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Motivation is defined as the capacity or willingness to expend effort, act, or behave in a certain way (Muchinsky, 2012, p. 364). Specific to the Industrial/Organizational Psychology field:  “those psychological processes involved with the arousal, direction, intensity, and persistence of voluntary actions that are goal directed” (Mitchell, 1997 as cited in PSU WC, L. 1, P. 3). The outward expression of this can be seen in behavior. Understanding of motivation and it’s impact can lead to influencing actions in purposeful fashion (positive or negative).  On a micro level, this can be seen in one's self or others.  On a macro level, this can also be seen in groups or in organizations, sometimes of a great number in size. 

There are many theoretical constructs to motivation; it has been looked at from different angles by different schools of thought.  With this wiki contribution, we look specifically at different theories in the “need theory” category. This category concentrates on needs that are not met (or, in other words, deficits) as primary motivational factors. The individual or group will then act to meet that unmet need or deficit (PSU WC, L. 2, P. 3). To further explain a number of theories in this category, we will go into depth on a real-life situation and examine the motivational theory and the role that those factors played in this situation.

It should be stated that needs theories in general can have certain limitations or drawbacks.  To put it another way, it would be short sighted to advocate needs theories as “silver bullet” practical applications that can be implemented regardless of situation.  The motivational landscape is much broader than just these specific theories alone.  It should also be said that these theories have also had difficulty maintaining scientific support due to their empirical measurability challenges.  However, there maintains an amount of practical support for these theories from managers and leaders due to their intuitive usefulness.  (PSU WC, L. 2, P. 5).

Case Description

Our case study comes from the first hand experience of one of our team members. While working for one of the “Big Four” accounting firms, she was selected to be on a global consulting team providing IT related services to a consortium of international banks. The core team consisted of 8 people from a multi-ethnic and multi-generational background with varying levels of experience (see table 1.0 for breakdown).  A common denominator among the team is they were all well-trained professionals who also were experienced road warriors. For the purpose of this case study, a road warrior is defined as someone who travels for work more than 85% of the year.  Thusly, this team was qualified and experienced to work on a global project with work locations in multiple cities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe.


Table 1.0

EthnicityAge rangeSex
Jr ConsultantAsian20's


ConsultantAfrican American30'sM
Sr ConsultantCaucasian20'sM
Sr ConsultantIndian30'sF
Sr ManagerCaucasian40'sM
Programmer AnalystCaucasian30'sM


The typical daily hours for this core team over the course of eight months averaged about 12-18 hours a day, 6 days a week.  This is not particularly unusual in the large accounting firms in and of itself and the team operated fairly normally until the following particular situation.

With one day’s notice, the core team was told that they would need to fly to Zurich, Switzerland for an emergency session with representatives from the banks that would last three days. However, they were forced to stay there for two weeks under conditions that are unusually harsh in Corporate America.

During those two weeks the daily cycle was: commence work day with the clients starting at 7am and remain in session until approximately 6pm.  From 6pm until 5am (on most days), the team took all the changes and information acquired from the clients and applied them to the work. From 5am to 7am, the team was able to take care of any personal needs at the hotel, such as sleep or bathing.  

In addition the team was also subjected to the following conditions:

  • No private work space
    • Team worked in a large room with tables
    • The excessive hours meant privacy was only available for 2-3 hours per 24 hours
  • Food in short supply
    • Meals often were skipped as there was no time to eat
    • If there was time, the only place to eat was a gas station down the road. Unlike the United States, convenience food was not readily available so meals tended to be bread, cheese, juice and pastries
  • No access to a vehicle to leave rural work location
    • Vehicle was used only by executives and most senior members of the team, which they did not share except for one occasion when they went to McDonalds to buy lunch for the team
  • Community phone to call home – no privacy
    • Team was not equipped with mobile phones with international calling plans
  • Sleeping at your desk was encouraged “if necessary”
    • Very few did this as there were social repercussions
  • Laundry had to be hand washed
    • Laundry service times at the hotel occurred when the team was at the office. Given all had traveled with only 3 days worth of clothes, laundry was typically done in the hotel sink.
    • Lack of access to a vehicle and lack of time meant team could not go to a local shopping center to buy replacement clothes


These conditions produced behaviors that were unusual for a team of professionals. Irritability, depression, loss of focus and concentration, and becoming “slap happy” were persistent symptoms of the work conditions.  Oddly, it was extremely rare for any of the team members to get angry with each other. Save for one exception, there were no blow-out fights among the team, even though the two senior consultants were abusing their power considerably. Below are the more extreme behaviors that were observed – which were and continue to be abnormal in the professional workplace:

  • A random disagreement caused a male consultant to grab a female consultant by the hair to pull her off her chair and to the floor
  • Sex in the bathroom
  • Reckless display of cocaine use by 2 members
  • A long term relationship was ended via overseas phone call with entire team hearing the breakup (no privacy)
  • Reckless and fatigued driving in team vehicle – nearly 2 major accidents
  • An explosive verbal altercation between hotel restaurant staff and a consultant
    • This was result of a day spent without eating. The team left the workplace earlier than usual but arrived within a minute of the only restaurant closing. Facing no food, the consultant completely lost self control
  • Altercation with Swiss customs officials over a parcel delivery of books
    • Altercation was unnecessary and a complete overreaction
  • Immediately following the end of Zurich situation, a normally calm, reserved quiet man with a PhD in Computer Science got angry at a fellow shopper in a toy store, grabbed the shopper by the collar and threatened violence if they didn’t stop walking so close


While there were extreme behaviors as outlined above, just as memorable events were the minutiae of things that preoccupied the team, mostly surrounding food. The minutiae listed below are equally as memorable as the more sensational events above. For example:

  • Becoming burned out on gas station food, one consultant started to refuse to eat pretzel bread (the most common bread sandwiches came in at the gas station) and preferred to just not eat when that was the only choice. This aversion continued for years
  • One consultant stole food out of another office’s refrigerator
  • Excessive conversations about Blood Orange Juice by one consultant. As a strict vegetarian, he had the most difficulty finding nourishment. He would buy a quart of blood orange juice every day and extol its virtues endlessly every single day
  • One consultant, a picky eater, ate chocolate and potato chips nearly exclusively for breakfast, lunch, dinner
    • On future trips to Zurich she brought a suitcase of soups and granola bars
  • One consultant obsessively drank and horded quantities of free mineral water provided by the office
  • Excessive and open flatulence of one consultant due to unusual diet was at first amusing and then became sickening for everyone
  • Consultants received messages from accounting upon review of their timesheets, assuming the excessive hours logged were an error
  • On the way home from Zurich, two consultants used a layover period in London to go buy fresh underwear.
    • There was no real need to do this as they would have been home within 8-10 hours. It was an emotional decision to spend a considerable amount of money to just get underwear

The project continued after the two challenging weeks for several months, with improved conditions after the senior manager in charge became aware of what had transpired. Below are some of the near-term and long-term outcomes subsequent to those two weeks:

  • Work produced during the two weeks was rendered useless and thrown out; 50% had to be redone
  • Excessive personal spending on extravagant holiday gifts for families and loved ones who were continually neglected
  • Excessive spending on dining
    • $12000 dining bill for 25 people in one instance
    • Gradual burn out of the team – slow requests to be reassigned began to be made (very rare in the company to do that)
    • Very emotional, PTSD-like of memories for team members that are still in touch today

The project concluded, and the product was ultimately never implemented. All of the work, money, time, and sacrifices made were entirely for nothing. Several members of the consortium lost their jobs.

The question this case begs to have answered is why did they keep working in these extreme conditions?

Some of the answers to this question lie in the motivational factors at play.  Insight can be gained from different angles to the needs theories of motivation below.


American psychologist Abraham Maslow was one of the first to introduce a theory about human need and what motivates individuals. He established five levels of human need and organized them into a pyramid format (PSU WC, L. 2, p. 3). Within the diagram of human need, Maslow named psychological need and the need for safety as basic-level needs. Physiological need refers to the very basic needs humans must have to sustain life such as food, water, shelter, air, etc. Without these things for extended periods of time, we cannot function nor remain motivated in a working environment (or otherwise). The next level, safety, refers to the need to feel secure and safe from harm. In an organizational setting, this could refer to job security as well as benefits to address health care needs and retirement (PSU WC, L. 2, p. 5). Maslow used the idea of fulfillment progression to explain that a person cannot satisfy the next level on the pyramid until the previous level is fulfilled (PSU WC, L. 2, p. 4). For example, an employee who hasn't had access to food for hours or days on end, won't be motivated by the idea that they are going to get a bonus at the end of their team's project thus decreasing the quality (and potentially safety) of their work. The unmet need is referred to as the prepotent need (PSU WC, L. 2, p. 4).

The second level, or higher-order needs, of the pyramid includes love/social need, esteem need and self-actualization (PSU WC, L. 2, p. 3). Just as in the basic-level, fulfillment progression applies here as well. Love/social need refers to the need to feel like one belongs and can include friendship and the need to be popular amongst coworkers. Esteem need refers to the need for individuals to be recognized and appreciated. Esteem directly ties in with the final category, self-actualization, in which the individual needs to feel a sense of personal control and responsibility as well as self-improvement (PSU WC, L. 2, p. 3). All of these levels act together, in a progression, to achieve the highest levels of motivation. An individual lacking a particular prepotent need will show signs of decreased motivation and productivity. This particular theory remains important amongst managers in motivating employees and meeting their needs in a professional environment (PSU WC, L. 2, p. 5)


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (PSUWC, L. 2, p. 3)


In reviewing the case study, it is clear that the team on the Zurich project were deprived of the first level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. By working 22 hour days, they were restricted from two core physiological needs for a sustained period of time: the need for sleep and the need for food. With only 2 hours of time off per day to attend to personal care and physiological needs, the team members had to choose between eating a more substantial meal than the local gas station offered or sleep, meaning there was always at least one physiological need not being met throughout the course of their trip. The team also suffered from a lack of readily available or predictable meals. The case study notes that the team members were fixated on food and trying to satiate that need via particular foods they loved such as blood orange juice, chocolate, or mineral water. The issue of hunger had its lasting effect on the team member who cannot stomach pretzel bread years after the project ended shows an emotional relationship to food developed during this time. 


The team members concurrently could not meet the next level of needs - Safety. Due to fatigue and hunger, behavior of some of the members of the team began to behave in a manner that threatened the safety of the team. Driving the team vehicle with very little sleep created a safety risk as driving skills were fatigued. If one of the drivers was abusing cocaine, impaired judgement or driving would also have put the team at risk. Violent and unpredictable outbursts also may threaten the perception of safety as well.

The team's persistent focus on meeting these basic-level needs meant that they could not successfully progress toward higher level needs. Because they were continually occupied with meeting their physiological needs of sleep and nourishment, their progression upward toward higher-order needs was hindered. In this case, the unmet physiological needs qualified as what Maslow referred to as a prepotent need (PSU WC, 2014). Tied closely to his idea of fulfillment progression, the existence of the prepotent need, particularly so low within the hierarchy, prevented the activation of higher needs (PSU WC, 2014). 

Maslow places love and social needs higher up from safety. Somewhere in the overlap between safety and social needs lies the lack of privacy. The persistent lack of privacy to conduct personal business and hygiene can make one's social safety feel at risk. By being exposed to the same group of people, the "good, bad, and the ugly" is on display and a person may feel judged and constantly under surveillance. There is also a social expectation (particularly in a professional work environment) to have perfect hygiene and grooming. With 2 hours of personal time per day, the choice between bathing or sleep compromises that ability to do either. The need to hand wash laundry in a hotel may give the perception of not being fully clean as Americans would be accustomed to. Thusly, the team members need for social acceptance would have been compromised by all the risks to projecting the right social image. In other words, the team would have subjected others to their dirty laundry, both literally and figuratively.

In trying to understand why the individual team members would not walk out probably requires a lot of psychological analysis to understand. But one explanation lies in the need for self-actualization. Each of the team members were in their chosen profession and were placed on this team because they were well trained and prepared to take this on. Perhaps the need for self-actualization drove the team members to overlook the physiological, safety, and social needs in order to meet the goals they were tasked with. The client they worked for was a consortium of banks. A prestigious collection of clients may have given a sense of a greater purpose and esteem than if they were working for a local municipality.

Though the team worked through the two week period of hardship, ultimately the deprivation of needs eroded that ability to self-actualize successfully. As the case study shows, all the work completed during that time failed to be successful and had to be redone, a failure which would likely have been a big emotional blow to the esteem and self-actualization needs the team felt they were sacrificing lower needs for. Once the higher needs failed to materialize, the lower needs became more relevant and as the case shows, the team began to burn out and ask to be reassigned to other projects. It is in this case study we see how the deprivation of those needs leads to burn out and lack of motivation. While the pursuit of higher order needs may have sustained the team in the short run, the ultimate lack of need fulfillment proved to be a fatal blow to the team individuals to remain engaged and motivated in their work.

Additional Theories

David McClelland’s Needs Theory is focused on three human needs, the need for Affiliation (nAff), the need for Power (nPow), and the need for Achievement (nAch) (PSU WC, L. 2, p. 8.). McClelland posited that one of these needs is dominant in each individual and are not innate, but instead are developed through culture and life experiences (Discovering What Drives Members of Your Team, 2014). McClelland believed that human needs “are learned and could be developed through training” (PSU WC, 2014).

McClelland’s Needs Theory states that people with a dominant need for Achievement (nAch) have the desire to take risk in the process of solving complex and challenging goals, prefer to work alone, and enjoy feedback on their work (Discovering What Drives Members of Your Team, 2014). An individual motivated by a strong need for Achievement enjoys taking on projects that require a high degree of problem-solving. The individual’s need for Achievement is satisfied through the successful progression of the project from inception through conclusion. People with a dominant need for Power (nPow) have a strong desire to control and influence others (PSU WC, L. 2, p. 8.). They are generally in management positions where they are in control of project schedules and team assignments. The need for Power can be separated into two distinct groups: People with a need for personal power, and those with a need for institutional power (Discovering What Drives Members of Your Team, 2014). Individuals driven by personal power enjoy having control over the actions of other people. Individuals driven by institutional power use their control over others to benefit the company or organization. A person with a strong need for Affiliation (nAff) enjoys working in collaboration with others, has a desire to be liked and accepted by a group, and will often succumb to other people’s wishes (PSU WC, L. 2, p. 8.).

Applying this theory in the workplace, managers need to identify the dominant need for each person, and ensure that the assigned task, level of interaction and feedback are sufficient to satisfy this need in order to maintain motivation and productivity.


Basic Needs Theory, or BNT, as defined by Adie, Duda, and Ntoumanis, revolves around the satisfaction of three “basic psychological needs:” autonomy, competence, and relatedness (2008). Each need is defined as follows, per Adie et al. (2008):

  • Autonomy is one’s perception of self-sourced decisions and behaviors which are "in accord with their integrated sense of self"

  • Competency is one’s "mastery though effective interaction with their environment" 

  • Relatedness is one’s secure attachment to and receipt of respect from “significant others” 

Like most needs theories, BNT is based on the assumption that “satisfaction of these psychological needs is assumed to directly enhance psychological and physical well-being;” conversely lack of fulfillment of these needs is supposed to result in "ill-being" (Deci and Ryan, 2000a, within Adie et al., 2008). For Adie et al., it is important to note that well-being is more complex than "the absence of pain/displeasure or the mere presence of happiness/positive affect" (Deci and Ryan, 2000b, 2001, within Adie et al., 2008); rather, it is defined as akin to "self-realization" (Adie et al., 2008). In the same mindset, ill-being is understood as the "emotional and physical exhaustion facet of burnout" (Raedeke and Smith, 2001, within Adie et al., 2008). Within BNT, human needs are considered "universal" (Ryan and Deci 2000a, within Adie et al., 2008). 

BNT was developed as a "mini theory of self-determination theory" (Adie et al., 2008). As stated on the Self-determination Theory page, " Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity. In addition, SDT proposes that the degree to which any of these three psychological needs is unsupported or thwarted within a social context will have a robust detrimental impact on wellness in that setting" (SDT, 2014). 


Dr. Clayton Alderfer’s ERG Theory is based on three elements: Existence, which satisfies the need of sustenance, water, and shelter; Relatedness, which meets the needs of social relationships; and Growth, which fulfills the need of self-development.  His theory hypothesizes that when one of the needs is not satisfied, the individual regresses back to a more concrete need.  The converse is that if the need is satisfied, the individual progresses to satisfy another need.  (PSU WC, L. 2 , P7)



However, in this case study it appears that management failed to see the signs of stress that were manifested through the lack of personal hygiene, the irrational irritability, abuse of narcotics, etc..  Because of the team’s frustration, we can see that the team regressed to meet more concrete needs.  For example, the Existence need was manifested when team members spent excessively on dining, stole food from other team members, brought food on the trip that satisfied one team member’s specific diet, the obsession with discussing blood orange juice, and even hoarded mineral water.  We see the regression to the Relatedness need through the lavish spending on gifts for the family, sexual intercourse in the bathroom, and the willingness to sacrifice privacy in order to speak with family members and loved ones.


Therefore, what could management have gained from Alderfer’s ERG Theory to ensure the success of our real-world scenario?  First, we need to understand what motivated this team to work in these conditions for eight months.  Although Existence and Relatedness needs appear to be barely met, it can be assumed that the Growth need was met by the prestige of being selected for this team.  The perceived temporary sacrifice of Existence and Relatedness needs ensured (at least in the beginning) that the members of the team did not regress to fulfill the needs in the areas of Existence and Relatedness.  Long work hours are standard practice in this environment and as such, few hours are allotted to rest and relaxation.  If management would have ensured that the needs of Existence (proper meals, sleep, personal hygiene, etc..) and those of Relatedness (privacy for conversations with loved ones, the fulfillment of sexual needs, etc..) it would have assured that the team did not regress to fulfill needs that detracted from the team’s mission and thus ensure the project’s success.

Future Research

With each of the described theories, future research could explore larger questions behind the motivations of the individuals in this case study. Future researchers should ask:

  • Why did the team continue to agree to work in those conditions?
  • Why did some team members fall apart so violently while other suffered in silence?
  • Why were safety issues and violent behaviors not reported to the senior manager?
  • Why were the severity of the circumstances concealed from management by the team?
  • Why did the team choose to not consult with Human Resources or Managing Directors?

Through both individual differences and the dynamic qualities of motivations (PSU WC, 2014), no definitive answers may be found for this specific situation, research into the following questions may lead to expounding discoveries for the current theories or perhaps even lead to the development of a new theory.


As illustrated by the case study, negative or strenuous work environments can have lasting effects on employees. The effects can impact the motivation, psyche, and moods of the employees, and in severe situations, create post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. The exploration of the multiple needs theories illustrates several of the causes for the emotional distress and breakdowns of these typically professional employees.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides an exploration into the steps or fundamental building blocks that a person must move through in order to be able to develop and grow. The first step of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the physiological step – this is based on having the basic needs of food, shelter and water met (PSU WC, 2014). The case study team lacked these basic necessities for extended periods of time; therefore they were unable to move into the next level needs. By failing to move beyond this first step, each of the team members were forced into a state of self-preservation. One example of this includes the hoarding of mineral water.

The second needs theory of motivation that has been explored is the McClelland's Theory. This theory aptly applies to the situation in the case study, primarily because of the specific needs that are illustrated. McClelland’s theory included three focuses : need for power, need for affiliation, and the need for achievement (PSU WC, 2014). While we will never fully understand or know all of the reasons that the team members stayed in this job and situation, it can be expected that each of the members experienced these needs, as illustrated by their commitment to a project that was spinning out of control. These specific needs  can be seen through the commitment to the project instead of themselves and their own basic needs (need for power); through their inappropriate behaviors which included sex in a bathroom (need for affiliation); and through the various examples of aggression and angry outbursts (need for power). In this desperate situation, each of the team members relied on different behaviors and actions to fulfill these lacking basic needs.

The third needs theory, the Basic Needs Theory is a facet of the self-determination theory that focuses on three basic needs – Autonomy, competency and relatedness (PSU WC, 2014). Much like McClelland’s theory, the fulfillment of these needs leads to a sense of satisfaction and overall well-being. Deprivation, on the other hand, leads to emotional distress and burnout. The team members involved in the case study each experienced various degrees and responses to the lack of having these basic needs met. For example, this is evidenced by the relationship failures of the team members, and the inability to maintain a private, internal sense of their own values. 


Regardless of which needs theory is applied to this situation, it is clear that the undue hardships that the team members faced failed to provide the basic needs necessary to be motivated and successful. Based on this, one can clearly see why the work performed by the team was un-usable; they were unable to focus on anything but basic survival and coping. While it is difficult to measure the true level of accuracy and reliability of each of these needs theories, it is clear that they all have relevance to the emotional and performance aspects of the respective team members. What remains unclear, however, is how any organization would allow such deprivation of the basic human needs and expect a positive outcome?




Adie, Duda, and Ntoumanis (2008). Autonomy support, basic need satisfaction and the optimal functioning of adult male and female sport participants: A test of basic needs theory. Motivation & Emotion,32, 189-199. 

Alderfer's ERG Theory - Existence, Relatedness, and Growth. (n.d.). Retrieved September 6, 2014, from 

B2B Whiteboard. (Producer). (2013, January 3). ERG Theory - explained  [Web Video]. Retrieved from 

Muchinsky, P. M. (2012). Psychology Applied to Work. Summerfield, NC: Hypergraphic Press.

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2014, September). PSYCH 484 Lesson 1: Introduction to Work Motivation and Job Attitudes. Retrieved on September 4, 2014 from

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2014, September). PSYCH 484 Lesson 2: Need Theories: What Do I Want When I Work?. Retrieved on September 2, 2014 from

Raedeke and Smith (2001). Development and preliminary validation of an athlete burnout questionnaire. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 23, 281-306.

Ryan and Deci (2000a). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. 

Ryan and Deci (2000b). The darker and brighter sides of human existence: Basic psychological needs as a unifying concept. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 319-338.

Discovering What Drives Members of Your Team. (2014). Retrieved September 5, 2014 from (2014). SDT: Self-determination theory. Retrieved on September 5, 2014 from 


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