A good way to explain how an individual’s motivation fluctuates is to look at Abraham Maslow’s theory of the “hierarchy of needs.” Maslow argued that we are all motivated by a variety of needs. He claimed these various needs could be seen on a hierarchy, moving from basic, low-level needs to higher level needs.
The most basic needs are physiological, including food, water and air. These are the basic ingredients that sustain. Once people have these basic needs, they are concerned about safety and security. They don’t want to get hurt in their environment, and they want a job—not only this week, but next week as well.
After people feel safe and secure, they want to belong. They want to be a part of the group. Feeling “in” is the key. When these social needs are satisfied, most people then want to be important. They want to stand apart from the crowd. They have needs for esteem and recognition.
The highest level of need according to Maslow, is self actualization. This is a maximizing concept. The person is doing what he or she is really capable of doing. To me, the ultimate in self-actualization is when a person is confused about the difference between work and play.
Some people have the belief that once they reach the upper levels of fulfillment, they will always stay there. That’s not true. A person can be self-actualizing in a job one day and then because of economic hard times be laid off. The next day, the most important thing to that person could be job security. It’s very important to know what is motivating a person at a given moment in time. It is important to realize that circumstance might change, and with it, those things that motivate a person.
Give someone a job, and the next day that individual might need to feel “in” on things and want to be involved in the decision-making process. People are ready to participate and get involved in decision making as long as they feel safe and secure. Threaten their job security and see what happens when you ask for suggestions to increase productivity. People usually will do one of two things: Either they will clam up, or they will try to determine who has the most power in the room and who could hurt them the most. Then they will tell that person exactly what that person wants to hear. In other words, they play it safe.
This phenomenon works in the opposite direction, too. In the past, a person might have responded well to a salary increase. But that is not motivational anymore. The person now wants more responsibility. In other words, as conditions and times change, so do those things which motivate.
You might say, “This sounds confusing. It’s too complex. I can’t figure out what people want all the time.” The answer to this apparent dilemma is to ask questions, listen, and observe. Assume nothing—then you won’t be surprised.
Just remember—while organizations have goals that need to be accomplished, people within the organization have needs that must be satisfied, too. The successful manager will try to fulfill those needs that provide motivational satisfaction while people work to achieve the organization’s goals. In other words, a win-win situation should be created for the individual and the organization.