Alderfer's ERG Theory

Understanding the Priorities in People's Needs

Alderfer's ERG Theory

People – like plants – can only blossom when the conditions are right.

© iStockphoto/Loyish_2

What do people need?

Well, it depends on the circumstances.

If you're living in poverty in a famine area, your most important need is food. On the other hand, if you're living in physical comfort but are isolated from people you know, your top priority will be gaining access to friends or family.

So people have needs depending on their circumstances. This is the basis for Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs  , one of the best-known theories of motivation. It argues that there are five levels of need, and that these are hierarchical, such that lower level needs must be satisfied before higher ones. Maslow's five levels of need (starting with the lowest) are: physiological, safety, social, self-esteem and self-actualization.

While it's a useful starting point, Maslow's theory doesn't fully reflect the true complexity of human motivation. Using the Hierarchy of Needs, our physiological need for food would have to be met before we felt the need for social relationships. In reality, these needs are usually not as independent as that: You can be hungry for love and food at the same time. Likewise, you can experience a need to belong (social) at the same time you are looking for challenging work (esteem).

Alderfer's ERG Theory

The psychologist Clayton Alderfer developed a new model to explain the simultaneous nature of Maslow's five needs. Called the ERG Theory of motivation, he first published it in a 1969 article titled "An Empirical Test of a New Theory of Human Need."

In his theory, Alderfer compressed Maslow's hierarchy of needs from five to three:

  • Existence
  • Relatedness
  • Growth

(Hence "ERG", standing for Existence, Relatedness and Growth.)

At the most basic level, people have existence needs. These map to Maslow's physiological and safety needs, as shown in Figure 1 below.

Comparison of Alderfer's ERG Theory and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Next, we experience relatedness needs, where we fulfill our need for satisfying interpersonal relationships. This level relates to Maslow's social needs and to the external part of self-esteem needs – we feel good about ourselves based on what others think about us.

Finally, we reach the growth needs level. Here, we are looking for personal growth and development by doing work that is of high quality, and meaningful. This equates to the internal part of Maslow's self-esteem needs and to his self-actualization needs.

However, Alderfer's theory goes further than simplifying the number of needs and broadening what each covers. While he still maintains that there is a general order for pursuing needs, he claims that this order is not as fixed as it is in Maslow's hierarchy. Even though existence needs generally have a higher priority than relatedness and growth needs, priorities can change, depending on the person and the situation.

ERG theory has three key differences from Maslow's theory:

  • It suggests that people can be motivated by needs from more than one level at the same time. There is not necessarily a strict progression from one level to the next.
  • It acknowledges that the importance of the needs varies for each person and as circumstances change. Some people might put a higher value on growth than relationships at certain stages of their lives.
  • It has a "frustration-regression" element. This means that that if needs remain unsatisfied at one of the higher levels, the person will become frustrated, and go back to pursuing lower level needs again.

Using the Theory

The flexibility of ERG Theory makes it very practical. It tells us that leaders mustn't...

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