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Spring 2012 Case


In working life, there is a myriad of ways in which people become frustrated: incompetent coworkers, rude clients, an uncomfortable work environment. But one of the most disheartening situations a motivated and goal-oriented worker may confront is finding his or herself with no opportunities for advancement. For some people, knowing that they have a chance to move up in an organization -- to reach higher pay grades and accept greater responsibilities -- is one of the reasons they go to work every day. When paths for growth are blocked, chagrin may ensue, which may in turn lead to apathy and possibly even depression. Here we describe one such situation, and investigate the ways in which the application of various Needs theories might resolve the problem -- a problem which, left unattended, can only harm the individual and the organization as a whole.

The Case

Sarah is a junior manager working in a company offering her little chance for advancement with her current education and experience.  She is feeling stagnant in her current occupation. While she enjoys the company of her coworkers she does not feel challenged in her duties nor does she feel that her work is appreciated. Therefore, she does not feel very motivated to go above and beyond her general job duties.  She likes doing a good job but does not see any reason to do more than is necessary because it will not benefit her.  Sarah feels like the only thing she is really getting out of her work is a paycheck.

Sarah likes getting praise from her boss.  She would like to have the opportunity to advance in her current company.  She is comfortable working there and would like to be able to help the company succeed.  She feels like she could contribute much more if she were able to go back to school and get her Master’s degree or extra training.  She would like to take on more responsibility and have more autonomy.  She wants to feel like she is making a difference, like she is contributing to the success of the company she works for.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory

In Sarah’s situation, we can assume that her basic-level needs are being met.  Her position as a junior manager likely provides an income that covers the cost of physiological needs, like food and water, as well as safety needs like shelter (World Campus, 2012).  Sarah's social needs are being met by her interactions with her coworkers, but it is evident that two needs not being met by Sarah’s junior manager position are esteem, which includes appreciation or recognition, and self-actualization, which includes personal growth or self-fulfillment (World Campus, 2012).  Because Sarah is so stagnant and indifferent with her job, she does not feel pride about the work she is doing.  Beyond that, she feels a need to further her education in the hopes that she will then have the opportunity to advance within the company. This desire to advance in the company demonstrates Sarah's desire to achieve self-actualization.

Alderfer’s Existence Relatedness Growth (ERG) Theory

Sarah’s situation places her within the growth needs phase of Alderfer’s ERG needs theory.  The theory’s existence needs are very similar to Maslow’s basic-level needs, including food and shelter, so we can assume that these needs are being met by Sarah’s current employment and income (World Campus, 2012).  Alderfer’s relatedness needs are similar to Maslow’s social needs, and are not currently an issue for Sarah.  The growth needs of Alderfer’s theory somewhat combine Maslow’s highest-level needs of esteem and self-actualization.  Sarah feels the need to grow within her company by furthering her education, which will allow her to advance and perform at a higher level.  If she is not able to find a way to meet her growth needs, according to Alderfer’s frustration-regression theory, she may regress to relatedness needs (World Campus, 2012).

If Sarah were to pursue a Master’s degree or training program, she would eventually seek a higher-level position with her company. Once she reached that position she would seek further training or other means to reach a higher goal.  This demonstrates the idea that “fulfillment of growth needs leads to greater growth needs,” which is an exception to Alderfer’s frustration-regression theory (World Campus, 2012).

McClelland’s Need Theory

Sarah’s situation most closely correlates to McClelland’s need for achievement (nAch), which is defined as “the need to demonstrate high performance levels and high standards of excellence” (World Campus, 2012).  Sarah is interested in advancing within the company because she feels complacent in her current junior manager position, and likely wants more of a challenge or to feel more passionate about her job.  McClelland’s need for affiliation (nAff) is closely related to Maslow’s social needs and Alderfer’s relatedness needs in that in describes a person's desire for companionship, but does not seem to apply to Sarah’s situation.  The need for power (nPow) as described by McClelland is the need “to control and influence the behavior of others” (World Campus, 2012).  This need also does not seem applicable to Sarah’s predicament. If one were to make an analysis of Sarah based on McClelland's need theory, one would likely say that Sarah has low nAch and nPow because her desires for education, training and more responsibility are not evident in her work nor is she actively seeking these goals.

Theoretical Applications / Resolving the Issue

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Theory

Under Maslow’s Theory, Sarah was able to meet all of her social needs, e.g. knowing and feeling comfortable with her co-workers.  Her esteem needs are being met by being recognized as a valuable employee with the chance of advancement once she meets the requirements for her Master’s degree.  Self-actualization needs are also being met; she's improving  herself by furthering her education and growing into a more productive member of her company. Although even Maslow admitted that self-actualization is a poorly defined concept, once fulfilled, the group of needs it is generally thought to encompass may not, despite their being at the top of the hierarchy, satisfy the individual forever. Maslow said, "Even if all these needs are satisfied, we may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for," (Maslow, 1943). So, once Sarah reaches one step (her Master’s degree) there may be a need to strive to do something even more fulfilling.

Alderfer's Existence Relatedness Growth (ERG) Theory

Under Alderfer’s ERG Theory, Sarah was able to meet all of her relatedness needs by having her social relationships at work with her co-workers.  The feeling of being safe and secure in her surrounds is very similar to Maslow’s social needs.  Her growth needs are being met by being given the chance to go back to school. As Sarah goes back to school and completes her Master's degree, she is able to fulfill some of her growth needs that are part of Alderfer’s ERG Theory.   It is because of these growth needs that Sarah wanted to go back to school so that she could have the opportunity to be promoted within her organization.  The completion of her education may yield greater growth needs for Sarah, and perhaps she will continue pursuing a new and higher position within the company.

McClelland's Need Theory

McClelland’s Theory was able to have its need met in many of the same ways that Sarah was able to meet the needs of Maslow and Alderfer’s theories.  Her need for affiliation was met by having her social setting with her co-workers and peers.  She met her need for achievement by taking the initiative to state that she wanted more of a challenge at her job and by being given the opportunity to return to school.  Sarah now was able to meet her need for power by influencing the behavior of others by persuading her employers to give her the opportunity for advancement.

Limitations and Further Research

 The researchers have gone beyond the scope of Sarah’s prepotent need.  According to Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, contained within its paradigm, exist a component called fulfillment progression (PSU PSYCH 484, 2012).  The only way higher needs are activated is when the lower needs are met. Sarah’s lower needs will not be satisfied by enrolling in school alone.  Ultimately, she has to complete her education. Until that time comes, she still is an employee at the same dead end job. She will not have any input into the success of the company. The researcher’s theoretical application for the case using Maslow Hierarchy of Needs is no less than desultory and impetuous in their resolve. Sarah’s enrollment in school may confound her needs by creating newer needs. The limitation with Hierarchy of Needs is that it was not designed to engage in work motivation (PSU PSYCH 484, 2012). Further research is needed to see if Sarah’s classes will cause her additional complications.

The researcher was far from lucid as they attempted to utilize the ERG as a theoretical application. According to the researcher, Sarah feels safe and secure in her surroundings. The researcher also states that it is within her work surroundings she feels stagnant. To waiver between the terms, safe and secure and stagnant is very capricious. The limitations contained within the ERG are the sparse research support and the lack of a specific definition of growth needs.

In the final example the researcher conceptualizes Sarah’s basic needs looking through the lens of Henry A. Murray’s, McClelland’s need Theory. The researcher states Sarah is seeking a high nPOW.  According to Murray, people with the need for power (nPow) feel the need to control, take charge, and seek positions of leadership (PSU PSYCH 484, 2012).  Sarah’s case study clearly states her needs are as follows:

  • She wants to feel appreciated
  • She is seeking for praises from boss
  • She wants to help the company succeed
  • She want to contribute more
  • She wants to take on more responsibility
  • She wants to feel like she is making a difference

She never expresses any desire to lead a team or the company to success. She fails to mention her ambitions of controlling the team or company. Her resolve is to help or contribute while seeking praises from bosses.

Furthermore, the researcher failed to present results of a Thematic Appreciation Test (TAT). People taking this test describe what they see happening in the ambiguous picture. The end result is a description that represents the subject’s projection of needs. If the person describing the story is controlling a situation it indicates a need for power(PSU PSYCH 484, 2012). Since Sarah does not exhibit nPow tendencies, the researchers should reconsider their theoretical application of this case study.


Needs theories, especially the original -- formulated by Maslow -- have received a deserved amount of criticism. There is a dearth of empirical evidence to back up their claims. However, Needs theories remain a popular motivational tool in the business world, despite the lack of academic support. This is likely because, in certain situations, they do, in fact, work. In business, theoretical justification is much less important than pragmatic, real world results. We've described a situation in which paying attention to the needs of an employee should benefit both the individual and the organization. Needs theories, however maligned, seem to have legitimate real world applications. All of them may or may not contain conceptual flaws, but the fundamental idea they describe -- the simple fact that workers, individuals, have certain needs that, ignored, will harm their productivity and contribution to the organization -- rings true, and awareness of this general phenomenon can only, if moderately, help those who understand its tenets.


A.H. Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50(4) (1943):370-96.

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2012). Lesson 2: _Need Theories: What Do I Want When I Work?  _Retrieved January 19, 2012, from:

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