Employee motivation theories

There are different theories about what constitutes and creates workplace motivation in employees. We've selected the most well-known ones and summarised them here.

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Needs motivation theories

According to needs theories of motivation, motivation is 'the willingness to exert high levels of effort toward organizational goals, conditioned by the effort's ability to satisfy some individual need'.

A need in this context is an internal state that makes certain outcomes appear attractive. An unsatisfied need creates tension that stimulates drives within the individual. These drives then generate a search behavior to find particular goals that, if attained, will satisfy the need and lead to the reduction of the tension.

Needs are physiological or psychological deficiencies that arouse behavior. These vary over time and place, as the can be strong or weak and influenced by environmental factors.

Needs theories are the basis of most workplace motivation theories, and that's why we'll start with them here. We'll go chronological order, which also happens to be the order of their complexity. Starting with Maslow, we'll cover the ERG model as well as McClelland's model.

More about Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory

More about Alderfer's ERG model

More about McClelland's achievement motivation theory

Here is an overview of the different needs theories we've seen so far. They show the similarities and differences between the workplace motivation theories based on needs. We are not trying to be right about any of this – just indicating some interesting relationships from which we will distill some common truths about needs motivation theories.

Maslow

Alderfer ERG

McClelland

Self Actualisation Needs

Growth Needs

Achievement Motive

Esteem Needs

Power Motive

Social Needs

Relatedness Needs

Affiliate Motives

Safety Needs

Existence Needs

Avoidance Motives

Physiological Needs

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Equity theory

John Stacey Adams' equity theory helps explain why pay and conditions alone don't determine motivation. It also explains why giving one person a promotion or pay rise can have a demotivating effect on others.

When people feel fairly or advantageously treated they are more likely to be motivated; when they feel unfairly treated they are highly prone to feelings of disaffection and demotivation.

Employees seek to maintain equity between the inputs that they bring to a job and the outcomes that they receive from it against the perceived inputs and outcomes of others. The belief in equity theory is that people value fair treatment which causes them to be motivated to keep the fairness maintained within the relationships of their co-workers and the organization.

More about equity theory of workplace motivation

Motivator-Hygiene factors – Herzberg's motivation theory

Herzberg's hygiene factors vs. motivators workplace motivation theory is one of the most empirical and compelling theories about motivation. It's the only motivational theory that splits out demotivating factors from true motivators; it introduces the concept of movement vs. motivation. And it's produced more replications than any other research in the history of industrial and organizational psychology.

Herzberg researched hundreds of employees and companies and determined that most companies use what he unceremoniously refers to as KITA, under the erroneous belief that it will motivate their employees. A Kick In The Ass, he explains, comes in different forms.

More about Herzberg's workplace motivation theory

Expectancy theory of motivation

Expectancy theory of motivation emphasizes the mental processes regarding choice, or choosing. It looks at self -interest in the alignment of rewards with people's wants and the connections among expected behaviors, rewards and organizational goals.

For organizations, it helps them to relate rewards directly to performance and to ensure that the rewards provided are those rewards deserved and wanted by the recipients.

More about the expectancy theory of motivation

Job characteristics model – Hackman and Oldham

The job characteristics model, designed by Hackman and Oldham, is based on the idea that the task itself is key to employee motivation. Job enrichment and job rotation are the two ways of adding variety and challenge to a job and encourage workplace motivation.

It states that there are five core job characteristics (skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback) which impact three critical psychological states (experienced meaningfulness, experienced responsibility for outcomes, and knowledge of the actual results), in turn influencing work outcomes (job satisfaction, absenteeism, workplace motivation, etc.). The five core job characteristics can be combined to form a motivating potential score (MPS) for a job, which can be used as an index of how likely a job is to affect an employee's attitudes and behaviors.

Hackman and Oldham's job characteristics motivation theory proposes that high workplace motivation is related to experiencing three psychological states whilst working:

  • Meaningfulness of work
  • Responsibility
  • Knowledge of outcomes

More about the job characteristics motivation theory

Employee motivation ebook

For the first time ever, practice meets theory in a concise report on how people get (de)motivated, and exactly what you can do to get them back on track. More about the employee motivation ebook

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