Need-Based Theories

Learning Outcomes

  • List the various levels of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy
  • Summarize the changes to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in Alderfer’s ERG theory
  • Describe how employees might be motivated using McClelland’s acquired needs theory

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Human motivation can be defined as the fulfillment of various needs. These needs can encompass a range of human desires, from basic, tangible needs of survival to complex, emotional needs surrounding an individual’s psychological well-being.

Abraham Maslow was a social psychologist who was interested in a broad spectrum of human psychological needs rather than on individual psychological problems. He is best known for his hierarchy-of-needs theory. Depicted in a pyramid (shown in Figure 1), the theory organizes the different levels of human psychological and physical needs in order of importance.

A triangle is divided vertically into five sections with corresponding labels inside and outside of the triangle for each section. From top to bottom, the triangle's sections are labeled: “self-actualization” corresponds to “Inner fulfillment” “esteem” corresponds to “Self-worth, accomplishment, confidence”; “social” corresponds to “Family, friendship, intimacy, belonging”’ “security” corresponds to “Safety, employment, assets”; ““physiological” corresponds to “Food, water, shelter, warmth.”

Figure 1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is illustrated here. In some versions of the pyramid, cognitive and aesthetic needs are also included between esteem and self-actualization. Others include another tier at the top of the pyramid for self-transcendence.

The needs in Maslow’s hierarchy include physiological needs (food and clothing), safety needs (job security), social needs (friendship), self-esteem, and self-actualization. This hierarchy can be used by managers to better understand employees’ needs and motivation and address them in ways that lead to high productivity and job satisfaction.

At the bottom of the pyramid are the physiological (or basic) human needs that are required for survival: food, shelter, water, sleep, etc. If these requirements are not met, the body cannot continue to function. Faced with a lack of food, love, and safety, most people would probably consider food to be their most urgent need.

Once physical needs are satisfied, security (sometimes referred to as individual safety) takes precedence. Security and safety needs include personal security, financial security, and health and well-being. These first two levels are important to the physical survival of the person. Once individuals have basic nutrition, shelter, and safety, they seek to fulfill higher-level needs.

The third level of need is social, which includes love and belonging; when individuals have taken care of themselves physically, they can address their need to share and connect with others. Deficiencies at this level, on account of neglect, shunning, ostracism, etc., can impact an individual’s ability to form and maintain emotionally significant relationships. Humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, whether it comes from a large social group or a small network of family and friends. Other sources of social connection may be professional organizations, clubs, religious groups, social media sites, and so forth. Humans need to love and be loved (sexually and non-sexually) by others. Without these attachments, people can be vulnerable to psychological difficulties such as loneliness, social anxiety, and depression. These conditions, when severe, can impair a person’s ability to address basic physiological needs such as eating and sleeping.

The fourth level is esteem, which represents the normal human desire to be valued and validated by others, through, for example, the recognition of success or status. This level also includes self-esteem, which refers to the regard and acceptance one has for oneself. Imbalances at this level can result in low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. People suffering from low self-esteem may find that external validation by others—through fame, glory, accolades, etc.—only partially or temporarily fulfills their needs at this level.

At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization. At this stage, people feel that they have reached their full potential and are doing everything they’re capable of. Self-actualization is rarely a permanent feeling or state. Rather, it refers to the ongoing need for personal growth and discovery that people have throughout their lives. Self-actualization may occur after reaching an important goal or overcoming a particular challenge, and it may be marked by a new sense of self-confidence or contentment.

Practice Question

Alderfer’s ERG Theory

decorative imageClayton Paul Alderfer is an American psychologist who developed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into a theory of his own. Alderfer’s ERG theory suggests that there are three groups of core needs: existence (E), relatedness (R), and growth (G)—hence the acronym ERG. These groups align with Maslow’s levels of physiological needs, social needs, and self-actualization needs, respectively.

Existence needs concern our basic material requirements for living. These include what Maslow categorized as physiological needs (such as air, food, water, and shelter) and safety-related needs (such as health, secure employment, and property).

Relatedness needs have to do with the importance of maintaining interpersonal relationships. These needs are based in social interactions with others and align with Maslow’s levels of love/belonging-related needs (such as friendship, family, and sexual intimacy) and esteem-related needs (gaining the respect of others).

Finally, growth needs describe our intrinsic desire for personal development. These needs align with the other portion of Maslow’s esteem-related needs (self-esteem, self-confidence, and achievement) and self-actualization needs (such as morality, creativity, problem-solving, and discovery).

Alderfer proposed that when a certain category of needs isn’t being met, people will redouble their efforts to fulfill needs in a lower category. For example, if someone’s self-esteem is suffering, he or she will invest more effort in the relatedness category of needs.

Practice Question

McClelland’s Acquired Needs Theory

decorative imagePsychologist David McClelland’s acquired-needs theory splits the needs of employees into three categories rather than the two we discussed in Herzberg’s theory. These three categories are achievement, affiliation, and power.

Employees who are strongly achievement-motivated are driven by the desire for mastery. They prefer working on tasks of moderate difficulty in which outcomes are the result of their effort rather than luck. They value receiving feedback on their work.

Employees who are strongly affiliation-motivated are driven by the desire to create and maintain social relationships. They enjoy belonging to a group and want to feel loved and accepted. They may not make effective managers because they may worry too much about how others will feel about them.

Employees who are strongly power-motivated are driven by the desire to influence, teach, or encourage others. They enjoy work and place a high value on discipline. However, they may take a zero-sum approach to group work—for one person to win, or succeed, another must lose, or fail. If channeled appropriately, though, this approach can positively support group goals and help others in the group feel competent.

The acquired-needs theory doesn’t claim that people can be neatly categorized into one of three types. Rather, it asserts that all people are motivated by all of these needs in varying degrees and proportions. An individual’s balance of these needs forms a kind of profile that can be useful in creating a tailored motivational paradigm for her. It is important to note that needs do not necessarily correlate with competencies; it is possible for an employee to be strongly affiliation-motivated, for example, but still be successful in a situation in which her affiliation needs are not met.

McClelland proposes that those in top management positions generally have a high need for power and a low need for affiliation. He also believes that although individuals with a need for achievement can make good managers, they are not generally suited to being in top management positions.

Practice Question


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