Existence, Relatedness, Growth (ERG) Theory of Motivation

by Shawn P. Quigley

What is ERG?

Today we will discuss a theory by Clayton P. Alderfer called the ERG Theory of Motivation. No, Alderfer was not a physicist and ERG in this case is not a unit of energy equal to 10-7 joules. Aldefer is an American psychologist known for his further development of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory.

In the ERG theory Existence is defined as the physiological and safety needs which are seen as the first two steps of the pyramid which people now use to represent Maslow’s theory. Relatedness equates to the social and external esteem needs such as relationships or involvement with friends, family, and co-workers. This would be the third and fourth rung of the Maslow triangle. Last, but not least, would be Growth which is the internal esteem and self-actualization needs. This is represented by the final two levels in Maslow’s needs theory.

ERG and Motivation

On the first review of the ERG theory the question could be asked, “What is the difference between the ERG theory and Maslow’s Needs theory?” Maslow’s theory was thought to be rigid in the order in which an individual’s needs could be satisfied or fulfilled. Aldefer modified the theory to make a clearer statement about how several needs can be in play at the same time and that their importance depends on the individual not the order presented. He also discussed frustration-regression principle which Maslow only alluded to but did not name.

ERG and Frustration Regression

Frustration-regression principle is when a higher order need cannot be satisfied or it is easier to satisfy a lower order need and the individual regresses to the lower need. An example would be when the individual does not see any potential for growth they need (desire) to be satisfied. Therefore, they regress to fulfillment of the relatedness need and socialize more with co-workers. In this case the socialization would probably occur with workers who also do not see the potential for growth either: misery loves company. This association further exacerbates the situation and can erode even the motivation of people who perceive a potential for growth.

But Motivation?

In our numerous discussions of motivation we have covered personal development; growth, several times. While many people and organizations present other needs as their primary motivation, growth or personal development is the actual desired pinnacle need. Very few people or organizations just want to exist or remain the same. But to communicate the desire for personal development is difficult to achieve without seeming self-centered or egotistical [personal power]. Both of which are more likely to get an individual fired or reduce the likelihood for the very growth desired. However, obtainment of personal development could lead to increased responsibility and the ability to facilitate positive change in the organization [organizational power]

Motivation and Communication

So, that leaves us with a question. How do we communicate the desire for growth without causing excessive tension? In my opinion the answer is in the question and we have repeatedly discussed it. The answer would be open and honest communication from both parties’ employee and employer. We have discussed this in the open mental model.  The “mental model” hyper link is a link to one of the many blog posts on the open mental model.

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