Need-Based Theories

What you’ll learn to do: explain need-based theories of worker motivation

One of the approaches to understanding motivation is by studying human needs. Specifically, studying how the satisfaction of fundamental human needs drives behavior. In this section, we will introduce the four dominant theories—psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, psychologist Clayton Alderfer’s ERG theory, a modification of Maslow’s theory, psychologist Frederick Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene or two-factor theory and psychologist David McClelland’s Acquired Needs theory—and their relevance to management.

Learning Outcomes

  • List the various levels of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy
  • Explain the impact that Maslow’s levels of needs have on worker motivation
  • Summarize the changes to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in Alderfer’s ERG theory
  • Explain the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in Herzberg’s two-factor 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 include 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

Hierarchy of Needs and Organizational Theory

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is relevant to organizational theory because both are concerned with human motivation. Understanding what people need—and how people’s needs differ—is an important part of effective management. For example, some people work primarily for money (and fulfill their other needs elsewhere), but others like to go to work because they enjoy their coworkers or feel respected by others and appreciated for their good work. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that if a lower need is not met, then the higher ones will be ignored. For example, if employees lack job security and are worried that they will be fired, they will be far more concerned about their financial well-being and meeting lower needs (paying rent, bills, etc.) than about friendships and respect at work. However, if employees receive adequate financial compensation (and have job security), meaningful group relationships and praise for good work may be more important motivators.

Practice Question

When needs aren’t met, employees can become very frustrated. For example, if individuals works hard for a promotion and don’t get the recognition it represents, they may lose motivation and put in less effort. Also, when a need is met, it will no longer serve a motivating function—the next level up in the needs hierarchy will become more important. From a management point of view, keeping one’s employees motivated can seem like something of a moving target. People seldom fit neatly into pyramids or diagrams, and their needs are complicated and often change over time.

Maria at Work

Maria is a long-time employee who is punctual, does high-quality work, and is well liked by her coworkers. However, her supervisor, Jorge, begins to notice that she is coming in late and seems distracted at work. He concludes that Maria is bored with her job and wants to leave. When he calls her into his office for her semiannual performance appraisal, he brings up these matters.

To his surprise and chagrin, Jorge learns that Maria’s husband lost his job six months ago and, unable to keep up with mortgage payments, the two have been living in a local hotel. Maria has moved down the needs pyramid, and, if Jorge wants to be an effective manager, he must adapt the motivational approaches he uses with her. In short, a manager’s best strategy is to recognize this complexity and try to remain attuned to what employees say they need.

Alderfer’s ERG Theory

Photo of lush, old-growth forestClayton 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

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators

Photo collage showing two pale towers viewed through a rainy window

American psychologist Frederick Herzberg is regarded as one of the great original thinkers in management and motivational theory. Herzberg set out to determine the effect of attitude on motivation, by simply asking people to describe the times when they felt really good, and really bad, about their jobs. What he found was that people who felt good about their jobs gave very different responses from the people who felt bad.

The results from this inquiry form the basis of Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory (sometimes known as Herzberg’s “Two Factor Theory”). Published in his famous article, “One More Time: How do You Motivate Employees,” the conclusions he drew were extraordinarily influential, and still form the bedrock of good motivational practice nearly half a century later. He’s especially recognized for his two-factor theory, which hypothesized that are two different sets of factors governing job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction:  “hygiene factors,” or extrinsic motivators and “motivation factors,” or intrinsic motivators.

Hygiene factors, or extrinsic motivators, tend to represent more tangible, basic needs—i.e., the kinds of needs included in the existence category of needs in the ERG theory or in the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Extrinsic motivators include status, job security, salary, and fringe benefits. It’s important for managers to realize that not providing the appropriate and expected extrinsic motivators will sow dissatisfaction and decrease motivation among employees.

Motivation factors, or intrinsic motivators, tend to represent less tangible, more emotional needs—i.e., the kinds of needs identified in the “relatedness” and “growth” categories of needs in the ERG theory and in the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Intrinsic motivators include challenging work, recognition, relationships, and growth potential. Managers need to recognize that while these needs may fall outside the more traditional scope of what a workplace ought to provide, they can be critical to strong individual and team performance.

The factor that differentiates two-factor theory from the others we’ve discussed is the role of employee expectations. According to Herzberg, intrinsic motivators and extrinsic motivators have an inverse relationship. That is, intrinsic motivators tend to increase motivation when they are present, while extrinsic motivators tend to reduce motivation when they are absent. This is due to employees’ expectations. Extrinsic motivators (e.g., salary, benefits) are expected, so they won’t increase motivation when they are in place, but they will cause dissatisfaction when they are missing. Intrinsic motivators (e.g., challenging work, growth potential), on the other hand, can be a source of additional motivation when they are available.

Chart showing the factors that contribute to job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction according to Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory. Job dissatisfaction is influenced by hygiene factors; job satisfaction is influenced by motivator factors.

If management wants to increase employees’ job satisfaction, they should be concerned with the nature of the work itself—the opportunities it presents employees for gaining status, assuming responsibility, and achieving self-realization. If, on the other hand, management wishes to reduce dissatisfaction, then it must focus on the job environment—policies, procedures, supervision, and working conditions. To ensure a satisfied and productive workforce, managers must pay attention to both sets of job factors.

Practice Question

Watch the following videos to hear these principles explained by Frederick Herzberg himself (in a smoke-filled 1970s lecture theater no less!).

McClelland’s Acquired Needs Theory

Photo of a chess master, making his next move.Psychologist 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 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