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Clayton Alderfer

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Clayton Paul Alderfer is an American psychologist who further expanded Maslow's hierarchy of needs by categorizing the hierarchy into his ERG theory of motivation (Existence, Relatedness and Growth). Alderfer categorized the lower order needs (Physiological and Safety) into the Existence category. He fit Maslow's interpersonal love and esteem needs into the relatedness category. The growth category contained the Self Actualization and self esteem needs.

Alderfer also proposed a regression theory to go along with the ERG theory. He said that when needs in a higher category are not met then individuals redouble the efforts invested in a lower category need. For example if self actualization or self esteem is not met then individuals will invest more effort in the relatedness category in the hopes of achieving the higher need.

Embedded Intergroups Relations Theory (EIRT)

Alderfer is also known for his contributions to organizational psychology. He proposed his Embedded Intergroups Relations Theory in the 1980's, which examines groups within a system.

Whether explicit or implicit, memberships in different groups exist in the workplace and in all other facets of life. The definition of a group varies, but in the context of organizations, a group can be defined as:

a collection of individuals (1) who have significantly interdependent relations with each other, (2) who perceive themselves as a group by reliably distinguishing members from nonmembers, (3) whose group identity is recognized by nonmembers, (4) who, as group members acting alone or in concert, have significantly interdependent relations with other groups, and (5) whose roles in the group are therefore a function of expectations from themselves, from other group members, and from nongroup members (Alderfer, 1982).

Two types of groups include identity groups (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, age) and organizational groups (i.e., supervisor, employee, and peer). Identity groups have members that usually share some common biological factors, have been part of similar historical experiences, or have experienced social forces resulting in similar world views. Organizational groups, however, may be thought of as being made up of members who share common positions within an organizational context, have similar work experiences, and thus have similar organizational views. Organizational groups usually follow a division of labor and a hierarchical system of authority (Alderfer, 1982).

One’s membership in an identity group is also not independent from his membership in his organizational groups. Often an individual belongs to multiple groups, all of which are represented through the individual, in varying degrees, to those that interact with the individual. In this context, it makes sense to view interactions within organizations to be intergroup interactions rather than as individual interactions.

According to Alderfer (1988), intergroup relations have the following characteristics: (1) group boundaries, (2) power differences, (3) affective patterns, (4) cognitive formations, including distortions, and (5) leadership behavior. The boundaries around a group determine membership within that group, and can be physical or psychological. Permeability is a concept that refers to how a group regulates its transactions with other groups, and groups can be overbounded or underbounded. Power differences between groups usually involve the varying availability of resources to different groups. Generally, the more resources, the more power a group has. The third factor of intergroup relations, affective patterns, includes both positive and negative feelings in reference to members of the in-group and members of out-groups. The cognitive formations of a particular group are conditioned by that group’s boundaries, power difference, and affective patterns, and usually create conditioned perceptions for the group that are applied to both objective and subjective events and to intergroup relations. Lastly, leadership behavior refers to group representatives and how their behaviors in particular settings reflect the permeability of their group (Alderfer, 1988). The boundaries of a system can be physical (i.e., departments separated by space) and/or psychological (i.e., level of experience). Physical boundaries are naturally easier to observe since they are more tangible and visual, such as an organization’s form of security, certain uniforms that members may wear, and the building where members work in relation to other buildings and organizations. Psychological boundaries, on the other hand, are less visible and often involve authority dynamics and the amount of resources available, as well as in-group and out-group relationships. They may also involve identity memberships and relationships that may extend far back into historical contexts, such as black-white relations in America and racism.

Boundaries can also be described in terms of permeability: systems can be overbounded, optimally-bounded, or underbounded (Alderfer, 1980). When a system is optimally-bounded, there is a healthy sense of group membership and optimal interactions exist with outside systems. Overbounded systems are in danger of becoming too distinct, and can lead to phenomena such as group think and elitism; these systems are usually managed in a strict hierarchical manner where the chain of command is clearly defined. Members of an overbounded system usually display positive affect distribution, whereby group members are tight-knit and roles are explicitly defined. Underbounded systems, conversely, are in danger of becoming absorbed by its environment; the looseness of the system prevents cohesion between its members and the sense of belongingness is minimal; these systems often suffer from ambiguous and conflicting role definitions and lack of clarity.

Systems can behave in both underbound and overbounded ways in reaction to different groups and situations; they are rarely one or the other in all instances. In addition, overbounded suprasystems often create underbound subsystems, and vice versa. Systems display these characteristic behaviors as a way of balancing the two extremes in order to achieve optimal boundaries; they react in relation to one extreme or the other and as such, are shaped by the embeddedness of multilayered systems.

For the most part, intergroup relations function in a larger system. In the case of the workplace, different groups interact with each other, but they are also embedded within the framework of the organization itself. Embeddedness refers to the idea of subsystems interacting within a suprasystem, creating a reciprocal dynamic enterprise in which suprasystem events channel changes within to subgroups, and in which subsystem events can also channel out and affect the suprasystem as a whole. Embedded intergroup relations theory incorporates the various theories relating to intergroup relations and places them within an embedded framework which dynamically changes in response to individual, group, and organizational events or effects.

Alderfer (2005), more recently, also describes group dynamics and EIRT through the Five Laws of Group and Intergroup Dynamics: Law #1: Optimal Boundary Permeability Law #2: “Interpersonal” Relations as Inter-group Transactions Law #3: The Experience of Persons as Multiple Group Representatives Law #4: Tensions between Sub-group and Focal Group Boundaries Law #5: Group Level Parallel Processes


Alderfer, C. P. The Methodology of Organizational Diagnosis, Professional Psychology, 1980, 11, 459-468.

Alderfer, C. P. An Intergroup Perspective on Group Dynamics. In J. W. Lorsch (editor), Handbook of Organizational Behavior, 1987, 190-222.

Alderfer, C. P. Consulting to Underbounded Systems, C. P. Alderfer and C. L. Cooper (editors), Advances in Experiential Social Processes, 1980, 2, 267-295.

Alderfer, C. P. Improving organizational communication through long-term intergroup intervention, Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 1977, 13, 193-210.

Alderfer, C. P. and Brown, L. D. Learning from changing, 47-56,129-141.

Alderfer, C.P. (2005, Fall). The Five Laws of Group and Intergroup Dynamics. [Organizational Diagnosis Class Handout].

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