Motivation Theories: Individual Needs

Motivation is a complex phenomenon. Several theories attempt to explain how motivation works. In management circles, probably the most popular explanations of motivation are based on the needs of the individual.

The basic needs model, referred to as content theory of motivation, highlights the specific factors that motivate an individual. Although these factors are found within an individual, things outside the individual can affect him or her as well.

In short, all people have needs that they want satisfied. Some are primary needs, such as those for food, sleep, and water—needs that deal with the physical aspects of behavior and are considered unlearned. These needs are biological in nature and relatively stable. Their influences on behavior are usually obvious and hence easy to identify.

Secondary needs, on the other hand, are psychological, which means that they are learned primarily through experience. These needs vary significantly by culture and by individual. Secondary needs consist of internal states, such as the desire for power, achievement, and love. Identifying and interpreting these needs is more difficult because they are demonstrated in a variety of ways. Secondary needs are responsible for most of the behavior that a supervisor is concerned with and for the rewards a person seeks in an organization.

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory

Several theorists, including Abraham Maslow, Frederick Herzberg, David McClelland, and Clayton Alderfer, have provided theories to help explain needs as a source of motivation.

Abraham Maslow defined need as a physiological or psychological deficiency that a person feels the compulsion to satisfy. This need can create tensions that can influence a person's work attitudes and behaviors. Maslow formed a theory based on his definition of need that proposes that humans are motivated by multiple needs and that these needs exist in a hierarchical order. His premise is that only an unsatisfied need can influence behavior; a satisfied need is not a motivator.

Maslow's theory is based on the following two principles:

  • Deficit principle: A satisfied need no longer motivates behavior because people act to satisfy deprived needs.
  • Progression principle: The five needs he identified exist in a hierarchy, which means that a need at any level only comes into play after a lower‐level need has been satisfied.

In his theory, Maslow identified five levels of human needs. Table illustrates these five levels and provides suggestions for satisfying each need.


Although research has not verified the strict deficit and progression principles of Maslow's theory, his ideas can help managers understand and satisfy the needs of employees.

Herzberg's two-factor theory

Frederick Herzberg offers another framework for understanding the motivational implications of work environments.

In his two‐factor theory, Herzberg identifies two sets of factors that impact motivation in the workplace:

  • Hygiene factors include salary, job security, working conditions, organizational policies, and technical quality of supervision. Although these factors do not motivate employees, they can cause dissatisfaction if they are missing. Something as simple as adding music to the office place or implementing a no‐smoking policy can make people less dissatisfied with these aspects of their work. However, these improvements in hygiene factors do not necessarily increase satisfaction.

  • Satisfiers or motivators include such things as responsibility, achievement, growth opportunities, and feelings of recognition, and are the key to job satisfaction and motivation. For example, managers can find out what people really do in their jobs and make improvements, thus increasing job satisfaction and performance.

Following Herzberg's two‐factor theory, managers need to ensure that hygiene factors are adequate and then build satisfiers into jobs.

Alderfer's ERG theory

Clayton Alderfer's ERG (Existence, Relatedness, Growth) theory is built upon Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory. To begin his theory, Alderfer collapses Maslow's five levels of needs into three categories.

  • Existence needs are desires for physiological and material well‐being. (In terms of Maslow's model, existence needs include physiological and safety needs)

  • Relatedness needs are desires for satisfying interpersonal relationships. (In terms of Maslow's model, relatedness correspondence to social needs)
  • Growth needs are desires for continued psychological growth and development. (In terms of Maslow's model, growth needs include esteem and self‐realization needs)

This approach proposes that unsatisfied needs motivate behavior, and that as lower level needs are satisfied, they become less important. Higher level needs, though, become more important as they are satisfied, and if these needs are not met, a person may move down the hierarchy, which Alderfer calls the frustration‐regression principle. What he means by this term is that an already satisfied lower level need can become reactivated and influence behavior when a higher level need cannot be satisfied. As a result, managers should provide opportunities for workers to capitalize on the importance of higher level needs.

McClelland's acquired needs theory

David McClelland's acquired needs theory recognizes that everyone prioritizes needs differently. He also believes that individuals are not born with these needs, but that they are actually learned through life experiences. McClelland identifies three specific needs:

  • Need for achievement is the drive to excel.
  • Need for power is the desire to cause others to behave in a way that they would not have behaved otherwise.
  • Need for affiliation is the desire for friendly, close interpersonal relationships and conflict avoidance.

McClelland associates each need with a distinct set of work preferences, and managers can help tailor the environment to meet these needs.

High achievers differentiate themselves from others by their desires to do things better. These individuals are strongly motivated by job situations with personal responsibility, feedback, and an intermediate degree of risk. In addition, high achievers often exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Seek personal responsibility for finding solutions to problems
  • Want rapid feedback on their performances so that they can tell easily whether they are improving or not
  • Set moderately challenging goals and perform best when they perceive their probability of success as 50‐50

An individual with a high need of power is likely to follow a path of continued promotion over time. Individuals with a high need of power often demonstrate the following behaviors:

  • Enjoy being in charge
  • Want to influence others
  • Prefer to be placed into competitive and status‐oriented situations
  • Tend to be more concerned with prestige and gaining influence over others than with effective performance

People with the need for affiliation seek companionship, social approval, and satisfying interpersonal relationships. People needing affiliation display the following behaviors:

  • Take a special interest in work that provides companionship and social approval
  • Strive for friendship
  • Prefer cooperative situations rather than competitive ones
  • Desire relationships involving a high degree of mutual understanding
  • May not make the best managers because their desire for social approval and friendship may complicate managerial decision making

Interestingly enough, a high need to achieve does not necessarily lead to being a good manager, especially in large organizations. People with high achievement needs are usually interested in how well they do personally and not in influencing others to do well. On the other hand, the best managers are high in their needs for power and low in their needs for affiliation.