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Motivation theories

This essay is written in the form of a literature review where a number of academic journals will be reviewed in critically analysed in an effort to compare and contrast the various views presented on motivational concepts and their application. At least three academic journals will be selected which cover motivation, its concepts and application. This literature review will help to shed some light as to why there are so many various motivational theories and models available to the manager.

Competent managers understand that there is never any guarantee that employees will perform in ways and with the intensity that is needed to achieve organisational goals. This is true regardless of how well qualified, competent and experienced an employee may be. A missing ingredient that must be present in order for productivity and performance to be at the desired level, and beyond, is termed motivation. Mitchell (1997), for example, defines motivation as “the processes that account for an individual’s intensity, direction and persistence of effort towards attaining a goal” (p. 60). Similarly, McShane & Travaglione (2007) explain that “motivation refers to the forces within a person that affect their direction, intensity and persistence of voluntary behavior” (p. 148). The age-old problem of the managers has been their ability to motivate employees so that their actions work towards the achievement of organisational goals. This is clearly not an easy task, since organisational goals may not necessarily complement the goals of the individual. A further difficulty is that different individuals are motivated by different factors. In response to these difficulties and variances that exist between individuals in the workforce, numerous motivational theories and models have been developed over time which aim to influence the behaviours of employees to ensure that the forces within them increase the intensity of the employee’s voluntary behaviour so that they persistently performing ways that are directed towards the achievement of organisational goals.

One of the very early motivational theories was developed by Abraham Maslow, described in his 1943 article, simply titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” (Maslow, 1943). Maslow’s theory of motivation, known as the Hierarchy of Needs Theory, continues to remain a classic and has wide applicability even in the contemporary workforce. One of the greatest benefits of this theory is its simplicity and common sense, not to mention the fact that the combination of these has been very well used to explain the motives that influence the behaviour of most people. Abraham Maslow was a psychologist and his theory is a condensation of the various human needs that scholars had identified up to the point of the development of the theory. Maslow’s main contribution to motivation was his ability to summarise the needs and classified them into a hierarchy of five basic needs. According to Maslow, every human being has a hierarchy of five main needs. The most basic are physiological needs, which include the need to overcome hunger, thirst and other very basic bodily needs. When these most basic needs are satisfied, individuals are motivated to achieve safety needs, which are those that involve security and protection from both physical as well as emotional harm. When these first two needs are satisfied, individuals are motivated by those things which allow them to achieve their social needs. Examples of social needs include acceptance, affection, friendship as well as belonging. When individual social needs are fulfilled, they are driven by the desire to attain their esteem needs. Esteem needs include both internal as well as external esteem factors, such as self-respect, achievement as well as status, and recognition. Maslow believed that when these four categories of human needs are fulfilled, individuals will be driven by the needs of self actualisation. This is the internal need to grow and develop as an individual and achieve one’s potential and self-fulfilment.

Although a fairly straightforward theory, it has wide applicability in the workforce, particularly when it comes to remuneration and rewards. The theory tells us that contrary to popular belief, financial rewards will not be equal motivators to everybody. When applying the theory to a workplace situation, it seems that financial rewards will be greatest motivators to those individuals who have the least amount of money. These individuals will require money in order so they could purchase food as well as pay to their accommodation expenses. Financially better off individuals will have no problem in fulfilling their accommodation and food needs (physiological as well safety), but will be seeking higher level rewards (social, esteem and self actualization). Therefore, increasing the financial remuneration for these individuals may not be as motivating, as perhaps promoting them higher in the ranks of an organisation, or putting them in a position where they are leading a team. It can be seen that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory is often applied in large-scale organisations. Senior managers are very often remunerated in a variety of ways, which include both financial as well as non-financial rewards. It is quite common for senior managers to be rewarded with non-financial incentives such as private schooling for their children, as well as vacations for them and their families. This is in contrast to lower-level subordinates who will usually be paid a simple wage, with additional financial bonuses for achievements such as working overtime or exceeding performance benchmarks.

Although Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory has wide applicability in the workforce, is simple yet explains human behaviour surprisingly well, and has been applied by a lot of large-scale organisations around the world, it hasn’t been without its critics. For example, Kiel (1999) has been particularly critical of Maslow’s theory by stating that “the Theory has been challenged on its lack of scientificity, integrated conceptual structure, supportive research evidence, and validity of the concept” (p. 167). Kiels main concern with Maslow’s Theory is that it may be outdated. Her article was written in 1999, roughly 50 years after the development of the theory. Kiel argues that
“In that time, the educational and managerial fields have changed greatly” (ibid). Kiel’s concern is that the theory, which is represented as a closed triangle, is not a valid representation of an individual needs in today’s world. Kiel proposes that “an open, wide faced structure is needed to better reflect that self actualization is never ending. And with this never ending self actualization, individuals can engender lifelong learning, change management, and boundlessness, all important factors for the 1990’s educational and managerial environments” (ibid). Additional criticism has been provided by Wahba & Bridgewell (1976) who argue that the model is too rigid to explain, and provide a true representation of the dynamic and unstable characteristics of employee needs. For example, it is unrealistic to believe that individual needs fit so neatly into the five different classifications, and that progression occurs in an orderly fashion as Maslow’s Theory may suggest. This will be the case for a starving painter, such as Vincent van Gogh, who would continue to paint whether or not they would be financially rewarded for it, regardless of their situation. In this case the passion for painting would be greater than even the lower-level needs that have been presented by Abraham Maslow.

The various criticisms that have been targeted towards Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory do have some substantiation. As Kiel (1999) states, several studies have been conducted which sought to validate Maslow’s Theory, but unfortunately, there was little which would provide empirical substantiation and support.

Another psychologist, Clayton Alderfer, attempted to rework Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory and make it more closely aligned with empirical research and evidence (Alderfer, 1969). Alderfer was able to refine Maslow’s Theory and reduce the number of categories of needs from five to three – existence, relatedness and growth (ERG). Another important difference between Alderfer’s ERG Theory and Maslow’s Theory is that there is no assumption that individuals will progress through the different categories in a logical sequence as was assumed under Maslow’s Theory. Similar to Maslow, Alderfer believes that the categories of needs which are presented it in his model form the core human needs. The two models are related in that Alderfer’s existence needs are the equivalent of Maslow’s psychological and safety needs. Alderfer’s Relatedness category is a substitute for Maslow’s social and status needs. The growth need in the ERG Theory is equivalent to esteem and self actualisation needs in the Hierarchy of Needs Theory.

In conclusion, although Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory lacks the support from empirical testing and research, it nevertheless continues to be a very popular motivational theory throughout the world. In reality, models are very rarely ideal. Models and theories will always be faced with the paradox of simplicity and relevance. Human nature is far too complex to be covered and accurately explained in detail in a very simple model. As the complexity of a model increases, its usability and usefulness to the user decreases. This writer believes that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory is a well balanced model that, although is not an ideal representation of everyone’s motivators, does provide enough information and commonsense logic that makes it practical, useful and applicable in the workplace and beyond.


Alderfer, CP (1969). “An Empirical Test of a New Theory of Human Needs”, Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, vol. 4, pp. 142 – 175.

Kiel, JM (1999). “Reshaping Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Reflect Today’s Educational and Managerial Philosophies”, Journal of Instructional Psychology, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 167 – 168.

Maslow, AH (1943). “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Psychological Review, vol. 50, pp. 370 – 396.

McShane, S & Travaglione, T (2007). Organisation Behaviour on the Pacific Rim, McGraw Hill Australia: North Ryde, NSW.

Mitchell, TR (1997). “Matching Motivational Strategies with Organisational Contexts”, in Cummings, LL & Staw, BM (eds) Research in Organisational Behaviour, vol. 19, pp. 60 – 62.

Wahba, A & Bridgewell, L (1976). “Maslow Reconsidered: A Review of Research on the Need Hierarchy Theory, Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, vol. 15, pp. 212 – 240.