Explaining Employee Motivation at the Individual and Team Level

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow developed a theory that humans arrange their needs in the order of the highest priority, and that job performance and motivation are directly related to them. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is divided into five main categories: physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization. Chris Argyris, in review of Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, identified the difference between attitudes and behavior. He recognized that attitudes and behavior affect a person’s motivation. He classified these behaviors as Pattern A and Pattern B. George C. Homans recognized three elements of the social system that affect motivational levels of employees. These three social elements are activities, interactions, and sentiments. This article will review how the four different motivational theories complement each other and provide practical implications for the business environment.

Maslow explains that the needs of an individual provide a source of motivation. Although, Maslow’s Hierarchy is not as cut and dry as fulfilling one need and moving on to the next; one need can be semi-filled while another need presents itself. The needs are not mutually exclusive. For example, social needs can influence esteem needs. Being accepted into a social group in the workplace can aid in the development of one’s self-esteem. Continual education and training can increase the security of one’s position and increase a person’s esteem. The increase in esteem accrues by giving the individual greater knowledge of their position and providing the individual with not only the feeling of being able to, but the ability to influence their environment. As their knowledge increases so does their development towards self-actualization.

“Theory X assumes that most people prefer to be directed, are not interested in assuming responsibility, and want safety above all” (Henry, Blanchard, and Johnson, 2001, P.60). This theory assumes that motivators such as money, fringe benefits, and fear of punishment provide a driven work force. We witness this at any basic training course in law enforcement or the military. The instructors provide constant direction and use fear of punishment, usually physical training, as motivation. McGregor’s Theory Y “suggests that people can be basically self-directed and creative at work, if properly motivated” (Henry et al., 2001, P.61). Intelligence analysts for government agencies provide a good example of this theory. The analysts must take it upon themselves to sort through data sources and use their creativity to synthesize the data and put it into context. Argyris’ assumptions on attitude and behavior coincide with McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. Pattern A theory assumes that people are restricted in their ability to accomplish tasks and require close supervision and structure to accomplish those tasks. Pattern B theory suggests that people are more extroverted and open to experimenting within the workforce therefore requiring a more supportive leadership style.

When starting a new career, people are more likely to represent Pattern A behavior, require Theory X management, while pursuing the bottom two tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy. These two bottom tiers include physiological and safety needs such as food, shelter, health, and security of employment. An employee further along in their experience and career are more likely to follow Pattern B behavior, require Theory Y management, and be further along Maslow’s pyramid in search of the top three tiers: social, esteem, and self-actualization. Pattern B behavior is representative of a person that has their physiological and safety needs met. This behavior presents itself when the social needs are either met or are in the process of being met. Therefore, Pattern B behavior develops in the social tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

George C. Homans noted that three elements in a social system: activities, interactions, and sentiments create motivation for members of informal work groups (Hersey et al., 2001, P.62). This occurs when these individuals have reached the socialization need in Maslow’s Hierarchy. Bonding increases motivation and reaffirms a sense of safety. So the human need motivator to socialize, once accomplished, creates constant stimulation and motivation. As people interact in activities they develop sentiments towards each other and expectations of how each member of the group might behave in certain circumstances (Hersey et al., 2001, P.63). The group itself assigns theories to each person’s human nature and provides the necessary management style to each individual in order to accomplish the task. The group regulates itself. This is seen in any military platoon or law enforcement team. The team/platoon develop each other through constant interaction and provide the necessary leadership to motivate individuals toward mission accomplishment. “People who deviate from group norms usually incur sanctions from the group” (Hersey et al., 2001, P.63). But also, as people interact in a positive manner the team creates positive sentiments reinforcing a strong social environment meeting the social need of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Meeting this need allows members of the team to move on to other needs.

Maslow, McGregor, Argyris, and Homans provide different, yet similar theories on motivation. Aligning these theories and applying them to teams within your organization can help a manager understand how to motivate employees within different stages of their career, and note the natural development and motivating factors within a project team. Each individual is motivated by different means depending on where they fall in Maslow’s Hierarchy. Where they fall on the hierarchy determines how they will act and need to be managed at that time in their career. As they become more accepted in their environment, the more social they become and adapt to group norms. The group will then provide regulation and motivation for each individual involved.


Hersey, Paul, Blanchard, Kenneth H., Johnson, Dewey E. (2001). Management Organizational Behavior: Leading Human Resources. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.


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