Workplace Motivation and Maslow’s Need Hierarchy Theory


In any organization, motivating employees is very important since motivated employees help improve the productivity. The content theories of motivation seek to understand what motivates employees and energizes, directs and sustains them as they give their best for an organization. The four main content theories of motivation include Maslow’s need hierarchy theory, McClelland’s learned need theory, Alderfer’s ERG theory and Herzberg’s two factor theory. Each one of these theories focuses on what employees need in order to remain focused and motivated.

The Four Theories

According to Maslow’s need hierarchy theory, humans have five basic needs which are Physiological needs, Safety needs, Social needs, Esteem needs and need for Self Actualization. These five needs are arranged in a hierarchy and according to Maslow, as a person’s lower-order needs are met he is no longer motivated by them and a higher order need must be satisfied in order to further motivate him. Physiological needs are the most basic needs which humans need for sustenance such as food, water, air and sleep. When these needs are not met, a person is motivated with the quest to satisfy them. Once physiological needs are met, people are no longer able to motivate employees and they need to satisfy their safety needs to be motivated. Safety needs include job security, a secure home, financial security etc. These two are deficiency needs and if a deficiency arises in these needs than a person is motivated by the need to satisfy them first before he seeks to fulfill the higher order needs. The remaining three higher order needs are growth needs. Once the lower order needs are fully satisfied, these needs must be met in order to motivate a person. Social need is the need for humans to have friends and a feeling of belonging. Esteem is the need to feel important and self actualization is the need for humans to reach their full potential. This need is never fully satisfied and so can always be used to motivate employees. Arnolds and Boshoff (2002) point out that the main limitation of Maslow’s theory is that it is a “broad theory of human development rather than a description of work motivation”. Another criticism of Maslow’s theory is its strict hierarchy. Different people have different needs and it is unlikely that their needs will progress according to this hierarchy.

Alderfer’s ERG theory attempts to address the shortcomings of the Maslow’s hierarchy theory. Alderfer’s theory is more flexible and suggests that humans are motivated by three core needs which are Existence, Relatedness and Growth (ERG). As with Maslow’s theory, the existence needs are basic human needs necessary for existence such as food, water, air etc., Relatedness is the man’s desire to have good relationships with other people and Growth is the need for personal development. There is not a lot of research on Alderfer’s ERG theory although Arnolds and Boshoff (2002) have carried out empirical research on the theory.

McClelland’s learned need theory focuses on the higher needs of achievements, affiliation and power. The theory is based on the study of managers and according to this theory what motivates a particular individual is based his life experiences, that is, it is learned. People who are motivated by a high need of achievement are medium risk takers and measure their success against their own personal standards. Those who are motivated by a need for affiliation need to have good relations with people around them and feel accepted in the group. Finally, individuals who are motivated by need for power need to organize and controls others. The one limitation of McClelland’s learned need theory is that it only applies to managers and cannot be used to understand the motivation needs of lower level employees.

Finally, Herzberg’s Two-factor theory is based on concept that human needs can be divided into two groups. In the first group is the need to grow and in the second group is the need for fair treatment. Based on this, Herzberg’s two-factor theory divides motivation into two factors, Motivators, or factors that actually motivate employees and Hygiene factors or dissatisfiers, the factors whose absence would de-motivate people but whose presence would not necessarily motivate employees.

Maslow’s theory is still the best

Although Maslow’s theory was the original need based theory, and despite criticism, it is still the best need based theory and offers the best explanation of motivation. Among other reasons, Maslow’s theory is the most detailed one and takes into account the motivation needs of even the lowest level employees. This is not true for McClelland’s learned need theory which can only apply to senior level employees. Although this is a very good theory about what motivates managers and what makes some managers more successful than others, McClelland does not address the issue of motivating lower level employees. McClelland seems to suggest that it is the manager’s job to influence others to perform their best. However, the theory is silent on how the manager’s can influence their subordinates.

Herzberg’s theory divides various organizational policies into two factors: Those that motivate employees and those that de-motivate. This is a very simplistic theory and does not take into account the fact that some factors may motivate under certain conditions but may not be important under other conditions. Similarly, some factors may be de-motivating under certain conditions but may not be so important under other conditions. Brenner, Carmack and Weinstein (1971) carried out an empirical test on Herzberg’s theory and found that employees “received both job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction from both motivating and hygiene factors”. This ambiguity showed that the Herzberg theory may not always be valid and hence cannot be used universally. Brenner et al concluded that the Maslow’s theory was better than Herzberg’s theory to study job satisfaction.

It may seem that Alderfer’s ERG theory is the best alternative to Maslow’s theory since it seeks to fix the issues with the strict hierarchy of Maslow’s theory. However, very few empirical studies have been carried out on Alderfer’s theory. Arnold’s and Boshoff attempted a study to study the influence of need satisfaction on self esteem and the influence of self esteem performance of top managers. However, the study had very limited scope and studied only one aspect of need satisfaction, that is, self esteem. Also, the study was concerned with the performance of top managers and did not shed any light on the effect of Alderfer’s theory on the lower level employees.

In view of these shortcomings of the other need theories, Maslow’s theory continues to be the best explanation for motivation. The strict hierarchy of Maslow theory may be an important drawback of the theory, but it is much more comprehensive and covers employees at all level of an organization.

The Three Components of Motivation

The three components of motivation are direction, effort and persistence. Direction is what a person is motivated to do, effort is how hard he is trying to achieve this goal and persistence is how long he will continue to try. Armstrong (1999) explains that there two factors which influence motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic factors are self-generated and come from within a person while extrinsic factors of motivations include what is done to people to motivate them. Intrinsic factors have a deeper and longer impact while extrinsic factors have immediate and powerful affect, but do not last long.

The five factors in Maslow’s need three are all intrinsic factors. That is these factors of motivation come from within a person. These needs are not affected by external factors such as pay raise. Even at the higher level, the need for self actualization is a need which can never be fully satisfied. Promotions and bigger responsibilities and an opportunity to develop skills may not be enough to motivate a person who does not have an internal need to excel. This motivation for self fulfillment, along with all the other needs in Maslow’s theory is intrinsic and come from within a person. As such, they last much longer than the external factors of motivations.

Thus Maslow’s theory explains the components which motivate a person to pursue a particular goal, their persistence and the hard work they put to attain this goal. The need to fulfill physiological needs motivates a person to look for job but once he has a job, that is, direction, how much effort he puts in it depends on his higher needs of safety and esteem. Once all the basic needs are met, if a person still continues to be motivated and persists with his hard work, it is because of his need for self actualization which is never completely satisfied.

Importance of Maslow Theory

Thus as explained above, the Maslow’s theory is able to explain what motivates employees even when there are not external factors of motivation. If managers do not consider Maslow’s theory, they may not recognize the factors which are motivating their employees and may provide external stimulus which may not be important to the employees. Stead (1972) gives an example wherein a group of semi-skilled workers had their lower level needs satisfied and hence an increase in pay was no longer able to motivate them. The managers were only focused on the extrinsic methods of motivation, which was, in this case, only able to fulfill lower level needs which were already fulfilled. An understanding of Maslow’s theory would have made the managers aware that the extrinsic factors were no longer enough and there was a need cater to the higher needs of the employees. In this particular example, managers could have achieved better motivation levels by giving promotions to the best workers, thus fulfilling their need for esteem and self actualization.


Thus we see that despite all of its drawback’s Maslow’s theory of need hierarchy remains the most important motivation theory. All the other need based theories only address a part of human needs and may not be able to take into account the various levels of work which are carried out in an organization. Managers can ignore Maslow’s theory at their own peril, since it continues to remain an important theory in understanding human behavior.


Armstrong, M (1999). Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice. London, UK: Kogan Page.

Arnolds, C., & Boshoff, C. (2002). Compensation, esteem valence and job performance: an empirical assessment of Alderfer’s ERG theory. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 13(4), 697-719. doi:10.1080/09585190210125868.

Brenner, V., Carmack, C., & Weinstein, M. (1971). An Empirical Test of the Motivation-Hygiene Theory. Journal of Accounting Research, 9(2), 359-366. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.

Stead, B. (1972). Berlo’s Communication Process Model As Applied To the Behavioral Theories of Maslow, Herzberg, and Mcgregor. Academy of Management Journal, 15(3), 389-394. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.

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