4.2 Need-Based Theories of Motivation

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how employees are motivated according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  2. Explain how the ERG (existence, relatedness, growth) theory addresses the limitations of Maslow’s hierarchy.
  3. Describe the differences among factors contributing to employee motivation and how these differ from factors contributing to dissatisfaction.
  4. Describe need for achievement, power, and affiliation, and identify how these acquired needs affect work behaviour.

The earliest studies of motivation involved an examination of individual needs. Specifically, early researchers thought that employees try hard and demonstrate goal-driven behaviour in order to satisfy needs. For example, an employee who is always walking around the office talking to people may have a need for companionship, and his behaviour may be a way of satisfying this need. At the time, researchers developed theories to understand what people need. Four theories may be placed under this category: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, ERG theory, Herzberg’s two-factor theory, and McClelland’s acquired-needs theory.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow is among the most prominent psychologists of the twentieth century. His hierarchy of needs is an image familiar to most business students and managers. The theory is based on a simple premise: Human beings have needs that are hierarchically ranked.[1][2] There are some needs that are basic to all human beings, and in their absence nothing else matters. As we satisfy these basic needs, we start looking to satisfy higher order needs. In other words, once a lower level need is satisfied, it no longer serves as a motivator.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Age from the bottom to top: Physiological, Safety, Social, Esteem, and Self-Actualization
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The most basic of Maslow’s needs are physiological needs. Physiological needs refer to the need for food, water, and other biological needs. These needs are basic because when they are lacking, the search for them may overpower all other urges. Imagine being very hungry. At that point, all your behaviour may be directed at finding food. Once you eat, though, the search for food ceases and the promise of food no longer serves as a motivator.

Once physiological needs are satisfied, people tend to become concerned about safety needs. Are they free from the threat of danger, pain, or an uncertain future? On the next level up, social needs refer to the need to bond with other human beings, be loved, and form lasting attachments with others. In fact, attachments, or lack of them, are associated with our health and well-being.[3] The satisfaction of social needs makes esteem needs more salient. Esteem need refers to the desire to be respected by one’s peers, feel important, and be appreciated. Finally, at the highest level of the hierarchy, the need for self-actualization refers to “becoming all you are capable of becoming.” This need manifests itself by the desire to acquire new skills, take on new challenges, and behave in a way that will lead to the attainment of one’s life goals.

Maslow was a clinical psychologist, and his theory was not originally designed for work settings. In fact, his theory was based on his observations of individuals in clinical settings; some of the individual components of the theory found little empirical support. One criticism relates to the order in which the needs are ranked.

It is possible to imagine that individuals who go hungry and are in fear of their lives might retain strong bonds to others, suggesting a different order of needs. Moreover, researchers failed to support the arguments that once a need is satisfied it no longer serves as a motivator and that only one need is dominant at a given time.[4][5]

Despite the lack of strong research support, Maslow’s theory found obvious applications in business settings. Understanding what people need gives us clues to understanding them. The hierarchy is a systematic way of thinking about the different needs employees may have at any given point and explains different reactions they may have to similar treatment. An employee who is trying to satisfy esteem needs may feel gratified when her supervisor praises an accomplishment. However, another employee who is trying to satisfy social needs may resent being praised by upper management in front of peers if the praise sets the individual apart from

How can an organization satisfy its employees’ various needs? In the long run, physiological needs may be satisfied by the person’s paycheck, but it is important to remember that pay may satisfy other needs such as safety and esteem as well. Providing generous benefits that include health insurance and company-sponsored retirement plans, as well as offering a measure of job security, will help satisfy safety needs. Social needs may be satisfied by having a friendly environment and providing a workplace conducive to collabouration and communication with others. Company picnics and other social get-togethers may also be helpful if the majority of employees are motivated primarily by social needs (but may cause resentment if they are not and if they have to sacrifice a Sunday afternoon for a company picnic).

Providing promotion opportunities at work, recognizing a person’s accomplishments verbally or through more formal reward systems, and conferring job titles that communicate to the employee that one has achieved high status within the organization are among the ways of satisfying esteem needs. Finally, self-actualization needs may be satisfied by the provision of development and growth opportunities on or off the job, as well as by work that is interesting and challenging. By making the effort to satisfy the different needs of each employee, organizations may ensure a highly motivated workforce.

ERG Theory

ERG theory includes existence, relatedness, and growth
ERG theory includes existence, relatedness, and growth. Based on Alderfer, C. P. (1969). An empirical test of a new theory of human needs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 4, 142–175.

ERG theory, developed by Clayton Alderfer, is a modification of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.[6] Instead of the five needs that are hierarchically organized, Alderfer proposed that basic human needs may be grouped under three categories, namely, existence, relatedness, and growth. Existence corresponds to Maslow’s physiological and safety needs, relatedness corresponds to social needs, and growth refers to Maslow’s esteem and self-actualization.

ERG theory’s main contribution to the literature is its relaxation of Maslow’s assumptions. For example, ERG theory does not rank needs in any particular order and explicitly recognizes that more than one need may operate at a given time. Moreover, the theory has a “frustration-regression” hypothesis suggesting that individuals who are frustrated in their attempts to satisfy one need may regress to another. For example, someone who is frustrated by the growth opportunities in his job and progress toward career goals may regress to relatedness need and start spending more time socializing with coworkers. The implication of this theory is that we need to recognize the multiple needs that may be driving individuals at a given point to understand their behaviour and properly motivate them.

Two-Factor Theory

Frederick Herzberg approached the question of motivation in a different way. By asking individuals what satisfies them on the job and what dissatisfies them, Herzberg came to the conclusion that aspects of the work environment that satisfy employees are very different from aspects that dissatisfy them.[7] Herzberg labeled factors causing dissatisfaction of workers as “hygiene” factors because these factors were part of the context in which the job was performed, as opposed to the job itself.

Hygiene factors included company policies, supervision, working conditions, salary, safety, and security on the job. To illustrate, imagine that you are working in an unpleasant work environment. Your office is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. You are being harassed and mistreated. You would certainly be miserable in such a work environment. However, if these problems were solved (your office temperature is just right and you are not harassed at all), would you be motivated? Most likely, you would take the situation for granted. In fact, many factors in our work environment are things that we miss when they are absent but take for granted if they are present.

In contrast, motivators are factors that are intrinsic to the job, such as achievement, recognition, interesting work, increased responsibilities, advancement, and growth opportunities. According to Herzberg’s research, motivators are the conditions that truly encourage employees to try harder.

The two-factor theory of motivation includes hygiene factors and motivators.[8]

Hygiene Factors

  • Company policy
  • Supervision and relationships
  • Working conditions
  • Salary
  • Security

  • Achievement
  • Recognition
  • Interesting work
  • Increased responsibility
  • Advancement and growth

  1. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.
  2. Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.
  3. Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.
  4. Neher, A. (1991). Maslow’s theory of motivation: A critique. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 31, 89–112.
  5. Rauschenberger, J., Schmitt, N., & Hunter, J. E. (1980). A test of the need hierarchy concept by a Markov model of change in need strength. Administrative Science Quarterly, 25, 654–670.
  6. Alderfer, C. P. (1969). An empirical test of a new theory of human needs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 4, 142–175.
  7. Herzberg, F. (1965). The motivation to work among Finnish supervisors. Personnel Psychology, 18, 393–402.
  8. Based on Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., & Snyderman, B. (1959). The motivation to work. New York: John Wiley and Sons; Herzberg, F. (1965). The motivation to work among Finnish supervisors. Personnel Psychology, 18, 393–402.
  9. Cummings, L. L., & Elsalmi, A. M. (1968). Empirical research on the bases and correlates of managerial motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 70, 127–144.
  10. House, R. J., & Wigdor, L. A. (1967) Herzberg’s dual-factor theory of job satisfaction and motivation: A review of the evidence and a criticism. Personnel Psychology, 20, 369–389.
  11. Spangler, W. D. (1992). Validity of questionnaire and TAT measures of need for achievement: Two meta-analyses. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 140–154.
  12. Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33–52.
  13. Campbell, D. J. (1982). Determinants of choice of goal difficulty level: A review of situational and personality influences. Journal of Occupational Psychology, 55, 79–95.
  14. Harrell, A. M., & Stahl, M. J. (1981). A behavioural decision theory approach for measuring McClelland’s trichotomy of needs. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66, 242–247.
  15. Trevis, C. S., & Certo, S. C. (2005). Spotlight on entrepreneurship. Business Horizons, 48, 271–274.
  16. Turban, D. B., & Keon, T. L. (1993). Organizational attractiveness: An interactionist perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 184–193.
  17. McClelland, D. C., & Boyatzis, R. E. (1982). Leadership motive pattern and long-term success in management. Journal of Applied Psychology, 67, 737–743.
  18. McClelland, D. C., & Burnham, D. H. (1976). Power is the great motivator. Harvard Business Review, 25, 159–166.
  19. Wong, M. M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Affiliation motivation and daily experience: Some issues on gender differences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 154–164.
  20. McClelland, D. C., & Burnham, D. H. (1976). Power is the great motivator. Harvard Business Review, 25, 159–166.
  21. Spangler, W. D., & House, R. J. (1991). Presidential effectiveness and the leadership motive profile. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 439–455.
  22. Spreier, S. W. (2006). Leadership run amok. Harvard Business Review, 84, 72–82.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

NSCC Organizational Behaviour Copyright © 2021 by NSCC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book