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Motivation: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

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Motivation is the process of stimulating people to take the actions that will allow them to achieve their goals/ motives, (Juneja, no date). The word motivation comes from the word motive, which is the key determinant of your behavior. If we can understand an individual’s motives, we can influence their behavior. How an employee performs can be heavily based on their ability and motivation, therefore a primary task for management is motivating employees to work towards their full potential. Finding the right way to motivate staff is essential to managers if they wish to accelerate the productivity of their staff and eliminate problems such as ‘bore out’ in the workplace. Bore out is common, especially among individuals working in an office setting. It is the demotivation that occurs as a result of repetitive, uninteresting, and unchallenging work. Luckily, however, there are extensive studies, research, and theories available that outline what motivates individuals to work hard. In this assignment I will be discussing Maslow’s motivation theory on the hierarchy of needs and the Goal setting theory, I will also be contrasting the two and giving my recommendation on their use in the workplace.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

This theory of motivation was put forward by American psychologist Abraham Maslow who argued that all humans have innate needs and identified them in his ‘hierarchy of needs’, which act as motivators for employees;

  1. Self-actualization; realizing your true potential.
  2. Esteem; respect, status, recognition.
  3. Social; friendship, family, sense of belonging.
  4. Safety; employment security, health, safety.
  5. Physiological; food, water, shelter. 

Self-actualization remains the ultimate goal overall. Everyone has the desire and potential to achieve self-actualization. But unfortunately, unsatisfied lower needs or even life experiences such as the death of a loved one can leave individuals straddling between stages and unable to accomplish the final goal.

Self-actualization is referred to as a ‘growth’ need, one which does not occur as a result of a lack of something but rather from a natural desire to succeed. Unlike all lower needs, esteem, social, safety, and physiological which are seen as ‘deficiency’ needs. These are needs that arise in the face of deprivation, it is important for these needs to be satisfied to avoid the negative emotions and consequences that result from these needs not being met.

Initially, Maslow stated that in order to move on to viewing the higher level growth needs as a motivator, the lower level deficit needs must first be satisfied. However, he later changed his opinion and clarified that satisfaction of a needs is not an “all-or-none” phenomenon. Instead, it is when deficit needs are ‘more-or-less’ satisfied that employees’ motives diverge to higher level growth needs. These then become our salient needs.

Maslow’s theory is still used by managers to motivate their staff. For instance, they’ll pay employees a wage that allows them to satisfy their physiological needs. Once this has been accomplished managers may offer employees long-term contracts of employment, provide medical check-ups or implement health and safety procedures in the workplace. Thus, satisfying the need for safety and motivating the employee to work towards social needs. Management introduces teamwork and organizes staff parties to help employees develop friendships in the workplace. They also meet social needs by offering flexitime, giving staff the opportunity to spend time with family. Esteem needs are met by offering a new job title/ office. Finally, managers will motivate employees through the continuous achievement of self-actualization goals, such as giving them more responsibility in their roles, etc.

In my opinion, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a great motivator for staff as it has very few limitations and is flexible enough to suit many different career areas. The only issue with this theory is that when characterizing self-actualized people Maslow studied 18 biographies on people he deemed to be self-actualized. It can be argued that this is biased and reflects certain individuals rather than humanity.

The Goal Setting Theory

This is a theory of motivation that argues work motivation is influenced by goal difficulty, goal specificity, and knowledge of results. There are four propositions in this theory;

  1. Challenging goals, which result in a higher level of performance than simple ones.
  2. Specific goals, lead to high levels of performance, as opposed to vague goals.
  3. Participation in goal setting, improving performance by increasing commitment.
  4. Knowledge of results of past performances, ensuring efficient goal achievement.

There is a linear relationship between difficult goals and performance that assumes people are committed to the goals and possess the knowledge and ability to achieve them. Therefore, goal commitment is especially critical when goals are specific and difficult. Although it is true that goal difficulty has a negative effect when individuals self-report on their job performance, it is found that goal difficulty and goal clarity have positive effects on reported effort.

It was suggested by Herminia Ibarra in 2015 that smartphones, watches, and other technologies that track personal progress throughout the day, i.e. how many steps you’ve taken, have made goal setting more popular. The company BetterWorks in California has taken advantage of this and developed performance tracking software, used by over 50 customers including google, intel, and Twitter. The design allows individuals to set and share their goals, log progress on the company dashboard and receive feedback from colleagues through the app, which is available to download directly to their smartphones. This is a great example of how the goal-setting theory is effective in motivating employees. Systems as such help fuel staff’s desire to achieve, they can easily keep track of goals they have set out, and this can be a big motivator. The added incentive of being able to post your achievements and have others recognize the work you have done is another excellent motivator for employees, as they’ll get a sense of satisfaction they’ll want to keep striving towards.

This method is considered to be highly effective in the short term when goals are clear and precise, but limitations occur in the long run as it loses its influence when goals tend to be more subject to variability. Issues also arise when trying to measure goals in professional lines of work, and when individual goals cast a shadow over company/ teamwork goals.

Personally, I feel this theory, while proven to be successful in many work environments, is more geared/ suited towards personal development than employee motivation. I see the goal-setting theory as more beneficial to students trying to achieve in exams and extracurricular. Overall, I would argue that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a better motivation theory in terms of work motivation, as it has fewer limitations and doesn’t lead to personal ambitions taking priority over teamwork goals, unlike the goal setting theory.

Which theory best explains my motivation to perform in college?

As mentioned above, I feel as though the goal-setting theory is a perfect motivator for students, like myself. For me, it is essential to have goals written down where I can easily see, in order to motivate myself to complete them. When assigned an assignment/ task in a module I sometimes get anxious about the increase in difficulty from secondary school tasks. However, I am somewhat inspired by the new challenge and will put a lot of energy into completing it to the best standard I can. I tend to separate the task into smaller specific goals, as the goal setting theory suggests. This ensures I give each element of the task as much time and effort as the other. I do this by setting myself goals in a notebook, such as ‘have 300 Tenjin points by the end of the day’, ‘do the Introduction to the motivation essay’. These targeted goals allow me to stay focused and tackle challenges one chunk at a time, which seems to be a common approach as studies show high-ability subjects set personal goals anchored around assigned tasks.

I now realize after doing the research for this assignment that participating in goal setting is a motivator for me, as it ensures my commitment to goals. It is a lot harder to disregard goals when you’ve participated in the process of setting them, and personally, I find it helpful to have the goals in my notebook so I can’t avoid or forget about them. It is said that self-set goals are commonly more desirable than assigned goals because they automatically encourage high commitment. In terms of knowledge of performance results, this is something that completely applies to me and had a particularly strong impact on my motivation level throughout the leaving cert. I found when given a detailed review of what I done right in wrong in a test or homework, I worked hard to improve where I had lacked in performance and perfect where I had done well. I was always aiming for better feedback with each piece of work I completed. In a study carried out by Earley et al., this effect of feedback on performance was demonstrated. The study was conducted on college students, and it was found that ‘the highest performance was achieved when the specific, difficult goals were combined with both specific process and specific outcome feedback, leading Earley et al. to conclude that the effects of the feedback were additive’.

In conclusion, I am confident that the goal-setting theory is a huge motivator for me and will continue to be as I carry out my studies in DCU. I am also looking forward to learning new ways to motivate myself and may even implement some of the other motivation theories I studied into my study habits.


  1. Prachi Juneja. (no date). What is Motivation? Available: Last accessed 20th November 2019.
  2. David Buchanan and Andrzej Huczynski (2016). Organizational Behaviour: Pearson Education Limited. 276-312.
  3. Ambrose, M. L., & Kulik, C. T. (1999). Old friends, new faces: Motivation research in the 1990s. Journal of management, 25(3), 231-292.
  4. Saul McLeod. (2018). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Available: Last accessed 20th November 2019.
  5. Kendra Cherry. (2019). The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Available: Last accessed 20th November 2019.
  6. Rebecca Buckley, Bs1, Student no; 19436804

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