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The purpose of this essay is to bring forward two theories of motivation, and compare and contrast them. In this essay, I am going to discuss Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, and Adams equity theory. A motivated workforce, is what every manager strives to achieve, and hence a study of the theories of motivation is a must. I will be comparing and contrasting the two theories, and explaining how managers can use them to motivate their staff.
Abraham H. Maslow, a behavioral scientist and chairman of the department of psychology at the Brandies University, published the hierarchy of needs theory in 1954. According to Maslow, a person’s needs are the main motivator that drives a human. He categorized the need in the following five levels:: physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs. (Cost Engineering Vol. 47/No. 3 MARCH 2005).
Equity theory is a cognitive theory of motivation developed by J. Stacey Adams, which claims that employees will be motivated if they accept that they are treated fairly in the workplace. (Dictionary of Human Resource Management; 2001) It is different from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, as equity theory is a process theory.
“What all process theories have in common is an emphasis on the role of an individual’s cognitive process in determining his or her level of motivation.” (Finchman and Rhodes). This means that process theories like equity theory, take into consideration individual differences, and that different people would react to the theory differently. This is different from content theories, such as Maslow’s theory of needs, where it is assumed that all individuals would be affected similarly by the theories.
The basic premise of Maslow’s theory is built around a pyramid, or hierarchy, of needs. The needs at the bottom of the pyramid must be met, before the higher level needs can be met. (Lewis et al., 2001). Managers can apply this theory, by identifying the level on the hierarchy that each employee is on, and understanding that people will be motivated by the factors that exist at this level. The level of needs begin with physiological, followed by security needs, social needs, ego needs, and finally self-actualization need. (Weinbach, 1998).
Equity theory takes into account the assumption that, people will look around and observe what effort others are putting into their work, and how are they being rewarded for it, and will then compare this ratio with their own. People can also compare this effort-reward ratio to their past experiences. The basic assumption that equity theorists make is that these social comparison processes are driven by our fundamental concern with fairness or equity. (Finchman and Rhodes).
Maslow’s hierarchy theory revolves around the five levels in the pyramid. Each level of need has to be fulfilled, starting from physiological needs, in order to motivate an employee.
The first level of needs in the hierarchy is the physiological needs. These are the basic needs of the organism such as eating, drinking, sleeping, sex, suitable temperature, and so on. If one of these needs is not fulfilled, this will immediately get the highest priority, as these are necessary for survival. All these needs have to be fulfilled constantly. ( Philippe J.S. De Brouwer). The wages paid should be enough to cover the cost of these basic necessities.
The second level in the hierarchy of needs is the safety and security needs. This is the need for safety and freedom from fear. This includes safe working conditions, and job security. (Finchman and Rhodes).
The next level on the hierarchy of needs is the social needs. “Social needs refer to the need for satisfactory and supportive relationships with others at work.” (Finchman and Rhodes). “Affiliation and acceptance are important motivators at the social needs level.” (Weinbach, 1998). As humans are social animals, given that the previous levels of needs have been fulfilled, an employee is likely to be motivated if there is a friendly working environment.
Ego and esteem need is the fourth level in Maslow’s pyramid. These needs are the desire for achievement and recognition. Being publically rewarded and given status symbol are motivators on this level.
The final level on Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. This is the need to develop one’s full potential. For Maslow, it was ‘to become more and more of one is, to become everything what one is capable of.’ He believed that what a man can be, he must be. (Maslow, 1943:382). On this level, an employee will be motivated by opportunities to use their talents, be creative, and achieve their fullest potential (Weinbach, 1998). According to Maslow, although everyone had the potential to reach to this level, only very few people actually achieved it.
According to the equity theory, people measure their effort-reward ratio, and compare it to other employees, or to their own previous ratio.
When people believe that the inputs (this may include effort, skill etc.) to outcomes (pay, fringe benefits etc.), of others is similar to theirs, they experience equality. When people believe that the input-outcome ratio of others is more favorable, (that is underpayment) or that the ratio of others is less favorable than theirs, (this is overpayment) they experience inequality. Inequality can be very demotivating for an employee, and can cause anger or guilt amongst employees. (Finchman and Rhodes)
“So we perceive effort, reward, and ultimately fairness not in absolute but in relative terms.” (Adams 1965). With salaries for example, it is the perception of getting paid more, rather than the amount itself, that motivates employees, and determines their behavior. (Shaw and Gupta 2001).
The inputs that people can take into account are their education levels, intelligence, skills, seniority, and the amount of effort that they have put into the work. The outcomes in work, would include pay, but could also include fringe benefits, promotion, working conditions, and status symbols such as large office. (Finchman and Rhodes).
One of the biggest differences between the two theories is that while Maslow never really tested his theory, Adams and his colleagues arrived at a conclusion after testing the equity theory. According to Finchman and Rhodes, “The operational definitions of needs constructs and other variables such as prepotency were not always clear from his writing.”
In contrast, Adams and his colleagues had carried out an experiment, in order to find out whether equality really leads to better productivity. The result was that those who felt they were being overpaid or underpaid were less productive than the ones who perceived their ratio to be fair.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory is a content theory, and hence based on the assumption that we can attribute a similar set of needs to all individuals. However, while Maslow held the theory for majority of the population, he did acknowledge some individual differences. For instance, a political prisoner might achieve self-actualization without achieving the earlier needs. However, Maslow felt that for the majority of the population, the hierarchy worked. On the other hand, Equity theory being a process theory does take individual difference into account. Huseman et al. suggest that there are three types of people based on personality, and they will react in different ways to the equity theory. The Benevolents are people who prefer to give rather than take, and have greater tolerance towards underpayment. They are stressed by equity or overpayment. The second type of people are the equity sensitives. These are people who behave exactly in accordance with equity, and hence experience distress under conditions of inequality (underpayment or overpayment). The third type of people are the Entitleds. These are people who believe their input-reward ratio should exceed that of their referents. They express distress under conditions of equality or underpayment. (Finchman and Rhodes)
Hence, the Equity theory assumes that there are three different types of people, and hence they will react differently. This can also be seen as a similarity between the two theories, as both the theories account for individual differences.
There are some other similarities as well. Good working conditions can be seen as an outcome, for the ratio. Good working conditions is also required to fulfill the second level of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. Similarly, status symbols such as large offices can also be used as outcomes to measure the ratio for Equity theory, while it will also be used to fulfill the Ego and Esteem needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.
Both the theories have also faced criticism. Maslow’s theory has been criticized because of lack of hypothesis testing to support the theory. It has also been criticized for not being very practical, and the needs not being defined operationally. This is particularly true with self-actualization. Maslow’s obsession with this need lead to him describing it more philosophically, and less in practical sense. Another reason for criticism is that the order of the needs may not necessarily be the same for all people. On the other hand, the charm of equity theory has been reduced by the introduction of individual differences. Also research suggests that Equity theory is mostly effective only in the case of underpayment, and not overpayment. It is seen that the effect of overpayment lasts only for a couple of weeks before people start to rationalize their reward level. (Finchman and Rhodes)
A motivated workforce is what most managers aspire to create. They can motivate their staff in various ways, and by using several different theories. I am going to discuss, how managers can motivate their staff using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory and Adams Equity theory.
The levels of needs are the cornerstones of motivating employees.
Managers must understand that employees will be motivated by unmet needs and that once a need is satisfied, it is no longer a motivator. For instance, if a social worker feels that she is well paid and secure in her job position, the first two levels of needs (physiological and security) will not serve as effective motivators. The manager will need to motivate based on higher level needs, such as those at the social level (Weinbach, 1998).
Hence, managers need to identify the level of needs that each employee is currently on, and fulfill each need layer by layer. Starting with the physiological needs, managers need to ensure that the wages paid are sufficient to cover the basic costs. Once this is done, managers should provide workers with safe working conditions and some job security. This would help an employee fulfill the second level in the hierarchy. Next, the manager should try and encourage a friendly working environment, and encourage group working. This would help employees achieve their social needs. The manager could then give employees higher status symbols such as company cars and larger offices, and more recognition for work, by rewarding employees. This would fulfill the esteem needs of the employees. Lastly, managers could set challenging tasks for employees and give them more responsibilities, which truly stretch them. This would help workers reach self-actualization. This is how managers could use Maslow’s theory to motivate staff.
Managers can also use Adams Equity theory, to motivate employees. Managers should try to ensure that all workers perceive their ratio as being fair. If they feel they are being treated and rewarded fairly, they will be motivated. By the same token, perceptions of inequitable treatment will lead to demotivation. The theory is founded on the insight that perceptions and feelings of fairness are based on the principle of comparison. In other words, employees evaluate their treatment in relation to a ‘reference group’. Two kinds of comparison may be important for worker motivation. First, employees may compare their earnings with their level of effort and performance and increase their effort if they believe their rewards are excessive or reduce their effort if they regard them as niggardly. Second, employees will compare their own ratio of effort to reward with that of co-workers and act to raise or reduce effort if they believe their own treatment by management is out of line (Dictionary of Human Resource Management; 2001).
Managers should try and ensure that workers try to increase their efforts, and not decrease them. Managers should take great care while setting the wages, and ensure that the reward that workers are getting, is in line with the effort that they have put in. Particular care should be taken, to ensure that workers do not feel that they are being underpaid, compared to others. This could be very demotivating and could lead to serious problems. If there are any inequity problems within the workforce, managers should try and fix them immediately, by assessing the input-reward ratio. This is how mangers could use Equity theory to motivate their staff.
Both the theories of motivation are highly popular and frequently used by managers. While both of them are different in many ways, there are also some similarities between them, as was shown in the essay. The two theories are extremely important theories, used to motivate staff.
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