Content Perspectives on Motivation

Content theories emphasize the needs that motivate  people. At any point in time, people have basic needs such as those for monetary reward, achievement, or recognition. These needs translate  into an internal drive that motivates specific behaviors in an attempt to fulfill the needs. In other words, our needs are like a hidden  catalog of the things we want and will work to get. To the extent that managers understand employees’ needs, they can design reward systems to meet them and direct employees’ energies and priorities  toward attaining organizational goals.


Probably the most famous content theory was developed by Abraham Maslow.8  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory proposes that people are motivated by multiple needs and that these needs exist in a hierarchical  order, as illustrated in Exhibit 12.2. Maslow identified five general types of motivating needs in order of ascendance:

  1. Physiological needs. These most basic human physical needs include  food, water, and oxy- gen. In the organizational setting, they are reflected in the needs for adequate heat, air, and base salary to ensure survival.
  2. Safety needs. These needs include a safe and secure physical and emotional environment and freedom from threats—that is, for freedom from violence and for an orderly society. In an organizational workplace, safety needs reflect the needs for safe jobs, fringe  bene- fits, and job security.
  3. Belongingness needs. These needs reflect  the desire to be accepted by one’s peers, have friendships, be part of a group, and be loved. In the organization, these needs influence the desire for good relationships with co-workers, participation in a work group, and a positive relationship with supervisors.
  4. Esteem needs. These needs relate  to the desire for a positive self-image and to receive at- tention, recognition, and appreciation from others. Within organizations,  esteem needs reflect a motivation  for recognition, an increase in responsibility, high status, and credit for contributions to the organization.
  5. Self-actualization needs. These needs include the need for self-fulfillment, which is the highest need category. They concern developing  one’s full potential,  increasing one’s competence, and becoming a better person. Self-actualization  needs can be met in the organization by providing  people with opportunities to grow, be creative, and acquire training for challenging assignments and advancement.

According to Maslow’s theory, low-order  needs take priority—they  must be satisfied before higher-order needs are activated. The needs are satisfied in sequence: Physiological needs come before  safety needs, safety needs before  social needs, and so on. A person desiring physical safety will devote efforts to securing a safer environment  and will not be concerned with esteem needs or self-actualization  needs. When a need is satisfied, it de- clines in importance, and the next higher need is activated.

A study of employees in the manufacturing department of a major health care company in the United Kingdom provides some support for Maslow’s theory. Most line workers emphasized that they worked at the company primarily because of the good pay, benefits, and job security. Thus, employees’ lower-level  physiological  and safety needs were being met. When questioned about their motivation,  employees indicated  the importance of positive social relationships with both peers and supervisors (belongingness  needs) and a desire for greater respect and recognition  from management (esteem needs).9


Clayton Alderfer  proposed a modification of Maslow’s theory in an effort to simplify it and respond to criticisms of its lack of empirical verification.10   His ERG theory identified three categories of needs:

  1. Existence needs. The needs for physical well-being.
  1. Relatedness needs. The needs for satisfactory relationships with others.
  1. Growth needs. The needs that focus on the development of human potential and the desire for personal growth and increased competence.

The ERG model and Maslow’s need hierarchy are similar  because both  are in hierarchi- cal form and presume that individuals move up the hierarchy one step at a time. However, Alderfer  reduced the number of need categories to three and proposed that movement up the hierarchy is more complex, reflecting  a frustration-regression principle, namely, that failure to meet a high-order need may trigger  a regression to an already fulfilled lower- order need. Thus, a worker who cannot fulfill a need for personal growth may revert to a lower-order  need and redirect efforts toward making  a lot of money. The ERG model therefore is less rigid than Maslow’s need hierarchy, suggesting that individuals may move down  as well  as up the hierarchy, depending on their ability to satisfy needs.

Need hierarchy theory helps explain why organizations find ways to recognize employ- ees, encourage  their participation in decision making, and give them opportunities to make significant contributions to the organization and society. For example, Sterling Bank, with headquarters in Houston,  Texas, no longer uses bank tellers. These positions  are now front- line managers who are expected to make decisions and contribute  ideas for improving the business.11 USAA, which  offers insurance, mutual funds, and banking  services to 5 million members of the military and their families, provides another example.

A recent survey found that employees who contribute  ideas at work, such as those at USAA, are more likely to feel valued, committed,  and motivated. In addition, when em- ployees’ ideas are implemented and recognized, a motivational effect often ripples through- out the workforce.12

Many  companies are finding that creating a humane work environment that allows peo-ple to achieve a balance between work and personal life is also a great high-level  motivator. Flexibility in the workplace, including  options such as telecommuting, flexible hours, and job sharing, is highly valued by today’s employees because it enables them to manage their work and personal responsibilities. Flexibility  is good for organizations too. Employees who have control over their work schedules are significantly less likely  to suffer job burnout and are more highly committed to their employers, as shown in Exhibit 12.3. This idea was sup- ported by a survey conducted at Deloitte, which found that client service professionals cited workplace flexibility as a strong  reason for wanting to stay with the firm. Another study at Prudential  Insurance found that work-life satisfaction and work flexibility directly corre- lated to job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and employee retention.14

Making work fun can play a role in creating this balance. One psychologist recently up- dated Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a new generation and included the need to have fun as a substantial motivator  for today’s employees.15  Having fun at work relieves stress and enables people to feel more “whole,” rather than feeling that their personal lives are totally separate from their work lives. Something as simple  as a manager’s choice  of language can create a lighter,  more fun environment. Research suggests the use of phrases such as “Play around with this . . . Explore the possibility of . . . Have fun with . . . Don’t worry about lit- tle mistakes . . . View this as a game . . .” and so forth can effectively build elements of fun and playfulness into a workplace.16


Frederick Herzberg developed another popular theory of motivation called the two-factor theory.17 Herzberg interviewed hundreds of workers about times when they were highly motivated to work and other times when they were dissatisfied and unmotivated at work. His findings  suggested that the work characteristics  associated with dissatisfaction were quite different from those pertaining to satisfaction, which prompted the notion that two factors influence work motivation.

The two-factor theory is illustrated in Exhibit 12.4. The center of the scale is neutral, meaning that workers are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. Herzberg believed that two en- tirely separate dimensions  contribute  to an employee’s behavior at work. The first, called hygiene factors, involves the presence or absence of job dissatisfiers,  such as working conditions, pay, company policies, and interpersonal relationships. When hygiene factors are poor, work is dissatisfying. However, good hygiene factors simply remove the dissatis- faction; they do not in themselves  cause people to become highly satisfied and motivated in their work.

The second set of factors does influence job satisfaction. Motivators focus on high-level needs and include achievement, recognition,  responsibility,  and opportunity for growth. Herzberg believed that when motivators  are absent, workers are neutral toward work, but when motivators  are present, workers are highly  motivated  and satisfied. Thus, hygiene fac- tors and motivators represent two distinct factors that influence motivation. Hygiene factors work only in the area  of dissatisfaction.

Unsafe working conditions or a  noisy work environment will cause people to be dissatisfied, but their correction will not lead to a high level of motivation and sat- isfaction. Motivators such as  challenge, responsibility,  and recognition  must be in place before employees will be highly mo- tivated to excel at their work.

The implication of the two-factor the- ory for managers is clear. On one hand, providing hygiene  factors  will eliminate employee dissatisfaction but will not mo- tivate workers to high achievement levels. On  the other hand, recognition, chal- lenge, and opportunities for  personal growth are powerful  motivators  and will promote high  satisfaction  and perfor- mance. The manager’s role is to remove dissatisfiers—that  is, to provide hygiene factors sufficient to meet basic needs—and then to use motivators   to meet higher- level needs and propel  employees toward greater achievement and satisfaction.


The final content  theory was developed by David McClelland. The acquired  needs theory proposes that certain types of needs are acquired during  the individual’s lifetime. In other words, people are not born with these needs but may learn them through their life experi- ences.18  The three needs most frequently  studied are these:

  1. Need for achievement. The desire to accomplish something difficult, attain a high stan- dard of success, master complex  tasks, and surpass others.
  2. Need for affiliation. The desire to form close personal relationships, avoid conflict, and establish warm friendships.
  3. Need for power. The desire to influence or control others, be responsible for others, and have authority over others.

Early life experiences determine whether people acquire these needs. If children are encour- aged to do things for themselves and receive reinforcement, they will acquire  a need to achieve. If they are reinforced  for forming warm human relationships, they will develop  a need for affiliation. If they get satisfaction from controlling  others, they will acquire a need for power.

For more than 20 years, McClelland studied human needs and their implications for management. People with a high need for achievement are frequently  entrepreneurs. The parents of social entrepreneur Bill Strickland,  the charismatic leader who established Man- chester Bidwell, described in the previous chapter, always encouraged him to follow his dreams. When he wanted to go south to work with the Freedom Riders in the 1960s, they supported him. His plans for tearing up the family basement and making a photography studio were met with equal enthusiasm. Strickland  thus developed a need for achievement that enabled him to accomplish amazing results later in life.19 People who have a high need for affiliation are successful integrators,  whose job is to coordinate the work of several departments in an organization.20  Integrators include brand managers and project manag- ers who must have excellent people skills. People high in need for affiliation are able to establish positive working relationships with others.

A high need for power often is associated with successful attainment of top levels in the organizational hierarchy. For example, McClelland studied managers at AT&T for 16 years and found that those with a high need for power were more likely to follow a path of con- tinued promotion over time. More than half of the employees at the top levels had a high need for power. In contrast, managers with a high need for achievement but a low need for power tended to peak earlier in their  careers and at a lower level. The reason is that achieve- ment needs can be met through the task itself, but power  needs can be met only by ascending to a level at which  a person has power over others.

In summary, content theories focus on people’s underlying  needs and label those partic-ular needs that motivate behavior. The hierarchy of needs theory,  the ERG theory, the two-factor theory, and the acquired needs theory all help managers understand what moti- vates people. In this way, managers can design work to meet needs and hence elicit appro- priate and successful work  behaviors.

Source: Daft Richard L., Marcic Dorothy (2009), Understanding Management, South-Western College Pub; 8th edition.

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