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Alderfer’s ERG Theory of Motivation

The Highrise Team
September 15, 2022
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Alderfer's ERG theory suggests that we must have a few basic survival requirements met before we can reach our full potential. While it has a lot in common with Maslow's self-actualization hierarchy, it differs in the sense that it doesn't rely on a specific and orderly hierarchy.

As we'll see, this makes it incredibly effective compared to Maslow's theory for improving workplace productivity. But what is this theory exactly, and why is it so effective?

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What Is the ERG Theory of Motivation?

Alderfer's ERG theory of motivation asserts that people have three basic needs of varying levels of priorities. These three needs are existence (E), relatedness (R), and growth (G), in that order of priority.

The first basic need, existence, includes vital aspects of our survival, physiological needs including having enough to eat and drink, as well as a good sense of security and safety.

Relationship needs are the second need in American psychologist Clayton Paul Alderfer's theory of motivation and are not as urgent as survival or safety needs—although it's just as vital for fulfilling self actualization needs (the climax or “peak” of human potential).

If a person feels like they are making great progress in a relationship, it may increasingly motivate them to achieve their growth needs, even if it has not fully met their relationship needs. This implies that a person who is frustrated that their growth needs are not being met can turn to relationships as a motivator.

This is where the last need, growth, comes into consideration. This refers to our goal-oriented self and our intrinsic desire for a constant feeling of personal development. This last step is just as crucial to achieving our full potential, although, unlike other theories, our capacity for growth isn't exactly dependent on the two more basic material existence requirements.

Maslow's hierarchy theory, while similar to ERG theory, is not nearly as dynamic as the latter. Whereas Maslow's hierarchy theory purports that we cannot pursue higher needs while more basic human needs remain unmet, ERG theory states that we can attempt to satisfy several needs at the same time.

Additionally, the order of needs (higher and lower-level needs) may differ from person to person. Altogether, we can think of ERG theory as a more nuanced and less hierarchical approach to Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Executives working in an office setting.

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How Does the ERG Theory Motivate Employees?

Alderfer's ERG theory motivates employees by orienting all of their goals in tandem with one another, compared with having them focus primarily on one goal in particular. By understanding that these human needs work to complement one another, employees can better use their strengths in one area of needs to fulfill needs in another category.

Clayton Alderfer asserts that ERG theory must be an improvement on Maslow's set of needs, removing what he sees as problems in Maslow's theory of overlapping needs and bringing these categories closer together with empirical research on human needs.

Motivation ERG theory explicitly explains that every employee in an organization must feel motivated by having all three needs present at the same time and fulfilling the three needs in an order they see fit.

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Examples of the ERG Theory of Motivation

There are many practical, real-world examples of ERG theory. The best way to see it in action is if a company cannot cater to these three needs successfully (existence, relatedness, and growth).

Known as the frustration-regression principle, this is a measurement of how well these needs are met in the workplace. This means if a company cannot provide adequate advancement opportunities, employees will recede to lower-level needs to compensate for it.

This also implies they will become frustrated at the lack of advancement, as indicated by the name. Overall, there will be less productivity from having no means of advancing in the company.

Alternatively, if the first two needs are neglected but there is plenty of workplace motivation, this also causes low workplace productivity. It is best to think of all three as imperative to workplace success, as any of these needs that are left out can negatively impact worker productivity.

Executives working and talking about motivation in office.

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Implications of ERG Theory of Motivation

As with other theories of motivation, the ERG theory of motivation has its pros and cons. We’ll describe them below:


  • This theory takes into consideration that each human being is different and because of this will prioritize different needs.
  • The ERG theory is more flexible than earlier theories.


  • This theory doesn’t explain how will be defined which needs are more important for a certain individual.
  • The ERG theory hasn’t been as studied as Maslow’s theory, and therefore, needs to be further evaluated.

Let’s now explore in detail the implication of this theory for each need.


Ensuring employees feel safe and have access to their most basic needs should be a priority in any company. For example, if you feel you are being severely underpaid and have little financial security, it will be next to impossible for you to motivate yourself to grow in any capacity. You need that extrinsic motivation, in this case financial. 

The same goes for workplace safety needs. If you experience any form of assault or harassment on the job, you will prioritize getting out of that situation (which will probably result in you leaving), instead of focusing on your growth within the company.

This means that for you to succeed within the workplace, you must have your existence needs met before you can achieve your full potential.


A good social environment is just as crucial for any employee to succeed in the workplace. Adversely, a toxic social environment can be detrimental to anyone looking for growth within the firm.

Therefore, it is critical to foster healthy and positive interactions among all facets of the workplace. This isn’t just exclusive to coworkers–the higher-ups must also be cooperative and supportive towards all employees, or else motivation in the workplace plummets.

Ensuring everybody within the workplace has sufficient relations with all of their coworkers (and higher-ups) only works to aid in employee (and company) success. With this in mind, appealing to relatedness needs is just as important a facet as the basic needs of employees. 


If the consensus at your firm is that many employees feel they are trapped in a dead-end job, it might be time to look for another workplace where you can grow. Growth is equally important as the previous two in reaching our full potential as employees, so it is crucial to see this as another necessity for any workplace. 

Growth opportunities don't just imply higher wages, either. It could be as simple as more recognition from higher-ups, more room for advancement into other fields of the workplace, or increased incentives to do more and better work. 

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How Do You Use ERG Theory in the Workplace?

Implementing ERG theory in the workplace involves asking yourself if you feel that those three needs are being satisfied at your workplace. 

Every person is different. Some might find they need to socialize more in the workplace to meet their full potential; others might find they need more stability, and others might find they need more growth opportunities.

The goal is to make sure that everybody has sufficient opportunity to have their varying needs met in the workplace, and so a good employer would focus on all three needs simultaneously when addressing company concerns. 

If your employer is not doing a good job at meeting your colleagues' needs and yours, you can suggest executive coaching for leadership development.

It all comes down to whether the external component (the company) does enough to compel an employee's intrinsic motivation.

This balance is better known as the equity theory of motivation, which implies that there must be an equal distribution of company resources to anyone who requires it. If not, employees will soon grow frustrated and productivity will diminish.

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It’s best to think of the ERG theory of motivation as an updated version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Instead of theorizing that our needs must be satisfied in a hierarchical order, it says that our needs must all be met. But it’s possible to compensate for insufficiencies in one area with another area.

If you don’t feel happy in your workplace, it’s probably because these three needs (existence (or physiological needs), relatedness, and growth) are not being met at all.

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