What Are the Most Popular Theories of Motivation?

Theories of Motivation
11
min read
January 12, 2022

We all have our own unique quirks and personality traits that make us who we are. But as human beings, there are certain behaviors and driving forces that we share, no matter who we are or where we come from. 

Our individual needs stem from the same places, like feeling safe or being recognized for something we’ve done. And that translates into work environments too. A study by Gallup found that only 36 percent of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs, which leaves a huge percentage of the working population lacking job satisfaction or professional enjoyment.

So what can employers do about this? Well, that’s where a basic understanding of psychological needs can help. 

Before you panic, we’re not telling you to rush back to school to get a psychology degree. But doing some research into human motivation and making some changes to your company policies to reflect these motivating factors could boost employee morale and productivity at all levels of your organization. 

What Are Motivation Theories?

Over the last century, psychologists around the world have studied what makes people tick and why. As with most things in developmental science, there’s not always agreement, but there’s certainly overlap in the different theories on motivation that have emerged. 

But what is a motivation theory? In short, it’s about explaining what goes into human decision making and how this ultimately impacts our actions and behaviors. Or to put it more simply: What makes us act the way we do?

Understanding what incentivizes us, how our behavior can influence others, and what needs we’re trying to fulfill with the actions that we take is an important part of working toward a positive well-being. 

Why Does Motivation Matter in the Workplace?

Walk into any company and you should find a group of people all working toward the same goal: growing the business. Every team will have their own way of contributing to the overarching company strategy and goal setting will be a key part of company culture. 

For this scenario to pan out, employees need to be dedicated and focused, which is almost impossible to achieve without motivation. And with increased levels of motivation, your business can see:

Yes, it takes investment to reach this kind of output, but the return on that investment will pay off time and time again. By fostering good working conditions that address employees’ needs, you’re building a strong foundation that will help your business grow moving forward.

Motivation Theories 101

While every motivation theory is different, they can all be broken down into two categories:

 

In most cases, people are motivated by a mix of both internal and external factors. This can make it tricky to know how best to manage and inspire employees, but providing a range of rewards is often the best way around this.

So now that you know a bit more about what motivation theories are, let’s take a look at some of the most commonly referenced ones.

1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

There’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before, even if you’ve never taken a psychology class. Developed by Abraham Maslow, it suggests that humans must satisfy five basic needs in order to be fully happy. These are often arranged in a pyramid structure and, in order to reach self-actualization, or the realization of potential and abilities, we must achieve each of the preceding levels first.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The lower-level needs represent our physiological needs like hunger, sleep, and shelter. Without these, humanity cannot survive. Once those are established, we can move onto the next level of safety needs such as job security and physical protection from harm. After this comes social needs, like love and friendship. 

The higher-level needs relate more to intrinsic or internal factors–self-esteem, appreciation, and respect. If all of these esteem needs have been met, only then can you strive for self-actualization at the top of the pyramid.

Maslow’s theory centers around personal growth, but can easily be adapted when thinking about an individual’s career development. As a manager, you’re responsible for providing the basic level of needs to all employees (like restrooms, water fountains or coolers, and a breakroom), regardless of the type of role they hold in your company. Everyone needs to feel safe within their work environment. 

But it’s the growth needs higher up the pyramid where you can really stand out from other companies.

 

As a manager, it’s your job to provide employees with adequate feedback about their day-to-day responsibilities and tasks. To help your team build their self-esteem, take the time to find out how they prefer to receive their feedback (e.g. one-on-one or via email, at the end of a project or on a more frequent basis). Regular positive affirmations are a great booster for self-esteem, helping your team to feel empowered and trusted as they grow in their role with your company.

A sense of belonging can be difficult to achieve in the workplace, but this is where you can get creative. Host social activities or opportunities for colleagues to interact in an off-the-clock setting and give people a chance to socialize with other employees that they wouldn’t normally work with.

If you’re interested in exploring these ideas further, take a look at Alderfer’s erg theory. This is an adaptation of Maslow’s pyramid, scaling the levels back to existence, growth, and relatedness needs. Alderfer also suggests that the needs aren’t progressive, meaning that you could possibly achieve happiness in one of the higher levels, even if you haven’t satisfied some of your more basic needs. It’s definitely an interesting variation to consider when you’re thinking about how you can better serve your team members.

2. Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Also known as the “motivation-hygiene theory,” Frederick Herzberg determined that individuals act according to one of two things: hygiene and motivators. Hygiene factors relate to the work environment, like working conditions, salary, and interpersonal relationships within the workplace. Motivators are the factors that encourage hard work, like job recognition and promotions.

Though they’re two different factors, both hygiene and motivators are important to consider—and addressing one, without the other, may not do you any good. For example, low pay or poor working conditions (hygiene factors) will most likely make your staff very dissatisfied, but having good pay or great working conditions is not always a motivating factor by itself. If a team member, for instance, consistently stays in the same role at your company, despite expressing a desire for greater responsibility, their pay alone—a significant hygiene factor—may not be enough to keep them at your company. 

On the other hand, while the potential for a promotion can significantly increase an employee’s drive and dedication to a project or task, it’s not always the ticket to greater happiness. If that same employee has a strained relationship with their manager (hygiene factor), a promotion alone (motivator) may not lead to greater levels of satisfaction.

Thinking about how this applies to your organization, you should aim to have a good balance of both hygiene and motivators to achieve the highest level of employee happiness.

3. McClelland’s Needs Theory

David McClelland’s motivation theory breaks down three basic needs, with everyone fitting into one of these blocks:

McClelland argues that the deciding force behind which of these need groups we most closely associate with is our past experiences. Taking the time to get to know each of your employees should allow you to see which need category they fall into and plan their rewards accordingly from there. 

For those that fall into the affiliation and achievement need groups, this can be more attainable in a workplace setting. Offering workers the chance to work on a project in a small team, rather than individually, can be a huge boost for employees with affiliation needs. Building a goal-oriented rewards system (e.g. for every $1,000 each team member makes in new sales or service contract increases, they get a free coffee or a charitable donation to an organization of their choice) can be incredibly motivating for people with achievement needs.

Individuals with power needs can be more of a challenge. After all, you can’t hand out big promotions to everyone after every single project. But think of ways you can scale down this idea. Are there new team members who would benefit from a mentor relationship? Is there a training they can lead? Or a webinar they can host? Brainstorm ways this employee can get in front of others, while still contributing to your company.

4. Vroom’s Expectancy Theory

As the name suggests, Victor Vroom’s motivation theory suggests that human behavior is a result of what people think the outcome of that action will be, or its instrumentality. Or, in other words, their motivation for their behavior is based on how much they want the outcome, otherwise known as the valence.

Ultimately, this theory says that people believe their efforts will generate successful results and that they will be rewarded for those efforts. In a work setting, this theory means that those who work the hardest will expect the most recognition upon a successful outcome.

When applying this to your own team, think about building a system of rewards that aligns with company policies (so don’t go offering promises that you can’t keep) and creates challenging, yet achievable, goals. Your workers will see right through an easy goal so they may not put as much effort into accomplishing it. 

But if you set harder-to-attain goals that still feel realistic, they can be great motivators to encourage hard work. Focus on assigning goals based on team members’ skills or areas that people are looking to improve in. Use this as an opportunity for individuals to push themselves professionally, while still having confidence that they can achieve what’s being asked of them.

Other Process Theories Worth Mentioning

There are plenty of other theories out there, so let’s quickly review a few that you may come across. 

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory is based on how we explain why something happens. An event can occur due to internal factors, which are reasons related to an individual’s personality, or due to external factors, which relate to a person’s surrounding environment. 

If we succeed, we are more likely to attribute that outcome to our own behavior (internal factors). On the flip side, reasons for failure are often blamed on external factors beyond our control. This is what’s known as a self-serving bias, a psychological tactic to protect our self-esteem. Conversely, the reverse is often true when looking at others’ behavior—we attribute others’ success to external factors and their failures to internal factors.

This theory may explain why the blame game can become a dangerous habit in the work environment. But, if employees are scared of the social repercussions that come with making a mistake (i.e. the blame), they may be less willing to try again or take risks moving forward. Instead, encourage your team to take the time to reflect on errors and what could be done to improve next time as a team, without isolating any one individual. 

 

If you have a serious issue you need to address with an employee, speak to them one-on-one and highlight ways they can improve next time. That way, they can eventually succeed—which they would attribute to their own skillset, if we’re following attribution theory! This will help them build confidence and help your business continue running smoothly. And what could be more of a win-win?

Equity Theory 

This is also similar to some of the others that we’ve already looked at. It suggests that motivation comes from wanting something, either extrinsic factors like money and status or intrinsic factors like the satisfaction of doing a good job. The higher an individual perceives fairness and equity to be between them and their peers, the more motivated they will be to work hard for a good outcome. Otherwise, why even try? 

Essentially, employees try to level the playing field as much as possible between both themselves and other team members. If one employee is receiving a certain pay level or other benefits, another employee doing the same job will want the same compensation. If there is inequity, the employee who perceives this imbalance will likely become dissatisfied quickly and feel undervalued.

McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y 

Taking a different approach, this breaks workers down into two groups. Theory X states that workers are inherently lazy and lack ambition, so they need a strong management approach to get anything done. Theory Y, on the other hand, is the complete opposite and argues that workers are naturally motivated and accept responsibility, so management should use positive reinforcement and rewards. 

How your organization chooses to operate will depend on which side you come down on. For businesses that operate based on Theory X, management tends to be more firm and gives employees less freedom for innovation. Generally speaking, this approach results in unhappy staff and poor results.

On the other hand, companies that favor Theory Y will often see better results and development across the team, as employees have the opportunity to try new approaches and feel empowered to work toward continuous improvement. Theory X views employees more like cogs in a bigger machine, whereas Theory Y helps employees to develop meaningful careers based on their skills and wants. 

As with any scientific study, it’s worth mentioning that there can be what’s known as the Hawthorne Effect, where subjects of a study change or improve their behavior because they know that they’re being studied. Essentially, people show off more when they know they’re being watched. 

But even though these theories all have very different views on what motivates human behavior, there are some key takeaways that business owners and managers can use when it comes to providing rewards and recognition to employees.

Applying Motivation Theories to Organizational Behavior

There are hundreds of ways that you could motivate your employees, from small rewards all the way up to big promotions. 

Whatever you decide to do, there are a few common areas that you can apply across every department and with every individual who works for you.

Go For a Theory

There’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to human needs and employee motivation. So when you’re in charge of a team, it’s up to you to do the hard work and find out what makes them tick. Start out by trying one of these theories and taking note of any positive or negative reactions. If something is working—great. If not, then it’s time to pivot. 

The most important thing is that your employees’ needs are at the forefront as you figure out the management approach that works best for them. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be writing your own motivation theories in no time! 

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