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ERG Theory of Motivation - Clayton P. Alderfer

In 1969, Clayton Alderfer's revision of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, called the ERG Theory appeared in Psychological Review in an article titled "An Empirical Test of a New Theory of Human Need." Alderfer's contribution to organizational behavior was dubbed the ERG theory (Existence, Relatedness, and Growth), and was created to align Maslow's motivation theory more closely with empirical research.

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Similarities to Maslow's Needs Hierarchy

I suddenly have growth needs to be fulfilled.
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After the original formulation of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, studies had shown that the middle levels of Maslow's hierarchy overlap. Alderfer addressed this issue by reducing the number of levels to three. The letters ERG represent these three levels of needs:

  • Existence refers to our concern with basic material existence motivators.
  • Relatedness refers to the motivation we have for maintaining interpersonal relationships.
  • Growth refers to an intrinsic desire for personal development.

Like Maslow's model, the ERG motivation is hierarchical, and creates a pyramid or triangle appearance. Existence needs motivate at a more fundamental level than relatedness needs, which, in turn supercedes growth needs.

Growth
Self-Actualization
External Esteem Needs
Relatedness
Internal Esteem Needs
Social Needs
Existence
Safety Needs
Physiological Needs

 

Differences from Maslow's Needs Hierarchy

Beyond simply reducing the distinction between overlapping needs, the ERG theory improves upon the following shortcomings of Maslow's Needs Hierarchy:

  • Alderfers ERG theory demonstrates that more than one need may motivate at the same time. A lower motivator need not be substantially satisfied before one can move onto higher motivators.
  • The ERG theory also accounts for differences in need preferences between cultures better than Maslow's Need Hierarchy; the order of needs can be different for different people. This flexibility accounts for a wider range of observed behaviors. For example, it can explain the "starving artist" who may place growth needs above those of existence.
  • The ERG theory acknowledges that if a higher-order need is frustrated, an individual may regress to increase the satisfaction of a lower-order need which appears easier to satisfy. This is known as the frustration-regression principle.

Leadership Lessons

Unlike with Maslow's theory, managers need to understand that each employee operates with the need to satisfy several motivators simultaneously. Based upon the ERG theory, leadership which focuses on exclusively one need at a time will not motivate their people effectively.

Furthermore, the frustration-regression principle has additional impact on motivation in the workplace. As an example, if employees are not provided opportunities to grow, an employee might regress to fulfilling relatedness needs, socializing with co-workers more. Or, the inability of the environment or situation to satisfy a need for social interaction might increase the desire for more money or better working conditions. If Leadership recognizes these conditions soon enough in the process, they can take steps to satisfy those needs which are frustrated until such time that the worker can again pursue growth.

     
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