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  • Spring 2015
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For as many differences as there are to be found among the human race, there seem to be just as many similarities. In addition, the sameness factors are of much greater significance to life than are the contrasting factors! We all have needs and we all seek to fulfill those needs. Some needs could be considered primal or foundational, such as the need for food, water, oxygen, and sleep. These represent the very basic requirements of every human being. Beyond the basic needs, societies and individuals may begin to differentiate, and we begin to see much more complex needs. There are those who seek to feel safe and secure in their environment, while others risk their lives daily in the military or the fire department. What drives us as individuals? The answer to this is not always clear or openly expressed. Therefore, when we analyze the psychological needs of employees in the workplace, we must make a concerted effort to determine what motivates the masses and what approach is effective in interpreting those needs, all while avoiding undesirable outcomes and improving upon positive outcomes. The case study described below will highlight how ineffective leadership can, and often does, have a paralyzing effect on an organization, as well as the employees in that organization.

For this case study, we examine Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory and his proposed 'five categories of needs' which are organized into a hierarchy from lower-order to higher-order needs. This analysis will help to determine how the higher-order needs, such as esteem, are being affected. Next, we examine Existence Relatedness Growth (ERG), which are the three social needs Alderfer proposed. The course work suggests that “growth needs encompass all the needs which involve a person making a creative or productive effect on others and the environment” and when assessed, the case study supports the idea that by not being permitted to feel productive, the outcome is predictably negative. Lastly, we review David McClelland’s Need Theory. McClelland built his work on system of three important needs, namely the need for affiliation, the need for power, and the need for achievement (PSU WC, L2, p.8). The case study will provide the framework of what happens when employees are subjected to abuse of power and the lack of motivation that comes as a result as well as the implications on an organization. 



The case study that we chose to apply to the Needs Theories is a situation one of our team members is currently experiencing. This student works for a school district, which three years ago decided to contract an outside firm to search for a new Superintendent. After three months of searching, they hired a woman from a school district on the other side of the county. This new Superintendent was to be a “technology guru”, among other wonderful things.

On her first day at the job, in the new school district, she stated that she wasn't there to “cut the fat out of personnel”. However, several months into her tenure, people started talking about a website that her previous school district setup (an unofficial site) where previous coworkers and employees described countless negative things she had done to the entire district and specifically to the employees. She was reported to have terrorized the secretaries and staff. In her tenure at the prior school district, she went through five secretaries in only three years, in addition to numerous lawsuits. All of this was easily found out with a quick Google search, leading one to strongly question the judgment and abilities of the outside headhunting firm.

Within the current school district, there have been four secretaries who have quit, half a dozen administrators with 25+ years put in for early retirement, and the districts legal bills have drastically risen. There are two lawsuits against the district currently, for the superintendent harassing employees. She has changed all aspects of the district, yet none for the positive. For example, the district has multiple elementary schools where students can go, based on where they live. Under her reign, there are no boundaries as far as school buildings and a child who lives on one side of the district can be bused clear across town to an elementary well outside of their previous zone, thus causing the child to ride for over an hour each way, meanwhile paying for a private van. Building enrollments were switched around so that one of the elementary school would be completely filled with low level learners. This would in turn increase the districts funding from the state and give more leverage in test scores. It is likely the case that this action is not even legal. 

As far as her treatment of employees, she repeatedly states that 'secretaries are replaceable by technology.' Regarding her alleged skills as a technology guru, this was also not true. If she has to do a presentation, she does not use PowerPoint, instead she types up her presentation in Word, has her secretary cut the paragraphs out and paste them onto large easel charts. Her secretary even made to use colored markers to draw pictures on the easel pads for her. She will fill an entire room with large easel pads stuck to the walls to illustrate her presentations, not exactly advanced technology. In meetings, she openly mocks and belittles the employees. One time the district had a bomb threat in one of the building and all were required to evacuate. Once the clearance was given, the staff was called into a meeting thirty minutes before quitting time to analyze the emergency response. In the meeting, she belittled not only the Assistant Superintendent but also the HR Director for not having a “proper functioning brain” to make proper decisions on how to evacuate children. If there are employee functions within the building, she will not eat any of the food that the employees bring in, and instead of sitting with the employees, she chooses to eat in the hallway or another room by herself.  

The majority of the employees are afraid of her. She has been known to burst into tangents and scream in people’s faces about things that she feels are wrong. If it is not done her way, she is not happy.The entire school district has low morale. The higher administrators openly fear her, and avoid her at all costs. The employees feel worthless and therefore don't go the extra mile. Everyone just does their job and then goes home. There is no extra effort given because it simply won't be appreciated.



“Abraham Maslow proposed one of the earliest theories of human motivation in 1943” (PSU, PSYCH 484, Lesson 2). As is the case in virtually all disciplines, we must honor Maslow as a pioneer. To take something that everyone, for all of human history, has simply taken for granted, namely that we all have ‘needs’, and attempt to quantify and classify it, is a bold and often frightening step to take. While most people nowadays regard Maslow’s theory as outdated, overly rigid, and playing second-fiddle to many newer theories, I believe that he still has much to offer us, as I will soon discuss in relation to our particular case study.

According to Maslow’s theory, there are five primary categories of needs, and these can be organized into a hierarchy, ranging from basic needs to advanced needs (PSU, PSYCH 484, Lesson 2). The basic needs are true for most, if not all, life forms. For example, we need to breath clean air, drink potable water, live in a moderate temperature range, sleep regularly and soundly, eat nourishing food, be safe from danger, and get a reasonable amount of physical exercise. This list of basic needs could go on and on, but the core characteristic of ‘basic needs’ is that they are needs which in no way need to involve higher cognitive abilities. In other words, the basic needs are as true for your average garden snail as they are for your average human.

The higher-order needs are true for many animals as well, but to a less complex degree. Humans are a very social animal. However, when we moved from the plains and jungles into towns and cities, we lost touch with our heritage. Eventually, as we traveled further and further from our own design, we not only got to the nuclear family, we now often don’t even hold on to that. Hence, a proper, healthy, nourishing social life is rare for most people in the industrialized nations of the world today. As Maslow declares it, once we have our basic needs met, we will next seek to satisfy our social needs. He puts love relationships into this same category, which is logical on some levels, though many people might put love relationships above social relationships. For example, modern psychology would likely proclaim that only a fairly emotionally developed person could have a mutual romantic love relationship. But even a fairly simple, selfish, undeveloped, person could have satisfying social relationships. Virtually any living creature can experience love for their parents, especially their mother, as a basic need, not a higher need. This is a area that Maslow may have change if he was writing the theory today, in light of the hundreds of studies showing that parental love is most certainly a basic need, in that without it, we absolutely fail to thrive. Hence, I feel that love and socializing should not be on the same level, for either children or adults.

Next on the way up the hierarchy is esteem. “Esteem needs include our needs for recognition and appreciation, as well as respect from ourselves and others” (PSU, PSYCH 484, Lesson 2). Enjoying esteem is ranked above the social / love level. That is to say that once we have our basic needs met, and have achieved love and a successful social circle, we then will seek to establish esteem. At this point, and one must try hard to remain credulous, you must ask yourself, “How did this person go about having a successful love relationship and a good social network without esteem?” It should be noted that Maslow acknowledged exceptions to his hierarchy. However, I for one do not believe that a person without esteem could achieve the social / love level until they established it.

Self-actualization was the apex of life’s pyramid for Maslow, it was what we are all (or at least should be, in his opinion) striving for! What Maslow describes as someone who has reached self-actualization, I believe, is a potential state of being, not an actual potential for a real person to achieve. For example, no one is one hundred percent truthful all the time. Therefore, no one can be self-actualized according to this theory. No person is always good, always whole, always consistent. Simplicity and richness are described by Maslow as opposites, which therefore could not simultaneously exist in the same person. All people are free from prejudice when they are at their best, and sadly (but realistically) everyone is prejudiced at some times, even if only when at their worst. Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with Maslow and his Jewish mother! Maslow hated his mother, and couldn't find enough negative things to say about her! When we consider his issues with his mother and other family members, we can see that these issues are key to his entire hierarchical theory. He was (quite unconsciously) seeking to idealize people, because he never learned to love and respect real people. I do not believe that Maslow ever thought about Albert Einstein or Henry David Thoreau having a bad day! Let alone either of them passing gas, using a derogatory slander, or saying something that was misleading for their own gain, etc. In other words, he never learned to love and respect real people, merely projections of perfection which he created and placed over himself, various dead people, and a few key people he knew socially. The self-actualization aspect of his hierarchy, to me, sends the entire pyramid crashing down! He failed to realize that he was describing any person, when they are doing well, feeling well, relatively happy and secure, and not merely ‘special’ people like himself. I someone had told Maslow that his mother could become self-actualized if she was loved and treated with respect, he would have chased that person right out of his office!

All this being said, one might think that Maslow can’t be of any help with the problems in our case study! Not so! He can still be of some assistance, and I will discuss just how this is so. There are two basic problem areas in our case study. One is the pigheaded superintendent, the other is the employees who are not helping to change the superintendent. The superintendent needs to look at Maslow’s hierarchy and realize that she does not have the social / love level satisfied, she does not have the esteem level satisfied, and she most certainly does not have the self-actualized level satisfied. What can / should she do? Maslow would have her start at the bottom, with the foundation, and build up from there. So, she has her physical needs met, and she has safety (we can assume). What she needs is to establish a proper social life and (I would imagine) a proper love life as well. If she socialized in the most minimal way with her peers, they would learn to like her more, which would allow her to put down her defenses a bit. If the superintendent met with peers outside of work to socialize, everyone would start to see each other as people, not as faceless enemies to be feared and combated. It is clear that this superintendent is terrified, like a cornered animal, and no one has found a way to reach out to her in a way that does not set her biting and snarling. Once the superintendent socializes and becomes more human in the process, love will follow. All of this success with friends, coworkers and the new love relationship will give her esteem both from inside and from without. Next step, self-actualization!

The employees can hardly think straight due to fearing for their safety and continuing support of their physical needs. Often, a person must circumvent these physical concerns, putting them aside for the time being, and coming back to them later. If the employees could move up the pyramid to the social / love level of interacting with their terrible boss, they would remove her ability to terrorize them. In other words, someone with no self-permitted concern for physical needs will not feel any concern for losing their job either. The employees must embrace their own value, as social, loving human beings, and approach this woman behaving so badly from that stance. Fear elicits more fear, anger begets anger, and everyone stays on the base level of unmet physical needs. Either party can cancel this out and raise the whole scenario to a higher level, but it can only happen with deliberate and sustained action. Since it is highly unlikely that the emotionally-crippled superintendent will take any such actions, I suggest that the employees attempt to become the proverbial ‘bigger (wo)man’ and make the changes instead.



Psychologist, David McClelland developed a general theory of motivation in 1965 which highlighted the need for affiliation, the need for power, and the need for achievement. McClelland believed that there was a close link between motivation and personality. The need for affiliation (nAff) places emphasis on those who want to belong to a group, want to be liked, and often go along with whatever the group wants to do. These individuals are motivated by collaboration versus competition. People who have a need for affiliation above all tend to be risk averse. Individuals who display a need for power (nPow) have a higher tendency to make suggestions, take control and influence others. These individuals generally seek positions of leadership. The third and final is a need for achievement (nAch). Individuals who display a high level of nAch tend to demonstrate high performance level and high levels of excellence (PSU WC, L. 2, 2013).The individuals with high nAch prefer to work alone, like a challenge, and want feedback on their performance. McClelland was unique in that he believed that needs are learned, and could be developed through training. This belief could potentially be helpful when looking at the case study of our co-worker who has a Supervisor who clearly fits into the category of high nPow. Since the Supervisor has a need for power, it would be important for the staff to realize she is goal-oriented and competitive. 

When viewing the role of secretaries and others, it might be practical for this Superintendent to realize that some people are motivated by affiliation, and therefore work best in a group environment. The Superintendent should try to integrate these staff members and create a collaborative environment. Since people who are nAff do not like uncertainty, it would be helpful in motivating them to assign projects or tasks that are not high in risk or competition. The reason the Superintendent is not successful with this group of individuals is because she lacks the ability to be personal. The group of individuals at the school district who have a need for affiliation must feel like the superintendent has trust in them. These are key factors that will help motivate nAff people for better performance. 

People who are motivated by achievement need to feel like they are overcoming difficult situations; this will keep these individuals engaged and feeling satisfied. These people want to know what they're doing right and what they might be doing wrong, but like anyone, they need feedback in a constructive way. The Superintendent seems to prefer providing criticism without constructive assessment and direction. To motivate the higher level management staff driven by nAch, the Superintendent needs to cease such negative commentary and allow her qualified staff to resolve complex situations, thereby fulfilling their need to achieve.



Clayton Alderfer was looking for an alternative method to understand and describe needs theory, and thus created the Existence, Relatedness and Growth (ERG) theory, which assumes that humans have three core needs that they strive to meet(Alderfer, 1969). These include “material existence needs, maintaining interpersonal relatedness with significant other people, and seeking opportunities for unique personal development and growth (Alderfer, 1969). This needs theory steps outside a static hierarchical needs progression in that there is the existence of “compound needs” such as recognition for a significant contribution to a group project. The compound nature of this type of needs stems from both relatedness needs of sharing with peers and counterparts, as well as the opportunity for the satisfaction of growth needs, in that there is an outlet for performance and developmental achievement. 

The overarching goal that the ERG theory hopes to achieve is to show that if there is a lack of presence of any of these needs, then there will be a greater degree of desire to achieve fulfillment, and once fulfillment has been reached, then the desire to aspire towards any of the needs is diminished. When looking at the case study of our fellow teammate, we can see that a glaring problem with the Superintendent is that there is an overwhelmingly negative environment created within the realm of relatedness. As pointed out by Alderfer in his paper, there need not be a positive effectual state (Alderfer, 1969). The development of a plan for shifting the relatedness desires from a negative connotation to one of positivity and beneficial inclusiveness would greatly improve the working relationship and employment climate of the entire school district. 

In addition to the recalibration of the Superintendents relatedness needs we should strive to understand the importance of the growth need in order to create a solution which shifts various aspects of this need towards a more productive and positively motivated school district. Alderfer explains that the growth need includes all the needs which involve a person making creative or productive effects on herself and the environment (Alderfer, 1969), the satisfaction of which comes from a person engaging problems which call upon her to utilize her capacity fully (Alderfer, 1969). In the instance of our case study, it appears that although the Superintendent is certainly experiencing the fulfillment of the growth need as explained by Alderfer, it is manifested in such a way as to negatively impact all those who have any relation to the various departments affected. Such negative elements of the Superintendents satisfaction of the growth needs include the loss of multiple personnel, lawsuits, and programming adjustments and complaints for unfair treatment and condescending remarks. Creating a more useful and positive environment while at the same time allowing for the fulfillment of growth needs by not only the Superintendent but each employee of the school district will require retraining the growth needs in a positive direction allowing for the greatest degree of satisfaction by all parties involved. 



Basic Needs Theory (BNT) suggests that “humans function and develop effectively as a consequence of the social environment and its potential for basic need satisfaction” (Adie, Duda & Ntoumanis, 2008). BNT proposes that humans have three basic innate psychological needs, which are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to the need of an individual to be able to make their own choices and decisions. Competence represents ones need to feel a sense of mastery and success while interacting with their environment. Finally, relatedness refers to an individual’s feeling of being connected to, and respected by, significant others.

In regards to our case study, according to BNT, the Superintendent's poor leadership ability is damaging to employee motivation. In an organizational application of BNT, there are a number of behaviors that need change. It is mentioned in the case study that if things are not done the way the Superintendent likes, than she is unhappy, and is known to burst into tangents and scream in people’s faces about things that she feels are wrong. Because of this behavior the faculty’s need for autonomy is not being fulfilled. This kind of behavior sends a message to the employees that they are not capable of making the right decisions. The Superintendent can fulfill the employees’ need for autonomy by including them in the decision making process. For example asking for someone’s opinion or consulting with administrators.

The faculty’s needs for competence are also not being met. Faculty members are not motivated to go that extra mile at work because their efforts will go unappreciated and will not bring about personal success or advancement. To remedy this, for starters the Superintendent should being acknowledging the all the work the faculty does. Furthermore the Superintendent should also start to show her appreciation for the people that work for her by announcing an employee of the month, bringing food for everyone during lunch, or even handing out bonuses every once in awhile. Doing this will send a message to the staff that there are rewards for hard work.

To fulfill the employees’ needs of relatedness, the superintendent should stop mocking and belittling the people that work for her. As mentioned above relatedness refers to the feeling of being connected to, and respected by, others. With that being said, as long as the Superintendent continues to disrespect her employees, their need for relatedness will never be fulfilled. Furthermore, the case study mentions how the Superintendent will not sit with the faculty during lunch, which only adds to the lack of relatedness being fulfilled. In order to gratify the faculty’s need for relatedness, the Superintendent should first begin complimenting her staff for their hard work, as this will help build morale among the faculty. Second, the Superintendent should eat lunch with the staff as well as attempt to build relationships with everyone on site.



In conclusion, the circumstances within our case study could likely be drastically improved by use of the needs theories described above. The Superintendent is a woman who sets out to accomplish her goals, yet she is clearly not thinking of how her actions are affecting those around her. By creating a positive environment, employees would feel more comfortable using their skills wisely, and to the their fullest. The first and easiest change is for the Superintendent to start interacting with her employees socially. At events that are held during company time, instead of sitting alone in another room, the Superintendent should mingle with the employees. Another area that could be improved upon is team building. The Superintendent has so much fear instilled in the employees that there is no room or place for a team mentality. By bringing in an outside entity to develop team building strategies, it could make the entire district more cohesive. The Needs Theories are still applicable in today’s society and should be used to better the environment of workplaces. An Industrial-Organizational Psychologist would likely be the best resource to bring on board to set these changes in motion and keep them on a good track. 



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, C. (1969). An Empirical Test of a New Theory of Human Needs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 4, 142-175. 

Hoffman, E. (1988). The right to be human: A biography of Abraham Maslow. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

McClelland, D.C. (1961). The achieving society. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

McClelland, D.C. (1965). Toward a theory of motive acquisition. American Psychologist, 20, 321-333.

Penn State World Campus (2015). Course: Work Attitudes and Job Motivation, Spring 2015, Lesson Two. 



Daniel Camburn, Jaime Dumnich, Ryan Smith, Edward Acosta and Racquel Roy




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