When content theorist Abraham Maslow printed his hierarchy of needs theory in the 1954 book "Motivation and Personality," he drew inspiration from principles embodied in behavioural and psychoanalytic psychology.

Maslow's content theory posits that human motivation is based on the satisfaction of basic needs. Later theorists, such as David McClelland, Clayton Alderfer and Frederick Herzberg, agree that all people are concerned with fulfilling needs, whether emotional, intellectual or spiritual. By studying content theory, leaders within organisations can learn how to motivate team members.


According to content theories of motivation, all people seek to satisfy common inner needs. Thus, people are not as different from one another as they appear.

By exposing themselves to content theories of motivation, leaders are able to comprehend psychological foundations that underlie the behaviours of those who they seek to lead.

For example, according to David McClelland's content theory, three types of needs dominate the behaviour of all individuals: achievement, power and affiliation. Most people experience combined needs for the three, thought certain people demonstrate a marked preference for a particular need above the other two.


Content theories of motivation are designed to specify particular needs of members of a workforce or an organisation, as opposed to pigeonholing people into personality types.

Though each person has many needs in common with fellow members of his community, each satisfies these needs differently. Some people experience high degrees of satisfaction in their jobs, while others perpetually harbour feelings of animosity toward their bosses or coworkers.

Clayton Alderfer's ERG (Existence, Relatedness and Growth) theory states that people act on the basis of the frustration-regression principle, which is similar to a fight-or-flight instinct. If an employee is unable to satisfy his needs for achievement, he may regress in his growth within an organisation, preferring to socialise more with coworkers or to become critical of leadership interests.

Goal Orientation

As they strive to satisfy goals their leaders establish, members of an organisation are also deeply influenced by goals they set for themselves. Frederick Herzberg's two-factor theory states that different people are motivated by different forces when striving to achieve their goals.

Five motivating factors affecting human behaviour, according to Herzberg, are the need for recognition, achievement, responsibility, advancement and the satisfaction of producing quality work. Herzberg's belief is that employees strive to achieve a state of job satisfaction as opposed to an absence of job satisfaction.

Author Nancy Borkowski describes how the urgency of a person's needs relate to his degree of goal orientation, observing that, "Motivation is the psychological process through which unsatisfied needs or wants lead to drives that are aimed at goals or incentives."