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Alderfer’s ERG Theory Of Motivation – Explained

“When people appear to be something other than good and decent, it is only because they are reacting to stress, pain, or the deprivation of basic human needs such as security, love, and self-esteem.” Abraham Maslow

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was developed into a simplified three-factor model by an American psychologist, Clayton Paul Alderfer. This model then went on to be known as the ERG model. It is a model that focuses on motivation.

It was first published in ‘Organisational Behaviour and Human Performance’. E, R and G stand for existence, relatedness and growth. All these 3 factors represent a specific human need.

Clayton Paul Alderfer (1940-2015) was an American psychologist, who was also a writer, speaker, entrepreneur and scholar. He was a Ph.D. holder from Yale University with a psychology diploma in organizational consulting from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP).

After his studies, he worked at Cornell University (1966-68) and Yale University (1968-1992) as a lecturer, researcher and programme director. It was during these years that he conducted empirical research into the three human needs – Existence, Relatedness and Growth.

He has written books and published many journal articles in the field of organizational behavior and consultation. He later set up his consulting firm called Alderfer and Associates to provide organizational diagnoses and consultation services for private sector and public sector firms, and non-profit organizations.

E, R and G

The ERG model states that everyone is motivated by these 3 factors/needs.

  • Existence (E) is about physical and psychological survival. It is known to be the most important and basic need for humans. Examples of needs include water, food, clothing, safety, love. These needs contain Maslow’s first and second levels of needs from his Hierarchy of Needs model.
    The first level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the physiological needs, namely food, water, breathing, homeostasis and sexual reproduction. The second level includes safety and security needs – financial security (securing a job, saving money), health and wellness, and safety against accidents and illness.
  • Relatedness (R) is about a sense of belongingness, interpersonal relationships and a good bond with your own self. Examples of needs include familial relationships, friendships, feeling appreciated or acknowledged for your achievements, secure attachments with others. These needs contain Maslow’s third and fourth levels of needs from his Hierarchy of Needs model.
    The third level of the Hierarchy of Needs is social needs, consisting of love, acceptance and belonging. A portion of fourth-level needs are considered here, i.e. esteem needs (external) like gaining respect and appreciation from others (status, fame, recognition).
  • Growth (G) is about personal development, self-actualization and satisfaction with life. This is known to be the least important need in this theory. Examples of needs include making something creative, doing something productive for self or society, art or music. These needs contain Maslow’s fourth and fifth levels of needs from his Hierarchy of Needs model.
    Maslow’s fourth level of needs that are involved in this factor is esteem needs (internal) like knowledge, independence, freedom, while the fifth level is the needs of self-actualization, viz. personal growth as opposed to the opinion of others, and expanding one’s potential, individualities and expressions.

This model believes that humans can be motivated by multiple needs at the same time. The level of importance given to each need can also change with time. The needs can move along according to the individual’s priorities and preferences.

He or she can start from the top or the bottom, depending on his or her life situation or condition. This theory believes in flexibility and fluidity between the levels. Life events like a birth or death in the family, divorce, job transfer or health issues bring a shift in one’s priorities.

For example, when a person is living a lavish and social lifestyle – his Existential and Relatedness needs are taken care of and he may want to start fulfilling the Growth need.

However, if this person develops a major health issue, which is life-threatening, he may focus more on Existential needs than any other as he has to survive and maintain good health, rather than gaining status and fame.

Another example to be considered is a person going through a divorce – it can have a great impact on one’s mental, physical and emotional health and other relationships. Thus, he/she may shift their attention to existential needs more at first and slowly rework their priorities regarding the other needs.

ERG theory includes two concepts

1. Satisfaction-progression:

This refers to moving up to achieve higher needs once the lower needs are satisfied. This concept plays an important part in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the individual can only progress to the next level of needs when the lower order of needs is met.

However, in Alderfer’s theory, if the individual moves to the next order of needs, it does not necessarily mean that the previous level of needs is fulfilled completely.

For instance, Robert is driven to finish some projects at work to secure a job promotion (Growth need). He works more than 10 hours a day on the project, thus sacrificing his sleep, food, health and family time (existential and relatedness needs).

As a result, he was successful in completing the projects and securing a higher position at his job, but this affects his health and personal relationships.

2. Frustration-regression :

This is a part of the model. This refers to the tendency of people to move on to lower-level needs when higher needs are not being fulfilled. For example, Alice is not able to finish her art piece (growth need). She feels frustrated and upset. She goes out to meet her friends to feel better (relatedness needs).

Further, if a person’s relatedness needs are not being met, they may regress to fulfilling existence needs. For instance, a person going through loneliness might eat more than usual to satisfy or gratify themselves.

Difference Between ERG Theory Of Motivation and the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

S. No.ERG ModelMaslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
1.This model allows the order of needs to be more flexible, according to the needs and preferences of different people.This model states a rigid, step-like format for the progression of needs.
2.A lower need does not have to be fulfilled to reach the higher need.In this model, people need to satisfy one level of needs before moving on to the next one.
3.When a higher level of need is not being satisfied, an individual may come back (temporarily) to a lower level need to gratify on self. This concept is explained as so-called frustration-regression.In this model, frustration-regression is not specified or described in detail. whereas an individual will stay at a certain level until its fully satisfied.
4.This model allows for multiple needs to be achieved at the same time.This model allows for only one need to be operative at a time.
5.There have been few research publications on this model, as it is still relatively new.There has been tons of research and publications about this model.

ERG Model And The Workplace

The ERG theory can be applied to organizations or workplaces.

  • Managers need to ensure that the basic needs of employees are met appropriately. The environment of work should be safe and have basic amenities of clean water, a washroom and availability of food nearby. Existence needs are one of the basic and important needs that need to be fulfilled to motivate individuals toward the next level.
  • Managers also need to ensure that the employees have an amicable or pleasant relationship with their co-workers as well as their boss. A hostile work environment is not the most motivating factor for growth and productivity.
    Relatedness is an important need that needs to be met so that employees are motivated to come back to work and give their best consistently.
  • Managers also need to ensure that employees are being acknowledged and appreciated for their work, from time to time. There should be opportunities for more learning and growth in the company, to ensure continued productive results. If there is stagnancy or constant boredom at work, without any growth opportunities, employee turnover is likely.
    Hence, managers need to announce promotions, creative work, group activities, pay raise options, co-curricular activities and amenities for fulfilling employees’ growth needs.
  • Managers or employers need to know that fulfilling one need of employees is not enough. For example, the salary is not enough. More perks might be needed to keep them motivated to work effectively.
    Additionally, if a higher-level need (learning opportunities, promotions, etc.) is not being satisfied for an employee, he or might regress towards lower-level needs and may start gossiping around or having mid-work conversations with co-workers.


  • The ERG model is a relatively newer model for motivation. There has been some amount of research but enough validity has not been established yet.
  • Ground rules have not been established for this theory yet. It does not provide specific directions. For example, it states that people can fulfil the given needs according to their preferences and can order them according to their priorities. But the way to prefer or decide which needs to satisfy first has not been provided.


Managers must strive to fulfil all three types of needs – ERG needs of their employees simultaneously. They can do this by identifying various needs an employee would have at the workplace.

They would require pondering on questions about these needs like – how the workplace can feel safer to different groups of employees; is working at certain timings or departments leads to isolation; whether there is a stagnation of talents or expertise at some point in time; are the workers aware of the growth opportunities within their positions and so on.

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