Need-Based Theories of Motivation

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Project teams are comprised of team members with diverse backgrounds, expectations and individual objectives. The overall success of a project depends on the project team's commitment, which is directly related to their level of motivation.[1] These are able to affect all aspects of the result that will be achieved by a project, including a direct impact to the constraints of scope, time and cost.

Motivation encompasses the psychological forces[2] within a person that determine:

  • The direction of a person's behaviour in an organisation, which refers to the many possible behaviours a person could engage in.
  • A person's level of effort, which refers to how hard people work.
  • A person's level of persistence in the face of obstacles, which refers to whether people keep trying or give up.

Motivating in a project environment involves creating an environment to meet project objectives while providing maximum satisfaction related to what people value most.[1] This may include:

  • Pay
  • Job security
  • Autonomy
  • Responsibility
  • The pleasure of doing interesting work
  • A feeling of accomplishment
  • Recognition

Knowing this, it is in the project manager's best interest to understand the demotivation cause in order to drive toward project success though the creation and maintenance of a motivating environment for all members of the team.[3]

This article focuses on need-based theories of motivation which form the basis of in which way project managers help people to satisfy their needs at work. It exemplifies the application of these theories and mentions the limitations.

Need Theories

A need is a requirement or necessity for survival and well-being. The basic premise of need theories is that people are motivated to obtain outcomes at work that satisfy their needs. Need theories suggest that to motivate a person to contribute valuable inputs to a job and perform at a high level, a project manager must determine what needs the person is trying to satisfy at work and ensure that he or she receives outcomes that help to satisfy those needs in return for performing at a high level and helping the organisation achieve its goals.[2]

There are several need theories, of which Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Alderfer's ERG Theory and McClelland's Need Theory is described briefly below. These theories may be hard to use directly, but give the project manager an understanding of how he or she has to take action in order to create a motivating environment which fulfil people's needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943 Abraham Maslow stated in the article "A Theory of Human Motivation" that all people seek to satisfy five stages of human needs, which are:

  • Physiological needs
  • Safety needs
  • Belongingness needs
  • Esteem needs
  • Self-actualisation needs

These needs are set up in a particular order, better known as Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which is illustrated in the figure below where the stages are described in more details.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow argued that the lowest-level needs must be met before at person will strive to satisfy needs higher up in the hierarchy. Once a need is satisfied, it ceases to operate a source of motivation.[2]

Although this theory identifies needs, which are likely to be important sources of motivation for many people, it has been under criticism. The problem is that more than one stage may be motivational at one time.

Alderfer's ERG Theory

Clayton Alderfer observed that importance of the needs varies for each person as circumstances change. Some people might attach more importance to relationships than growth at certain stages of their lives.

For that reason, he presented his ERG Theory in 1969 in the article "An Empirical Test of a New Theory of Human Need", which is about three stages of needs:

  • Existence needs
  • Relatedness needs
  • Growth needs

These needs are substituted for the needs in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The existence needs relate to the physiological and safety needs, the relatedness needs relate to the belongingness needs, while the growth needs relate to the esteem and self-actualisation needs.

McClelland's Need Theory

In 1961 David McClelland propounded his theory in the book "The Achieving Society", which is about:

  • Need for achievement
  • Need for affiliation
  • Need for power

The need for achievement is the extent to which an individual has a strong desire to perform challenging tasks well and to meet personal standards for excellence. Individuals with a high need for achievement are attracted to situations offering personal accountability and like to receive performance feedback. The need for affiliation is the extent to which an individual is concerned about establishing and maintaining good interpersonal relations, being liked and having the people around him or her get along with each other. The need for power is the extent to which an individual desires to control or influence others.[2]


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Needs What to do?
Physiological needs Provide a level of pay that enables a person to buy food and clothing and have adequate housing.
Safety needs Provide job security, adequate medical benefits and safe working conditions.
Belongingness needs Promote good interpersonal relations and organize social functions such as holiday parties.
Esteem needs Grant promotions and recognise accomplishments.
Self-actualisation needs Give people the opportunity to use their skills and abilities to the fullest extent possible.
Alderfer's ERG Theory
Needs What to do?
Existence needs Provide enough pay for the basic necessities of life and safe working conditions.
Relatedness needs Promote good interpersonal relations and accurate feedback.
Growth needs Allow people to continually improve their skills and abilities and engage in meaningful work.


Annotated bibliography


  1. 1.0 1.1 Project Management Institute. (2013). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (5th ed.).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Jonas, G. R. and George, J. M. (2015). Essentials of Contemporary Management (6th ed.).
  3. Peterson, T. M. (2007). Motivation: How to increase project team performance. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2007.
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