The ERG theory of motivation was developed by Clayton Alderfer as a way to explain why people feel like they need certain things and how they begin the process of meeting those needs. The theory is based off of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which argues that people have stages of motivation. Only when lower-level needs can be met does it become possible for an individual to meet higher-level needs under the Maslow perspective.
Alderfer uses this perspective as a starting point instead of a conclusion. This is because the way a person perceives their needs can be very different. Maslow would say that a person cannot meet their social interaction needs until a basic need, such as water availability, is first met. Alderfer would say that needs are independent of one another.
In other words, the ERG theory of motivation says it is possible to be thirsty and lonely at the same time and it is possible to meet those needs simultaneously.
How the ERG Theory of Motivation Changes Our Perception of Needs
In 1969, Alderfer published a paper that was called “An Empirical Test of a New Theory of Human Need.” In this article, Alderfer reduced the number of needs that humans experience from 5 to three. This is how we get the abbreviation ERG – it is a reflection of those needs.
At their core, most humans have a need to exist. This means we must be psychologically aware of our existence while pursuing needs that allow us to be safe.
Then there are social needs that must be met as well. We can meet these needs by finding, creating, and then maintaining interpersonal relationships. Some people need several of these relationships to support their self-esteem. Others may require only a few relationships, perhaps even just one, which reflects the individualized nature of needs.
Then there are growth needs. Each person looks for ways to personally grow and develop over time.
Maslow created a pyramid for these needs, requiring each one to be met before the next need could be addressed. Alderfer acknowledges that these needs are present, but simplifies them and removes the need to have higher priorities for one over the other. In the ERG theory of motivation, the priorities of a person can change depending on the individual and the situation they face.
Three Key Points of Difference in the ERG Theory of Motivation
Alderfer notes that there are three key differences in his theory of motivation compared to Maslow’s theory.
- People can be motivated by needs from multiple levels at the same time instead of only being motivated by stage-specific needs.
- The importance of needs will vary from person-to-person. Need importance can also change as an individual’s circumstances change. This makes it possible for some people to focus on social relationships while others put a higher value on basic needs.
- There is a lack of regression in the ERG theory of motivation.
Maslow believed that if a person could not meet their needs at a specific stage, then the frustration of not having those needs met would cause the person to drop down a stage. Those experiencing regression would pursue lower stage needs because of the satisfaction that comes from having needs met.
Alderfer suggests that this is unnecessary because people can pursue their preferred needs at their own leisure.
Yet there are also regressive behaviors in a needs pursuit that Alderfer recognized that needed to be addressed in the ERG theory of motivation. He suggested that if a higher-level need within a category could not be met, then a lower-level need would be pursued instead.
Here’s an example.
In Maslow’s theory, if an individual could not meet their needs of personal safety, they would regress back to the psychological need to exist. This person would do whatever it took to survive to see the end of the day. Then they would repeat this action over and over again.
In Alderfer’s theory, the actions of meeting personal safety are given more complexity. Maybe an individual doesn’t feel safe because they can’t afford a security system for their home. Instead of becoming frustrated by this, the individual would install a deadbolt on their front door so they can enhance their feelings of safety.
How people meet personal needs is a complex equation that may never be fully explained. The ERG theory of motivation proposes that how we meet needs is individualized and based on our own environments and experiences.