Growth, Self-Actualization, and Motivation at Work

Well-know psychologists and theorists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers shared the belief that, given the right conditions, people are self-directed in seeking growth and actualization. Their theories can help shed some light on what motivates people at work. Maslow’s theory suggests that people will seek higher, more intrinsic goals once their basic physical and psychological needs are met (Feist & Feist, 2009, 304). Roger’s theory suggests that under favorable conditions, people will become more self-aware, self-directed, congruent, and trustworthy (Feist & Feist, 2009, 339). This post will explore the theories of Maslow and Rogers as they relate to workplace motivation, as well as the idea that getting our needs met at work is critical to productivity and satisfaction.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs categorized human needs into levels (a stair-step metaphor is often used) that help people grow toward self-actualization. What’s interesting about his theory of motivation is that it involves the whole person, both physical and psychological aspects, whereas many other theories focus just on psychological needs. The first stage consists of physiological needs for water, food, oxygen, and overall bodily health. The second stage consists of safety needs, which includes protection from social (crime, harassment), environmental (fire, war, floods), and psychological stressors (fear, anxiety). On a related note, Maslow believed that some adults experience anxiety/neurosis because they retain irrational  fears from childhood that lead them to spend too much energy seeking safety. The third stage consists of love and belongingness needs, such as the desire for friendship, a mate, and involvement in community. This stage seems to have much in common with Bowlby’s attachment theory; Maslow theorizes that, from childhood experiences, people develop either a sense of confidence or a sense of doubt about being loved. A sense of doubt might be express through devaluing love, trying too hard to be loved, or acting aloof/self-sufficient to hide the need for love. The fourth stage consists of esteem needs, including confidence, self-respect, competence, and the knowledge of being held in high-esteem (reputation). Maslow believed that self-esteem was the result of real competence, not just based on the opinions of others (similar to Carl Rogers’ conditions of worth—feeling that you are loved and accepted only if you meet the approval of others) (Feist & Feist, 2009, 282-284).

Maslow’s final stage is self-actualization, which is a level only achievable when all other needs are met, and is described as “self-fulfillment” and being able to maintain feelings of self-esteem even when rejected by others (Feist & Feist, 2009, 284). He guessed that only 1% of the population would ever reach this level; however, inherent in Maslow’s theory is the idea that most people have natural impulses toward growth and self-actualization, even if they never fully “arrive,” especially as they age (Feist & Feist, 2009, 300). It makes sense, in light of Erikson’s theory, also, that as people age they become more intrinsically motivated, having met lower level needs for safety and esteem (Feist & Feist, 2009, 302). People in management and leadership roles can benefit greatly from understanding how age may be correlated to extrinsic and intrinsic  needs and Maslow’s hierarchy. Younger workers may be motivated by “lower level” needs  such as money, status, and approval more than older workers, who may be motivated by “higher level” intrinsic needs such as contribution to society, development of relationships, and personal growth (Feist & Feist, 2009, 303).

A theorist named Clayton Alderfer expanded on Maslow’s theory by suggesting that failure to satisfy higher-level needs may lead people to regress and focus on lower-level needs, which he termed “frustration regression.” Alderfer’s work played a role in Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory of motivation that conceptualized satisfaction and dissatisfaction of needs as two separate factors, not merely two extremes of the same dimension. Herzberg’s theory has been used to identify workplace conditions that impact job satisfaction, namely hygiene needs—physical and psychological conditions in which people work, and motivator needs—supervision, interpersonal relations, salary, company policies, benefits, and job security. The theory and subsequent research stemming from it suggest that hygiene factors such as friendly co-workers, reasonable workloads, and good working conditions can lead to low dissatisfaction, but not necessarily high satisfaction, unless motivational needs are also accounted for (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2011, 276 – 278).

Rogers is probably most well-known among clinical psychologists because of his “client-centered therapy” techniques and person-centered theory. His theory rested on two ideas—the “formative tendency” that claims there is a tendency for all matter to evolve from simple to complex forms, and the “actualizing tendency” that claims that all humans have the tendency to move toward completion or fulfillment, which Rogers said was the only motive people possess. Rogers’ theory, like Maslow’s, encompasses the whole person, both physiological and psychological, and includes both “maintenance” of the self (similar to Maslow’s lower needs) and “enhancement” of the self (similar to Maslow’s higher needs). Rogers believed that people also seek to maintain their self-concept; they resist new ideas, distort experiences that don’t fit their self-concept, and find change painful and growth scary. On the other hand, the desire to move toward completion drives people to take on enhancement activities such as learning new things, making friends, and facing pain and threat to fulfill the innate tendency for self-actualization (Feist & Feist, 2009, 314).

Rogers believed that “People have within them the creative power to solve problems, to alter their self-concepts, and to become increasingly self-directed…. They do not need to be directed, controlled, exhorted, or manipulated in order to spur them toward actualization” (Feist & Feist, 2009, 314). But, he believe that the self-actualizing tendency is realized only under certain conditions, which is where his “client-centered” approach really comes into play. He believed that in order for a person to move toward self-actualization, he/she needs to be in relationship with at least one other significant person (spouse, friend, coach, therapist) who is congruent/authentic and who treats him or her with empathy and unconditional positive regard (Feist & Feist, 2009, 314). Rogers’ ideas are really powerful in their application to organizational settings. If applied to the employee-manager or employee-coach relationship, it would make sense that in order for employees to reach their full potential and contribute most effectively in their role, they would greatly benefit from a manager/coach who is authentic and empathic and who trusts that employees are intrinsically motivated to succeed and grow and do not need to be coerced or threatened.

There is a lot of emphasis these days on promoting self-efficacy in employees, especially in the literature about emotional intelligence. The idea that positive self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-concept blossom under nurturing conditions seems incredibly logical, yet not all managers/leaders believe that these “soft skills” concepts are applicable to the workplace, or that they have any role to play in nurturing employees. Rogers believed that under nurturing and favorable conditions, people can become more self-aware, trustworthy, authentic, and self-directed, qualities he associated with the “person of tomorrow” (Feist & Feist, 2009, 339). The “person of tomorrow” could very well be the “employee of tomorrow” as we look to a future of work that will expect more out of people than ever before and require greater resiliency, self-efficacy, and adaptability. Rogers’ “person of tomorrow” is someone who is more adaptable, open to experience, self-trusting, existential (living fully in the moment), harmonious/authentic with others/nonjudgmental, integrated/whole, trusting of others, and feels deeply/enjoys life’s richness.

Rogers focused on creating psychological health in people and had a positive concept of humanity, but he also recognized that people can be neurotic, incongruent, defensive, and disorganized/psychotic. However, he believed that most negative qualities spring from defensiveness, fear, and unfavorable conditions. For anyone working with a “trouble employee,” this might give them pause to ask, “Are the conditions of the working environment creating defensiveness and fear in this employee?” It’s always enlightening to see how the same person behaves under nurturing versus fear-inducing conditions. I’m excited to see that the field of organizational development is looking to positive psychology more and more for ideas about personality and motivation.


Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). 2nd Edition. Personality and Individual Differences. West Sussex, United Kingdom: BPS Blackwell.

Feist, J. and Feist, G. (2009). 7th Edition. Theories of Personality. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

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3 Responses to Growth, Self-Actualization, and Motivation at Work

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