Choose Prioritization Over Paralysis

You may find that your needs in certain categories conflict with each other. That’s normal. Resist the urge to change everything at once. “If certain areas compete, which is a priority right now? Which sacrifices are you willing to make to serve your priorities?” says Pamela Slim, author of Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together.

3. Job Craft

You can also proactively customize your role to find more career satisfaction. If you enjoy educating others, but your job focuses on execution, for instance, you could try to redesign your tasks to include creating training tutorials for other teams.

4. Zoom In

Instead of trying to devise a five-year career plan, try this more manageable thought experiment: Imagine yourself one year from today. What would be different? What would stay the same? You might even have to zoom that time frame down further to six or three months. What do you see?

Excerpted and adapted from Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work by Melody Wilding. Published by Chronicle Prism, an imprint of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2021 by Melody Wilding.