Abraham Maslow's Theory of Motivation as a Hot Topic as a Tool in Organization

Motivation has been a hot topic for debate since the 1930’s, even though it was not considered a respectable pursuit until much later (Locke and Latham 2002). In the past it was believed that employees would simply motivate themselves, however Locke and Latham have now proved that when people are asked to do their best it is not always the case that they do so (2002). Managers and supervisors now take the reins of motivation. However, even if you’re employer gives you everything you want, you may still be demotivated – satisfied perhaps, but not motivated. Motivation is now a very powerful tool in an organisation, and if a manager can effectively motivate staff he should not only increase productivity, but also decrease staff turnover and sick days thus making any company more profitable. Theorists gave rise to two different types of motivation theories. Content theories like Maslow’s needs hierarchy, that focuses on what motivates individuals; and process theories like the expectancy theory, where the emphasis is on the actual process of motivation.

Maslow’s theory has been used by many an organisation to give some insight on behaviour at work, but due to a number of different factors I believe that it is not as effective as once thought. I do not believe at this point in time that any motivation theory is flawless, but Vroom’s expectancy theory is much more comprehensive and gives much more insight into understanding and predicting behaviour at work.

‘Probably the best known theory of human needs was advanced by the late clinical psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943 (Aldag and Brief 1945 p9). Maslow’s theory was an easy to understand pyramid of five basic needs that ascended in order of importance for the employee or subject. Once you have satisfied a motivational need ‘at once other (and higher) needs emerge (Maslow 1943 p 375). In summarisation, Maslow’s five basic needs are;
-physiological - need for food and drink
-safety - need for physical and psychological safety
-social - friendship and family
-esteem - feeling valued and respected
-self-actualization - being all that one can be. ‘What a man can be, he must be’ (Maslow 1943 p382).

Maslow’s theory has been described as rigid, strict, basic and contradictory but I don’t believe that’s the case.
Maslow states that the order to which his hierarchy falls can be changed and that people put different values on different needs, and that needs do not have to be 100 per cent satisfied before you can advance up the pyramid which has been supported by Reeve; ‘We always experience more than one motive. At any one time we harbour a multitude of motives, one motive is strongest whilst others are relatively subordinate’ (1997 p 15). He also claims that some people will fore go the basic need in order to achieve higher important needs, like a martyr or artist might do.

Many theorists still support Maslow’s work and in 1998 Rowan made three proposed changes in an attempt to make the theory more comprehensive. The separation of the esteem need into an intrinsic and an extrinsic part, adding the need to become automous at ones job and the separation of the much criticized self-actualization - to which a definite meaning has yet to be validated, into the ability to express one’s self and a closeness with god or humanity.

Maslow’s original theory, however, does not cover the intrinsic and extrinsic areas of esteem or rewards and there is no clear relationship between needs and behaviour. He also makes no reference to what is arguably the most influential motivator of all, money. Money has been a successful motivator in many different occupations and is the reason why many operating managers will tie employees bonuses or pay to company performance - attempting to motive and possibly to change a particular stance that an employee has in order to align it with the goals of the organisation. In Mullins survey, 62 per cent of companies had problems retaining minimum wage employees based entirely on pay (2005).

On the other hand, the theory did provide managers – albeit a small amount - with some insight into understanding and predicting behaviour at work. As Maslow said,‘It is far easier to perceive and criticize the aspects in motivation theory than remedy them’ (1943 p 371). But the theory is now out dated, and research has shifted from studying and trying to advance content theories to placing much more emphasis on process theories like Locke and Latham with their advance on the expectancy theory in 2002.

The expectancy theory, developed by Victor Vroom, is one that has clear links to motivation, looking at the relationship between effort and performance and performance and rewards. The more complex theory has perpetual motion that relates all the tasks they may be required to perform. The theory is broken down into three main parts. Expectancy, am I able to complete the task required of me? Instrumentality, would completing the task lead to a favourable outcome or will I be rewarded? And valence, how much do I value these out comes or rewards? ‘A research study that related the overall importance, scientific validity, and practical usefulness of 73 organisational behaviour theories reported that expectancy theory has high levels of importance, validity and usefulness’ (Ivancevich et Al 2005 p121). Monetary incentives are practical and are used to enhance goal commitment. More money, more commitment (Locke and Latham 2002).

The theory has been described as overly complicated, but it merely draws attention to the complexity of motivation. Vroom’s theory deals a lot more with extrinsic motivation than that of Maslow. In 1991, Lazer proved that by implementing a piece-rate incentive plan at Safelite Glass Corporation he was able to increase productivity by 44 per cent.

But if an employee does not value the reward or outcome the theory is flawed. ‘When a goal is very difficult, paying people only if they reach the goal can hurt performance. Once people see that they are not getting the reward, their personal goal and self-efficacy drop and, subsequently, so does their performance’ (Locke and Latham 2002 p 708). Research today tells us that when employees are involved in setting their own goals they usually set them higher and have matching higher performances. The involvement allows subordinates to feel more important and involved in the organisation.
This (expectancy) theory is not without need for improvement, which is why in 2004 Locke and Latham incorporated it in their mega theory. As Atkinson points out, the theory only works if the subject acts without habit. No matter how many times the employee has completed the task they cannot be biased during the selection process or the theory will not work in the way it is intended (1964).

So through these reasons we can see that the theory is not perfect but nonetheless acts as a more useful theory in predicting and understanding behaviour at work than Maslow’s needs hierarchy.

Most managers have to motivate a very diverse and unpredictable group of employees. Thus, selecting one theory to motivate the entire staff force becomes extremely challenging. Will one theory work for everyone? Or will different theories need to be adopted for sex, age socio-economic status, location, emotional intelligence, personality, ability or skill etc. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was a good theory, but lots of advances have been made that now leave the theory lacking in depth. The expectancy theory took over as the most advanced motivational theory and looked promising at giving us an insight into the behaviour and predictability of motivation but it too begins to become out dated as will the next theory.

The key of motivation is the understanding that every employee is attracted to some goals and some rewards be they intrinsic or extrinsic. It is up to the manager, possibly through trial and error, to find the best way of motivating their employees. Hackman’s theory involved looking into what employees have done in the past as well as what they are doing now in order to predict what possible factors might influence their motivation (1969).

Our knowledge on motivation is still incomplete, many topics have yet to be studied and many theories remain unutilized. Locke and Latham’s idea of ‘creating a boundary less science of work motivation’ (2004 p 392) and putting no limit on the number of new ideas that can be explored seems the only rational future for motivation. Or could the unconscious or sub consciousness hold the key for the motivation of the future?