Achieving Existence, Relatedness and Growth in the Workplace

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Renowned American psychologist, Clayton Alderfer, first proposed the ERG Theory for motivation in 1969, with a paper entitled "An Empirical Test of a New Theory of Human Need". Before the Clayton Theory, the world of management solely relied on the famous Hierarchy of Needs developed my Abraham Maslow.

According to Maslow, psychological needs came at the bottom on the hierarchy, followed by safety needs, the need of belonging, self-esteem and finally the need of self-actualization at the very top of the hierarchy. Maslow elucidated that every human being has an intrinsic requirement for these five needs, but lower level needs to be fulfilled first in order to move further up the hierarchy.

In response and reaction to the Maslow’;s famous and much debated Hierarchy of Needs, Clayton Alderfer created the ERG theory of motivation. He further expounded on Maslow’;s Hierarchy in his book "Existence, Relatedness and Growth; Human Needs in an Organizational Setting."

Unlike Maslow’;s hierarchy, Clayton Alderfer proposed that the intrinsic human requirements for motivation can be reduced to only three levels, and these can be met simultanously, rather than a step-by-step process that the hierarchy requires. The three elements introduced in the

ERG theory is as follows:


Existence reiterates the basic material requirements of food, clothing and shelter needed to satisfy ones psychological and safety needs.


Relatedness refers to the need of each person belong and build healthy interpersonal relationships is a work setting


Growth relates to a person’;s need for personal development in a professional setting. The need to be productive, creative, efficient and to feel a sense of personal achievement through one’;s work.

The ERG theory states that all three needs should be met simultaneously in an ideal workplace setting. Satisfying one need at a time, as proposed by the Maslow theory, may cause dissatisfaction among employees. Humans are complex psychological animals with multiple innate requiring simultaneous fulfillment and balance. Managers should recognize this in order to maintain motivation and satisfaction in the work.

Clayton Alderfer also developed the frustration-regression principle to go along with his ERG Model, explaining in a simple principle the problems of the workplace where the ERG theory is unbalanced. Alderfer expounded through his principle that if two of the three needs are met and yet one remains unfulfilled, it’;ll cause frustration among the workers and affect the other two requirements.

For instance, if the work force’;s existence and relatedness needs are met, but opportunities are not provided for their growth and personal development, employees will begin to depend heavily on relatedness. This could result in a workplace setting where employees engage in heavy gossip, speculation and undesirable personal relationships. The moment one need takes dominance over the others; the ERG Model begins to break down and the quality of the professional setting decays.

Real Leadership skills require recognition of these intrinsic human needs and a genuine effort towards fulfilling them all simultaneously. Management experts firmly believe that when managers at a workplace find themselves in difficulty to satisfactorily meet all three requirements, the best thing to do is to remain honest and communicate their employees. Human’;s are understanding and flexible and as long as the manager contains an environment that encourages communication and honesty and avoids frustration.In this type employment environment, the ERG Model will thrive.