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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Solve problem, go on to other task, September 29, 2006, 2E.

If you have ever been in the middle of a home-repair job and gotten stuck because you needed help holding something, measuring or eyeballing a position, or assistance locating, retrieving, or operating a specific tool, you can probably remember feeling frustrated about not having help and feeling perplexed about how to accomplish the task alone.  Lacking tools, assistance, or the understanding required to accomplish a task seems to focus a person’s thoughts and energies into overcoming the obstacles hindering task accomplishment.  Once the needed help is received and the hold up is overcome, the issue that caused the obstacle no longer directs one’s thinking and is quickly forgotten—the person’s thoughts and behaviors move on to the next task.

The processes at play on individuals completing personal tasks are also very relevant to organizations.  Organizations exist to complete work that is inefficient, prohibitive, or impossible for individuals to complete alone.  They require that individuals work together in pursuit of a common goal.  Understanding organizations means understanding people and how and why they work. 

Motivation theory helps explain why people do the things that they do.  Motivation is that which provides arousal, direction, and persistence to behavior.  “Needs” theorists argue that motivation comes about from a desire to fulfill unmet needs.  When something is needed, it means that it is required, but not present or available.  The absence of the thing that is required creates tension in people and drives their behavior to fulfill the need.  Once a need is met, it no longer creates tension on individuals or motivates them to satisfy the need.   Feelings of hunger or thirst, for example, will drive people to satisfy those needs by drinking or eating.  Once the feelings of thirst and hunger disappear, they will no longer consume peoples’ thoughts or direct their behaviors.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a well-known needs theory.  Maslow described five needs that guide and direct human behavior and which operate in a hierarchical fashion—that is, higher-level needs kick in after lower-level needs are met.  From lowest to highest, Maslow named those needs: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.  As described, these needs range from: issues of basic survival and safety; to feelings of inclusion, love, status, and self-respect; to heightened levels of awareness, growth, potential, and striving.  As Maslow suggested, high-order needs only become motivators after lower-level needs are raised and satisfied.

For organizations that want workers to think big and desire big things, Maslow’s ideas suggest that organizations must first fulfill their workers’ lower-level needs.  Some specific ways that organizations might do that are to provide: sufficient pay to cover survival needs, safe working conditions, insurance and retirement benefits, opportunities to form meaningful relationships with others, status symbols, and environments that make workers feel good about themselves.  Maslow’s theory suggests that only after lower-level needs are satisfied can self-actualization needs kick in and operate on workers.  To achieve that, organizational leaders must create organizational systems that meet lower-level needs and encourage needs for self-actualization.

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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved