Needs theories practice essay
The following post is an essay researched and written in anticipation of an exam question for the module Motivation & Performance within the Organizational Psychology Master's Programme of the University of London/Birkbeck College. Excerpts may be be used with the citation:
Aylsworth, J. (2010). Needs theories anew: Coming home to a place they've never been before. (url) Accessed: (Month year).
Exam essay question:
"Which needs theories have been popular with managers in spite of empirical evidence and why?"
Needs Theories Anew:
Coming Home to a Place they've Never Been Before
The popularity of needs theories in spite of little academic support is one of the key themes within work motivation. We will address this question in three parts. Part 1 will cover the popularity of specific needs theories. Part 2 will look at whether the evidence is convincing. Part 3 will examine “why” needs theories have remained popular. We will conclude that the broader field of work motivation may be catching up with what the needs theories – Maslow, in particular – offered all along.
Part 1: Defining 'motivation'
Key terms. Referring to Kanfer (1991), Latham and Pinder (2005) describe "needs" as “internal tensions that influence the mediating cognitive processes that result in behavioral variability.”
Here, we set “needs theories” in the context of “work motivation,” with "motivation" understood as “a set of energetic forces that originates both within as well as beyond an individual’s being, to initiate work-related behavior, and to determine its form, direction, intensity and duration (Pinder, 1998, 2008).
“Needs” theories, also known as “content” theories address “what” motivates, that is – "what" arouses, directs and sustains behavior (Jones, 1955). They do not explain “why” specific actions are chosen in specific situations to obtain specific outcomes (Latham & Pinder, 2005). For that, we need the “process” theories, the most important of which are “cognitive” in that they equate with consciously driven processes.
Popular needs theories. Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs theory, though not originally proposed as a theory of “work” motivation, has been widely accepted and frequently used by organizations (Cherrington, 1991). Maslow proposed a hierarchy of five needs – physiological, safety, relatedness, esteem and self-actualization – writing that as a need approached satisfaction, the next one in the hierarchy became activated (Dye, 2007).
Wahba and Bridwell’s (1976) review silenced Maslow for a decade, based on lack of clear evidence for the five categories, a hierarchical structure, and order of need activation. Miner’s (2005) review of the 19 most significant theories of work motivation does not even include Maslow, yet Latham (2007) considers the theory to be one of the seismic events influencing 20th-Century employee motivation research.
Herzberg’s (1959) two-factor (hygiene-motivator) theory has unquestionably been the most popular needs approach among managers (Gibson et al, 1994). In fact, it is the only needs theory that Miner (2005) found to be “institutionalized” – that is, “providing meaning and stability to social behavior” at work. Herzberg posits that hygiene factors, such as pay, can eliminate dissatisfaction, resulting in a neutral state, but they will not motivate. Only motivators, such as self-actualization, will motivate and, thus, increase job performance.
The chief criticism of the theory is that it is method-bound, yielding support only through critical incident technique (CIT). King (1970) concluded that none of the theory’s five possible interpretations has sufficient support.
Needs theories that never became popular. Alderfer’s (1972) ERG theory collapsed Maslow’s five needs into three: existence, relatedness and growth – and tried to explain how people can be motivated by multiple needs at the same time. Support for ERG comes largely from Alderfer, himself, but also from Luthans (1988). ERG did not become popular among managers due, in part, to complexity and bad timing (Conway et al, 2006); and Alderfer's ERG remains among the most-neglected, least-popular needs theories.
McClelland’s (1961) theory of specific acquired needs presents achievement (nACH), power (nPOW), affiliation (nAFF) and autonomy (nAUT) as being learned from the environment and capable of being taught. Though support for the theory comes largely from McClelland and his colleagues, the research stream is impressive. Cumulatively, Miner ranks McClelland as high as the highly popular goal-setting theory (a cognitive theory) with a total of 14 stars out of a possible 15. Yet goal-setting theory is firmly institutionalized, while ERG is not.
Part 2: Convincing evidence
As a body of work, needs theory evidence with regard to explaining motivation and performance is clearly not convincing. However, the evidence is sufficiently intriguing because: 1) It represents further theory development, acknowledging personality and the unconscious, and 2) It is now bridging to the major cognitive theories, suggesting progress toward unification of the two bodies of theory. Three examples:
1) Kerr’s (2004) compensatory model relies both on McClelland’s (1995) distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic (unconscious) motives (needs) and goal-setting theory (Brunstein et al, 1998).
2) Arnolds and Boshoff’s (2002) study relies on Alderfer’s ERG theory (1972), which is an adjunct to expectancy theory. It also addresses personality – which needs theories are criticized for not doing – incorporating self-esteem as a moderator variable.
3) Wrzesniewski & Dutton’s (2001) job-crafting study considers needs to be antecedent regarding why people job-craft (muster their self-esteem to change the task, relational or cognitive boundaries of their jobs).
Part 3: Why needs theories have been popular
Usefulness, the unconscious, a macro view. The popularity of needs theories owes primarily to face validity and their usefulness on the job. But beyond that, perhaps the popular needs theories have remained so because their resonance with managers was an indication of “something” that could not yet be validated but would just not go away. To this point, we are reminded of Lindsey’s (2007, in Pinder, 2008) comment that it is irresponsible to abandon a poorly supported theory if the results were obtained by unfair testing methods.
In silencing Maslow for a decade, Wabha & Bridwell (1976) relied on studies that used questionnaires; yet needs have an implicit aspect, and questionnaires cannot be used to tap implicit motives (Kehr, 2004). Only projective methods can do that. For example, McClelland used the thematic apperception test (TAT), which went out of favor – but was later rehabilitated by Spangler (1992) with evidence from his meta-review.
A related point is that the needs theories may fare better at a macro/aggregate level of analysis (Lindsey, 2007; in Pinder, 2008).
We have explored the needs theories that were popular, those that were not, looked at the evidence, and touched upon “why.” We conclude that the resurgence in needs-theory interest (Latham & Pinder, 2005) may be an indication that the broader field is just now beginning to “catch up” with what the needs theories – Maslow, in particular – offered all along. Borrowing a line from the popular folk song, perhaps the needs theories are “coming home to a place they’ve never been before” (Denver, 1971).
Exam performance: This essay was significantly modified for use under exam conditions in response to a question that focused specifically on Maslow's needs theory and why it might be experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Thus, the other needs theories explained above received only an acknowledgement, while the Maslow section required significant expansion. That expansion was possible because this writer had done a mini-lit review of Maslow's needs theory during revision. The exam answer as written under exam conditions was marked at the merit level.