Motivational theory and implications
Improving and sustaining high performance from our organisation’s employees is critical to our success as leaders and managers.
Performance can be expressed as the result of applying motivation to ability:
Performance = Motivation X Ability
Therefore to improve employee and organisational performance, we need to create the conditions that support employee motivation to work towards organisational goals in addition to developing and improving competence.
What motivates and demotivates employees have been researched extensively over many decades and has resulted a wealth of motivation theory. These studies show that the factors that influence employee motivation are individual and complex and no single theory to explain motivation has emerged.
As leaders and managers, understanding the main motivation theories provides a useful foundation to help us understand:
- That employee motivation is individual and reflects the complex interplay of individual needs and individual views and decisions on what are the best actions to satisfy them;
- The needs that drive employees and influence their motivation and behaviour;
- How employees’ expectations influence their motivation and behaviour;
- Our opportunities to influence intrinsic motivation;
- The critical design elements of your organisation’s extrinsic motivators (e.g. pay, rewards, goal setting, performance assessment processes etc) and ‘hygiene factors’
What is employee motivation?
Motivation is what influences or drives our actions and behaviours - usually towards a goal and a reward that satisfies our needs.
Employees are motivated when they expect that their actions are likely to achieve a goal or receive a reward that satisfies their needs.
Motivating employees is about influencing them to move in the direction set by you or the organisation, and creating the conditions where they want to persist in applying effort to achieve organisational goals.1
There are 2 types of motivation2:
Self-generated, internal motivation: that sense of satisfaction and achievement we feel when we spend time on activities that reflect what drives us, activities that we enjoy.
For example, if we have an inner drive to learn new things, we may feel highly motivated at work completing tasks that require us to develop our knowledge, skills and experience. Working on and completing these tasks can give us feelings of deep inner satisfaction, particularly in contrast to tasks that offer no opportunity for growth.
Other examples of intrinsic motivation could include: being creative, solving problems, using our skills and talents, completing important or challenging work, work that gives us power, authority, autonomy, makes us feel important, appreciated or accepted or will advance our careers.
External motivators are given to us by others, such as a salary, bonuses and other incentives, security, praise, recognition, promotion or even punishment or withdrawal of privileges.
Extrinsic motivators tend to be determined at the organisational level and outside the control of individual leaders and managers. They also have more of a short-term impact on motivation: if they are withdrawn, motivation rapidly falls away.
In contrast, intrinsic motivators are more within the direct control of individual leaders and managers and tend to be longer lasting as they come from within and do not rely on the actions of others.
Employee motivation is complex and personal. Farren’s 12 Basic Human Needs reminds us of our common needs and provides a good starting place from which to approach motivation theory.
The most influential motivation theories are classified broadly in 3 ways:
- Instrumentality: ‘carrot and stick’ or ‘the law of effect’;
- Content: focuses on the needs that motivate us to take action; and
- Process: focuses on the process of motivation, including how it is influenced by, for example, expectations, goal setting, perceptions of equity and attribution.
1. Instrumentality Theory
Motivation is driven by rewards and punishments or ‘carrots and sticks’. It has its origins in the writings of Taylor (1911), and is based on reinforcing or ‘conditioning’ (Skinner, 1974) behaviour through rewards.
2. Content Theories
Focuses on the content of motivation, or the needs that motivate us to take action and achieve goals that satisfy these needs. Content theories include:
- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: our behaviour and actions are driven by a ‘hierarchy’ of needs where lower level needs, such as survival, must be satisfied before we are motivated to meet higher level needs, such as ‘feeling connected’ and self-actualisation.
- Alderfer’s ERG Theory: uses empirical research to modify Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to: Existence, Relatedness and Growth (‘ERG’). Alderfer’s needs can operate at the same time, rather than in a hierachy. Where higher level e.g. self-actualisation needs are frustrated, we seek out greater satisfaction of a lower lever need e.g. financial security, to compensate.
- Herzberg’s Motivators & Hygiene Theory: two groups of factors affect motivation at work. Intrinsic ‘motivators’ (relate to Maslow’s higher needs) such as achievement and recognition can positively influence motivation, while extrinsic ‘hygiene factors’ (relate toMaslow’s lower needs) such as pay and working conditions can negatively impact motivation if they are not satisfactory. Hygiene factors do not motivate, but can negatively affect motivation if they are absent. Motivators improve motivation but do not eliminate dissatisfaction.
- See also Comparing Maslow, Alderfer and Herzberg
- Steers and Porter’s Theory: translates Maslow’s needs into ‘workplace needs’ e.g. pay and working conditions at the base of the hierarchy, through to challenge, creativity and career advancement at the top.
- Stum: translates Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into 5 levels of workforce needs presented in a ‘Performance Pyramid’. Stum also developed the concept a ‘social contract’ between employer and employee to improve employee commitment and retention.
- McClelland’s Theory: we are motivated by three forces Achievement, Power and Affiliation. The intensity of each varies by individual and one will tend to dominate.
The following theories explain manager’s attitudes towards people, which in turn influence how they will try to motivate employees. These theories include:
- McGregor’s Theory X & Y: a manager’s style reflects their attitudes to people and about human behaviour / nature. It is either: ‘X’ negative, needing coercion to work, or ‘Y’ positive, that work is a natural state and that people are self-controlling.
- The theory can also be related to Maslow: ‘X’ indicates where lower order needs are influencing motivation and ‘Y’ reflects motivation by higher order needs.
- Ouchi’s Theory Z: builds on McGregor and suggests a Japanese style of motivation (X & Y being viewed as applicable to American organisations) that emphasises trust, a less hierarchical and bureaucratic structure and high levels of worker involvement.
3. Process Theories
Process theories focus on the process of motivation. They try to identify the variables that influence motivation, the relationship between them and how their design can be improved in order to improve motivation.
Process theories include Expectancy-based models and Equity, Goal and Attribution Theories.
Expectancy-based models are based on the premise that people’s motivation is influenced by the expected results of their actions. Key theories include:
- Vroom’s Expectancy Theory: motivation is a function of three variables, Valence: the preference for a particular outcome, Instrumentality: the extent to which these outcomes to lead to second-level outcomes and Expectancy: the probability that the action will lead to the preferred first-level outcome. Valence and Expectancy combine to form the ‘motivational force’.<
- Porter and Lawler’s Expectancy Model: further developed Vroom’s model, stating that motivational force (effort) does not lead directly to the desired level of performance, as it is moderated by a person’s abilities, traits and role perceptions.
- Lawler’s Revised Expectancy Model: further developed that model by defining two types of expectancy. The first is the probability that the effort will lead to the intended level of performance and second, the probability that the given level of performance will deliver the need-related outcome. Both probabilities are measured on a scale of 0 to 1, when 0 is zero probability and 1 is certainty.
- See also House and House and Dessler Path Goal Theory: a contingency theory of leadership that is based on expectancy models of motivation.
- Locke’s Goal Theory: based on the premise that people use goals to satisfy their needs and desires. A person’s effort will be influenced by how difficult is it to achieve the goals and how committed they are to meeting the emotional need or desire. People perform better if they have quantified goals, deadlines, challenging goals and measurable targets.
- Adams’ Equity Theory: focuses on how fairly people feel they are being treated compared to others.>
Attribution theory is one of the newer motivation theories and is heavily linked to studies of perception and theories such as Locus of Control. It describes the process we undertake to attribute characteristics to people based on their behaviour. The theory suggests that we perceive behaviour to be determined by either internal or external forces.
Other theories include:
Sirota’s Three Factor Theory: when the three requirements of Achievement, Camaraderie and Equity are met, that employees are highly engaged, even enthusiastic at work. It is a useful study when trying to understand Employee Engagement.
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1Arnold, Robertson and Cooper (1991)
2Herzberg, Mausner and Syderman (1957)Full Screen Presentation (Use your browsers back button to return here)