The Content Theories of Motivation

In a historical perspective, the content theories tend to be the earliest theories of motivation or later modifications of early theories. Within the work environment they have had the greatest impact on management practice and policy, whilst within academic circles they are the least accepted.

Content theories are also called needs theories, because they are generally associated with a view that concentrates on the importance of determining 'what' motivates us. In other words they try to identify what our 'needs' are and relate motivation to the fulfilling of these needs.

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

This is the most widely known theory of motivation and was hypothesised by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s and 1950s. Maslow put forward the idea that there existed a hierarchy of needs consisting of five levels in the hierarchy. These needs progressed from lower order needs through to higher level needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The basic premise of the theory is that we all have these five levels of needs and that starting at the lowest level we are motivated to satisfy each level in ascending order. As each level is sufficiently satisfied we are then motivated to satisfy the next level in the hierarchy. The five different levels were further sub-categorised into two main groups, these being:

Deficiency needs - Maslow considered these the very basic needs required for survival and security. These needs include:

Growth needs - These are needs associated with personal growth and fullfilment of personal potential.

In Maslow's theory we can never run out of motivation because the very top level, self-actualisation, which relates to the achievement of our full potential, can never be fully met.

Maslows theory has been widely embraced and taught within the business world and few people who have attended a company supervision or basic management training course are unlikely not to be familiar with this theory.



Do you have the same hierarchy of needs as other people you know?

Does your hierarchy of needs always remain constant or does it change depending on your present circumstances?

Is there a hierarchy or do we generally address all these needs all the time?

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"Management Assumptions" (Theory X and Theory Y)

Douglas McGregor further developed the needs concept of Maslow and specifically applied it to the workplace. McGregor maintained that every manager made assumptions about their employees and adopted a management approach based upon these assumptions. He maintained there were two main categories and that managers adopted one or the other.

The first category, which he termed Theory X, he maintained was the dominant management approach and assumed:

McGregor maintains that the application of this approach, as well as misunderstanding the real needs of employees, creates a self-fulfilling outcome because it forces people to become like this—they have no alternative.

McGregor proposed an alternative set of assumptions which he called Theory Y. The assumptions here are virtually the opposite to Theory X. They are :

McGregor advocated that the application of Theory Y, would not only meet the needs of the organisation but also those of the employee. He believed that Theory X at best only met Maslows Deficiency needs, whilst Theory Y also met the Growth Needs. You would thus have more motivated employees if you adopted Theory Y.

Test your assumptions about employees by completing the following exercise.
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Did you score as a Theory X or Theory Y person?

Were you surprised by your score on this exercise?

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ERG Theory

Clayton Alderfer revised Maslow's theory in 1972. He reduced the levels in the hierarchy from five to three and termed these Existence needs, Relat edness needs and Growth needs. His most significant contribution, however, was to alter Maslow's concept of a one-way progression up the hierarchy, to one that allowed for regression to lower levels if these needs are no longer being met. This is a more realistic approach as it recognises that, because a need is met, doesn't mean it will always remain met. For example, if I were to remove all the air from the room you are in, would you be motivated to keep learning?

McClellands Need for Achievement, Affiliation and Power

McClelland's model argues that all people have these three needs. He further maintains that there is a direct link between high-performing managers and their need for achievement, and to a lesser extent their need for power and affiliation. In other words, people with a high drive to succeed are more likely to be more highly motivated than people with a low drive to succeed. He also maintains that it is possible to arrange work situations and conditions to gain the high motivational benefits from those with a high need for achievement—starting by employing people with a high need for achievement.

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Herzbergs' Two Factor Theory

Next to Maslow, Herzberg's theory has probably received the most attention within the workplace. He developed a theory that differentiated between factors that satisfied employees, and factors that dissatisfied employees. In his theory the opposite of 'satisfaction' is not 'dissatisfaction' but rather 'no satisfaction'. Likewise, the opposite of 'dissatisfaction' is 'no dissatisfaction'.

Herzberg related job satisfaction to five factors :

He termed these factors 'motivators' and related the m back to growth needs.

Herzberg related job dissatisfaction to:

These he termed 'hygiene factors' and equated them with deficiency needs.

His major impact was to argue that providing hygiene factors (more money, better working conditions, etc) wouldn't create more motivation, only less dissatisfaction. Only motivators could motivate.



In evaluating Herzberg's theory do you consider it more a theory of motivation or job satisfaction?

Do you agree with his placement of factors on the hygiene or motivator list?

Do they work for you?

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Criticism of the content theories

Despite their wide use and impact on the workplace, major criticisms exist of these theories. Whilst specific criticisms can be levelled at particular theories, the following general criticisms apply to all of the content theories.

Despite these criticisms, these theories have been critical in focusing attention on the area of motivation and the importance of 'needs'. They have helped managers evaluate their own perceptions about their employees and themselves. They have also helped to provide a basis for further study in this area.



Why do you think the content theories have received so much workplace attention, particularly given their very real limitations?