From IELTS to University: Working with Theory

One area where international students often struggle is academic theory and models. For example, in the first year of a business and management degree students are introduced to new models and theories almost every week. In these circumstances developing a basic understanding of each theory is a challenge, no matter thinking through their practical applications.  This problem is then amplified in end-of-year assessments where short essay questions require candidates to consider how selected theories could be useful for managers. This post demonstrates how to apply theories in this way using three well-known business models.

Figure 1


Working with Theory: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s theory is fundamental to thinking about job satisfaction and motivation in the workplace. Maslow proposes a hierarchy of employees’ needs in an ascending scale of priority (Figure 1) – basic physical needs are first, with other needs ranked above in order of necessity. He argues that the meeting of each need leads to gains in motivation and therefore performance and productivity. This theory is a framework for thinking about strategies to motivate employees – for example, employees working in small teams are more likely to fulfil their ‘love and belonging’ needs. Equally, long term or permanent contracts can help fulfil the ‘safety and security’ needs of employees.

End-of-year assessment about Maslow’s theory often require the candidate to show they can identify its limitations. Questions like: ‘Discuss the extent to which Maslow’s hierarchy is an effective tool for managers’ are common. Most students make the positive side of the argument successfully, using examples such as the two above.  However, making the negative side requires the student to think about how the theory is misaligned with reality, as all theories are. In the case of Maslow, it is easy to assume that all managers in all organisations can meet all needs. However, there are many organisations, such as the police or the army or the fire service, where the ‘safety and security’ needs cannot be wholly met. A discussion can then develop as to how these organisations might compensate for this problem by meeting other needs more fully.


Figure 2

 Working with Theory: Expectancy Theory

Expectancy Theory is associated with several writers (Vroom, Porter and Lawler) but each one uses similar ideas. Essentially, expectancy theory explores how motivation leading to higher performance is influenced by an employee’s perception of the future outcomes of their work. Figure 2 presents some relevant terminology and outlines the core process in the theory. One useful demonstration of the theory involves companies which have a policy of unlimited promotion from the most basic level of employment, where an employee starting in a supermarket or factory could eventually be promoted to the senior management team of the company.  In this case, expectancy theory proposes that employees will be more motivated to be promoted through the initial stages of the hierarchy (supervisor, assistant manager, manager) because of a greater value attached to these stages by the possibility of further promotion above them. Therefore, according to the theory, a company with this policy will have better motivated and therefore higher-performing employees than a company which does not.

When students answer exam essay questions on expectancy theory, they generally manage to explain the basic ideas described above.  However, as in the case of Maslow, they often struggle to describe the limitations of the theory. Again, as with Maslow, one route to an effective answer is to consider how the theory is mismatched to reality. For instance, expectancy theory assumes that performance is measurable. However, in some jobs it is notoriously difficult for managers to measure performance – teaching is a classic example. In this case, an employee cannot be motivated to high performance by the possibility of promotion, because the high performance cannot be measured and therefore has no positive consequences.


Working with Theory: Tuckman’s 5 stages of group formation

Tuckman’s model proposes that new teams pass through five stages of development: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning:  in the ‘forming’ stage the group assembles; in the ‘storming’ stage power relations are established as members compete for authority; in ‘norming’ working procedures and practises emerge by consensus; in the fourth ‘performing’ the group has matured into a productive team, and in the final ‘adjourning’ stage the group disbands.

Much of the focus in assessment is on the best approach from managers at each stage. So, for example, a manager may need to emphasise direction and guidance in the ‘forming’ stage, but then switch to acting as a negotiator and mediator in the ‘storming’ stage. In an essay, this can lead into a discussion about the different merits of democratic and autocratic management styles, and even contingency theories of leadership.  Equally, as with Maslow’s Hierarchy and Expectancy Theory, one clear way to identify limitations is to consider the ways in which the theory misaligns to reality. For example, the theory assumes that new team members are strangers to each other. If this is not the case, and new team members are former colleagues from previous teams, then the ‘forming’ stage may be disrupted by existing alliances and enmities. Equally, the theory fails to acknowledge cultural differences in how employees manage relationships and approach conflict – in some national and organisational cultures the ‘storming’ stage, characterised by assertion and argument, would be unlikely to manifest in the open way Tuckman describes.

In conclusion, I hope that these three examples make it clear that considering theories in terms of the disconnect with the situation they aspire to describe provides fertile ground for analysis and evaluation.

























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