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            Motivation can be defined as “A force acting on or within a person that “moves” the person to behave in a particular manner” (PSU WC, L.1, p. 3).  It is a hypothetical construct that cannot be seen or measured.  There are different factors that motivate different people and these needs can change over time.  One way that motivation is studied is through needs theory.  A need is a deficiency that a person experiences.  Need theories state that people can be motivated by satisfying their needs (PSU WC, L.1, p. 3-4).  One of the oldest needs theories that can be applied to a business setting is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


The Case

            David is the CEO of a small, regional paper company.  The company is very successful and highly profitable, but David feels like he needs more.  With successful branches around New England, he thinks his next move would be to expand into New York and Pennsylvania.  David isn’t doing this for the profit.  He knows that business was good for him and be good to others too.  People in these states need jobs and he can provide them.  He also decides that he could donate some of each branch’s profits back into the community.  One year later and David’s company has six new branches across New York and Pennsylvania.  Of these branches, five are highly successful while one lags behind.  Despite being managed by one of David’s best workers and having a highly qualified staff, the branch in Pittsburgh failed to meet its quota for the past three quarters.

              The Pittsburgh branch is managed by Karen.  Karen previously managed the branch in Hartford, which was always one of the best in the company.  She agreed to move to Pittsburgh because it was a bigger market and David needed someone he trusted to get the branch of the ground.  In their weekly strategy meetings, Karen hasn’t been herself.  She wanted things to go smoothly and didn’t want to cause a conflict by asserting her leadership.  She accepts ideas that she disagrees with to try to fit in.  She doesn’t want to seem too strict around her employees, so she just agrees with them so she is liked.  Having to leave her family and friends in Connecticut has had a larger impact on Karen than she thought it would and it is hurting her work.

            The top salesman at the branch is Andrew.  He has worked in sales his entire life, but was recently let go for financial.  He was always told that he was a great salesman and won many awards, but losing his job made him question his ability.  He doubts if he is as good as he thought despite being laid off for reasons other than job performance.  Even with these doubts, he settled in and did well at his new job.  His superiors would tell him that he is doing good work, but not meeting projections had a large effect on him.  It is difficult for a new branch to do as well as existing ones, but Andrew has blamed himself for coming up short, which has caused his performance to decline.

            The office receptionist is named Sandy.  She is a single mother of two children.  She has little work experience and felt lucky to get this job.  Sandy is happy to have a stable paycheck and a relaxed work environment, but her home life causes her a great deal of stress.  She is able to provide food, shelter, and clothing for her two children. Her bills are always paid on time, but she is unable to afford a nice home in a nice part of town. She lives in an apartment in a neighborhood with a high crime rate. She has to park her car in an alleyway, which makes her nervous when she walks to and from her car. Her car has been vandalized in the past. Her children, who are seven and ten years old, walk home by themselves after school. She is constantly worried about this and fears for their safety.  This stress preoccupies her and her performance suffers.

            One of the warehouse workers is named John.  He is married and has four children.  He has always worked blue-collar jobs and has agreed to work for David because it paid slightly above minimum wage.  This income does help his family, but it is not nearly enough.  His wife can’t work because she is a fulltime caretaker for her disabled mother.  This means john has to support all seven people in his family on his small paycheck, his wife’s unemployment, and his mother-in-law’s social security.  He fears he might need to apply for food stamps.  He is constantly distracted by the thought that his family will go hungry and starts making mistakes at work.  Loading the wrong orders onto the delivery trucks costs the branch time and money.


Analysis of Theory

            Abraham Maslow developed the theory of the hierarchy of needs to explain human motivation.  He wrote that people are motivated by unsatisfied needs and those needs are arranged in a hierarchy.  Lower needs must be met before higher needs can be satisfied.  There are five stages to Maslow's hierarchy.  The first is physiological needs.  These include food, water, and sleep.  Pain and discomfort result when these needs are unsatisfied.  The second stage is safety needs.  These needs concern finding stability and consistency in the world and include family and shelter.  The third stage is social needs.  People need to feel love and accepted.  Social or love needs give a sense of belonging and friendship.  The fourth stage is esteem.  This includes recognition for achievement and admiration.  It also includes the mastery and competence of self-esteem.  The final stage is self-actualization.  Maslow describes this as "the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming."  This need can never be fulfilled and leads people to better themselves and the world around them.  The lower needs are deficiency needs.  Fulfilling them leads to growth and self-actualization.  It makes people health and having unfulfilled needs leads to illness.  Needs are prepotent.  This is the need that has the greatest influence.  Maslow fulfillment progression says people must move up the hierarchy and lower needs must be met before higher ones.  People start by fulfilling the prepotent need and work up.  Over time the prepotent need moves up the hierarchy and fewer people are on each successive stage (Gwynne, 1999).


Application of Theory

            Based on Maslow’s theory, there is no single solution to improving the motivation and performance of the Pittsburgh branch employees.  It is critical to determine each worker’s stage and prepotent need.  Each employee will benefit from a personalized plan to motivate them to perform.

            David is on the self-actualization stage.  He is trying to become the best version of himself that he can be.  He knows that he is a successful businessman and thinks knows that he can grow his company.  He takes this opportunity to not only grow his business, but as a way to give back.  After working up the corporate ladder he realized how much suffering there is in the world and how many talented people there are that just need an opportunity.  He wants to expand his company so he can employ those good workers who are without a job and to give back to their community.  If just given the opportunity, he believes that all people can do great things.  Being on the self-actualization needs stage, David will never stop wanting to improve himself.  He will continue to grow his brand and give back until he can no longer.

            Karen is on the needs stage.  She feels alone and needs to fiend friendship or companionship in her new city.  The first thing that David could do is help the employees get to know each other and bond.  This can be done by providing monthly events for employees.  This can range from a company picnic to a teambuilding retreats to a night at a local sporting event.  He also knows that Karen is an avid reader and could start an office book club for her to bond with coworkers who share her interest.

            Andrew is on the esteem needs stage.  He is very down on himself and needs a self-esteem boost.  This can be done by better recognizing his achievements.  The first thing David should do is change the sales projections to something more manageable for a new sales team.  If Andrew feels like he is doing better than he is expected to, it should make him feel like he is as great a salesman as he is.  Instituting a salesman of the month award can further boost his belief in his competence.  Because he is the top salesman, he would win this award often.  Seeing his name and picture on a plaque saying that he is the best would surely make him feel better about himself.

            Sandy is on the safety needs stage.  For her work to improve, she needs to feel that her kids are safe in their home.  If Sandy wants to be able to move to a better neighborhood, she will need to save up some money.  She can earn a higher salary if she had a degree.  David offers to pay for Sandy to participate in a training program.  When she finishes, she can move into a higher paying job with the company.  The only requirement for the free training is that she agrees to stay with the company for a set number of years afterwards.  David also starts a childcare program at the office so she doesn’t need to worry about her kids being in a dangerous neighborhood without her.

            John is on the physiological needs stage.  His mother-in-law owns the house the family shares so he doesn’t have to worry about a mortgage or rent.  He does have trouble providing one of the most basic needs, food.  The only way to ensure that John can feed his family is if he had more money.  David realizes that minimum wage isn’t enough to live on and decides to pay all of his warehouse workers what he considers a salary that you can live on.  He also gives John the opportunity to pick up extra hours to make some more money.



            While Maslow did not intend for his theory to have a business application, many practitioner use this theory to motivate employees.  They believe that if they can determine what stage an employee is on, they can motivate them by satisfying that need.  Research on the topic, however, is inconclusive.   Maslow didn’t operationalize his constructs and researchers can’t accurately define them to test them.  The research they have done has shown that there may be more than five years and there is no order in which they must occur.  Some people may satisfy higher needs first or as a way to satisfy lower needs in the future.  The hierarchy also has less support in other cultures where needs are different.  Despite this lack of support, some companies have used it successfully and the idea that different people have different needs continues on (PSU WC, L.2, p. 5).





Gwynne, R. (1999). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Retrieved from

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2011). PSYCH 484 Lesson 1: Introduction to work motivation and job attitudes. Retrieved from 

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2011). PSYCH 484 Lesson 2: Need theories: What do I want when I work?. Retrieved from 

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