Performance Management and Maslows Hierarchy

The Extent to Which Motivation Theory Underpins Performance Management Systems

Performance Management Systems attempt to answer questions about employee work objectives and their overall role within an organization. The performance manager system is designed to assist the manager in developing, assessing and monitoring a plan by which an employee’s contributions to the organizational strategy and strategic objective are identified, measured and reviewed. The questions that the Performance Management System will are: What is the role of the employee? What is the objective of the employee? How well is the employee meeting the objective? What could be done to help the employee meet the objective more effectively? In encouraging employees to reach their goals, motivation theory can be seen as underpinning performance management systems to a high extent.

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Motivation theory is based on the concept developed by Abraham Maslow (1943) in “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow (1943) constructed a Hierarchy of Needs with five levels, each one preparing the ground for the next one up. The most fundamental needs must be met first before the human can be motivated upward, and the most fundamental needs that motivate human behavior are physiological—i.e., shelter, food, water. The second level of motivation consists of needs relating to safety—personal as well as financial security. The third level consists of love and/or a sense of belonging—the need for relationships and friendships. The fourth level consists of esteem—the need to be respected and to feel confident. The highest level of motivation consists of self-actualization—the need to achieve your goals and fulfill your highest potential as a skilled, capable, talented individual (Maslow, 1943). In a performance management system, assessing the level of need that an employee is at can help a manager determine the type of motivation that the employee requires. For example, if an employee is still at the second level—safety—then the motivation that the worker will likely need will be based on feelings of security: the worker may need incentives, such as health care or a pension plan to be adequately motivated to apply himself at work and move up the ladder of success.


The difficulty of testing Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs was demonstrated by Wahba and Bridwell (1976) in a review of the empirical evidence available at the time. The researchers examined ten factor-analytic along with three ranking studies that tested Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs and found that the evidence only provided partial support “for the concept of need hierarchy” (Wahba & Bridwell, 1976, p. 212). The researchers found that cross-sectional studies did not offer any specific evidence to support Maslow’s “deprivation/domination proposition except with regard to self-actualization,” the highest of the needs levels (Wahba & Bridwell, 1976, p. 212). The researchers also examined evidence regarding the gratification/activation proposition put forward by Maslow’s theory and found that there was no support for it either. Additionally, the researchers noted that the limited support for Maslow’s theory may be disputed because of the measurement methods employed in the various cross-sectional studies. Ultimately, Wahba and Bridwell (1976) concluded that Maslow’s theory of motivation is difficult to accurately test because of conceptual, methodological and measurement issues related to identifying the extent to which human motivation is a factor in performance.


An early study on performance management entitled “Efficiency in City Government” by Bruere, Allen, Cleveland and Baker (1912). Bruere et al. (1912) showed that in 1906 the city of New York was tasked with improving performance and the Bureau of City Betterment was created. Researchers within the Bureau were hired “to chart the organization of every city department to show by schedules what was being done, who was doing it, the organization provided, and the exact powers and duties of every unit in the departmental structure” (Bruere, Allen, Cleveland & Baker, 1912, p. 11). The concept of a needs hierarchy had not yet been established at that time—Maslow’s theory would not be presented to the public for another three decades; however, the research showed that the concept of performance management was one that needed to be understood. What was not clear then was the extent to which motivation theory played a part in determining performance. Indeed, it was not even clear in the 1970s. Today, however, there is more compelling evidence to help settle the matter of how motivation factors into performance.


The study by Schyns and Schilling (2013) focused on the negative impact that bad leadership can have on employee performance. The researchers found that leaders who demonstrated a disregard for their workers, did not utilize emotional intelligence, or subject their employees to harsh criticism without giving any kind of support generally led to a reduced output of performance by the workers. The workers began to show less interest in supporting the objectives of the firm, did not promote a positive or healthy workplace morale, and even in some cases deliberately plotted to undermine the organizational goals so as to get back at the poor leadership. Schyns and Schilling (2013) showed that by disregarding the needs of employees, from the most basic concepts articulated in Maslow’s theory to the highest concepts, the managers were denying the workers the motivation they required to perform at a high level or even at a basic level in some cases.


Benson and Dundis (2003) applied Maslow’s model to the nursing industry to show how motivation theory can help advance the aims of performance management systems. The researchers showed that “a new perspective related to how Maslow’s Model, as used in business/organizational settings, can be directly related to current workforce concerns: the need for security and freedom from stress, social belongingness, self-esteem, self-actualization, altered work/social environments, and new opportunities for learning and self-definition” (Benson & Dundis, 2003, p. 315). The researchers showed that motivational theory provides management with the means of understanding workers, their needs, and what is required to support and/or incentivize them to perform at desired levels. Benson & Dundis (2003) concluded: “How does one motivate employees in the face of increased demands, particularly when they are being asked to meet these demands with fewer resources? The answer is, in large part, to make the employee feel secure, needed, and appreciated. This is not at all easy, but if leaders take into consideration the needs of the individual, the new technology that provides challenges and opportunities for meeting those needs, and provides the training to meet both sets of needs, enhanced employee motivation and commitment is possible” (p. 315). By investing in their employees and offering them the emotional, social and intellectual support workers need, managers can be assured of better ensuring employee performance according to this study.


Zameer, Ali, Nisar and Amir (2014) show that these findings are universal and that motivational theory can be used to support performance enhancement strategies in Pakistan just as they are in the West. Zameer et al. (2014) obtained data from workers in five Pakistan cities using the structured questionnaire method. They found that motivation is very important to workers and that they perform at higher levels when they are effectively motivated. The concept that if the needs of workers, whether they are defined according to Maslow’s model or to other motivation models, such as Alderfer’s model, then the workers will respond favorably by dedicating themselves to fulfilling the needs of the organization that employs them. In this sense, motivation theory operates in a quid-pro-quo type of transaction. The researchers measured performance by using a general performance management system linking together four factors: “1. Organization objective; 2. Day by day performance; 3. Professional development; 4. Rewards and incentives” (Zameer et al., 2014, p. 294). From this linkage, they developed a measurement method that included evaluating performance by assessing “job knowledge, quality and quantity of output, leadership abilities, supervision, dependency, cooperation, judgment, versatility and versatility” (Zameer et al., 2014, p. 294). The researchers found that employees who were more motivated by their managers in terms of having their needs met (whether according to Maslow’s model or Alderfer’s model) were more likely to demonstrate a higher level of performance on the job.


Lazaroiu (2015) further supports the universality of motivational theory’s application in performance management systems. His study is based in Europe but follows the same formula as Zameer et al.’s (2014) approach. Lazaroiu (2015) focuses on analyzing motivational determinants, job performance, and factors of behavior that are motivation-oriented. The researcher highlights the evidence of causality between motivation (needs being met) and workplace performance. The more that needs are met, the more workers are motivated to perform well at their jobs.


Critical Analysis

Critically analyzing the topic of motivational theory’s application to performance management systems in the context of an organization where I have worked reveals that motivational theory does contribute significantly to the strategic human resource management function within that organization.


The organization with which I was affiliated in the past was a non-profit charitable organization that operated schools for homeless children. I worked with the non-profit in two different regions so was able to compare the approaches of the managers at the separate schools and see which was more effective.


In the first school, the management system was somewhat aloof from most of the employees and did not go out of its way to engage with workers, connect with them on a social level, assess their needs, or instill any type of motivation. Workers were expected to show up, perform their duty, and leave. There was no sense of incentive to achieve great things, and while the vision and goals of the school were promoted by the management team there was no sense of encouraging or motivating workers in the slightest to pursue these goals. Motivational theory was simply not applied.


The organizational environment was thus very muted: workers did not display much enthusiasm for their work; they often expressed frustration with the management team for showing so little consideration with the challenges that they faced in dealing with their students or with the conditions in which they had to work. They did not feel properly cared for and often viewed themselves as being forgotten by the higher-ups who just seemed to want warm bodies in the roles so that the positions could be filled. There was not much drive among the workers to accomplish the tasks set out by the management team at the beginning of the year. Few were motivated, and those who showed signs of being at the level of self-actualization at the beginning of the year, showed signs of regressing to a lower level of need by the end of the year.


The second place where I worked with the non-profit was managed differently. Here, the management team took a great deal of interest in the workers and met with them individually both at and away from work. The effect was that a bond was established between the managers and the workers: they viewed themselves as being together, part of a team, on the same page and working towards a clearly defined goal that everyone wanted to achieve. The workers were incentivized by the attention given them by the managers. The attention was always positive and the managers showed a great deal of emotional intelligence in how they approached their workers. They would often demonstrate a high degree of servant leadership as well, putting the needs of their workers ahead of their own. This was evidence of motivational theory being applied to the performance management system.


The outcome of this application was that workers were more motivated in this school than in the first school to achieve the objectives of the organization. They felt loved by the organization and appreciated. They felt respected and wanted, and in the end they became self-actualized, wanting to do a good job for the sake of the job itself. This was opposite to the outcome of the workers in the first school, where some arrived showing signs of being self-actualized yet regressing by the end of the year, and needing to feel respected, wanted and loved by the organization in order to perform.


In the first school, there was no application of motivational theory and the objectives of the organization were not very well met. The school did not perform well, the students did not achieve their learning objectives, and the reputation of the school was not very positive among other workers in the organization. In the second school, there was a clear application of motivational theory and the objectives of the organization were met much more effectively than they were at the first school.


When the objectives of the organization were pursued through the support of applying motivational theory to the performance management system, the outcome was more favorable and positive than when the theory was not applied. I saw directly how workers were more incentivized to succeed, felt happier, felt more comfortable and more appreciated at the second school than they did at the first. The second school also had a better reputation among workers in the organization and the learning objectives of the students were also met more frequently as a result of the workers applying themselves with more fervor and commitment and performing at a higher level because they were incentivized by the managers to do so.


The application of motivational theory in this organization shows that the strategic human resource management function within that organization can benefit from taking time to get to know its workers, showing that they are appreciated, respected and even making an effort to ensure that their most basic needs are met. By helping workers to meet the needs according to models presented by motivational theorists, the human resource management team can better ensure positive outcomes with respect to performance levels.


My observations of the workplace support the findings of Benson and Dundis (2003), Zameer et al. (2014) and Lazaroiu (2015). They show that Maslo’s (1943) model does pertain to the workplace and does help managers to better understand their workers and how to motivate them by meeting their needs, whether they are social, psychological, emotional, physical, or intellectual. Emotional intelligence was a big factor in helping workers to perform well, and when leaders in the organization demonstrated high degrees of emotional intelligence, there was a favorable response from the workers. When there was no demonstration of social or emotional intelligence, the response from workers in terms of how performance was measured was less favorable—which is a finding in line with what Schyns and Schilling (2013) showed in their study.


Performance was measured using the same methods as prescribed by Zameer et al. (2014)—i.e., “job knowledge, quality and quantity of output, leadership abilities, supervision, dependency, cooperation, judgment, versatility” (Zameer et al., 2014, p. 294). When motivational theory was applied at the second school, workers showed evidence of greater job knowledge, their quality and quantity of output increased from the levels where it was at the first school, and cooperation and versatility also increased. In short the measurements of performance improved as a result of the application of motivational theory, and human resources managers could improve their own system of management by incorporating motivational theory into their approach. Motivational theory, if applied, could help to improve workplace morale and create a more positive workplace culture that supports performance and drives workers to achieve the objectives of the organization.



Benson, S. G., & Dundis, S. P. (2003). Understanding and motivating health care

employees: integrating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, training and technology. Journal of Nursing Management, 11(5), 315-320.

Bruere, H., Allen, W., Cleveland, F., Baker, S. (1912). Efficiency in City Government.

Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 41, 3-22.

Lazaroiu, G. (2015). Employee Motivation and Job Performance. Linguistic and

Philosophical Investigations, 14, 97.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370.

Schyns, B., Schilling, J. (2013). How bad are the effects of bad leaders? A meta-

analysis of destructive leadership and its outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 24, 138-158.

Wahba, M. A., & Bridwell, L. G. (1976). Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on

the need hierarchy theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 15(2), 212-240.

Zameer, H., Ali, S., Nisar, W., & Amir, M. (2014). The impact of the motivation on the

employee’s performance in beverage industry of Pakistan. International Journal of Academic Research in Accounting, Finance and Management Sciences, 4(1), 293-298.


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