Motivation at work. Brief overview on motivation theories 1

The concept of motivation (from the Latin Movere – to move) can be defined as the processes that account for an individual’s intensity, direction, and persistence of effort and is normally described as a state, rather than a trait. Still, some authors also argue that individuals may vary in the extent to which they are more oriented to higher order needs or intrinsic motivators. According to Amabile, T. M. (1993), unmotivated employees are likely to expend little effort in their jobs, avoid the workplace as much as possible, exit the organization if given the opportunity, and produce low quality work. Moreover, employees who feel motivated toward their work are likely to be persistent, creative, and productive, turning out high quality work that they willingly undertake.

Main motivation theories


Maslow‘s theory is very popular, however, there’s little empirical evidence that the structure he’s suggesting is in fact the structure of individual needs. Neither there is evidence that unsatisfied needs will necessary motivate an individual, nor that a satisfied need activates movement to a new need.


McClelland outlined the following factors to trigger motivation: need for achievement (drive to excel), need for power (drive to lead others) and need for affiliation (drive for close relationships). Best managers tend to be high on power and low on affiliation, although high need for achievement is not necessarily correlated with management positions. Overall, high achievers tend to do better with tasks of an intermediary degree of risk for which they are personally responsible, and for which they have feedback.

McGregor (theory X/Y)

Based on Maslow, McGregor argued that managers normally assume that employees are guided by lower order needs (theory X), which eventually decreases their performance and motivation. McGregor insisted on the need to look at employees as willing to autonomous and seeking responsibility and argued that acting on Y assumptions would include employees’ motivation. This theory has no empirical validity, either.

Hertzberg (Two factor theory)

Hertzberg argued that factors that lead to job satisfaction are different from those that lead to job dissatisfaction. Job satisfaction increases with achievement, recognition and responsibility (esteem and growth), also called intrinsic motivators. On the other hand, job dissatisfaction decreases with work conditions and relationship with peers (low order and affiliation), also called hygiene factors, or extrinsic motivators. For Herzberg, as for Maslow, intrinsic motivators count only after extrinsic are in place. The cognitive evaluation theory argues that intrinsic motivation decreases when we introduce extrinsic motivators because the person experiences a loss of control over his or her behavior.

Herzberg’s methodology was flawed because it is based on self-reports, and people tend to take credit for the good and attribute the bad to external factors. No measure of satisfaction was used and satisfaction by itself is not motivation.

Self-determination theory

This theory states that all human beings have fundamental psychological needs to be competent, autonomous, and related to others. The satisfaction of these needs increases people’s autonomous motivation while not meeting these needs promotes controlled motivation and amotivation. Autonomous motivation leads to better psychological health and performance. This can also be understood as the “contemporary theory on the positive effects of intrinsic motivation” and can be linked to self-concordance theory and job engagement. To self-concordance theory as it is a related theory that states that people are more motivated when they pursue goals that are consistent with their interests and core values, and to job engagement because it is a a more comprehensive concept than motivation. Engagement is linked to intrinsic motivation, but can go beyond it.

Goal setting theory

Goals setting theory points out that having goals is much better than having no goals. Nevertheless, goal setting works only if there is goal commitment, or in other words, the individual believes he can achieve the goal (realistic goal) and want to achieve it. Setting goals can get our attention and help us to focus. We can also assess how we are doing along the way and correct our behavior. Effective goals need to be specific, achievable, and challenging, knowing that difficult goals, when accepted, can result in higher performance than with easier goals. Moreover, providing feedback leads also to higher performance than when not providing it, but we should be aware of some boundary conditions for goal setting such as national culture and the type of task to adjust the goals accordingly.

Equity theory

Employees compare their inputs (e.g. education, experience, effort) and their outputs (e.g. salary, promotion, recognition) with comparable others and attempt at maintaining an equilibrium. We should keep in mind that if employees perceive inequity they can attempt to change inputs (e.g. improve their skills), change outputs (e.g. work less), distort perceptions of self or others (e.g. over or undervalue someone’s work), choose a different comparison (e.g. someone they feel more comfortable to be compared with), withdraw (e.g. leave the company). The employees will also tend to assess what they believe is fair or not, and therefore, start acting accordingly if they feel motivated or demotivated with their findings.

Expectancy theory

For the expectancy theory, behavior depends on the strength of an expectation that the act will be followed by a given outcome, and on the attractiveness of that outcome to the individual. The expectancy theory relies on the expectation that effort will lead to certain performance,— and that this performance will lead to a certain outcome, enabling to achieve some personal goals.


Having reviewed some of the most prominent theories in the field of motivation, it is possible to conclude that one of the most actionable ones seems to be the goal setting theory. Upfront, the possibility of bringing the goal setting theory into practice seems to be more straightforward than with some other theories. Apparently, one of the main advantages of the goal setting theory versus the other is the possibility to make it easy  measurable, allowing to capture all the inputs and outputs for research proposes. Nevertheless, as we are talking about social sciences we should be open-minded and incorporate the strengths and virtues of other motivation theories to have a better understanding of motivation. This will allow us to get closer to our goal as managers – achieve a higher performance in our organizations by leveraging and empowering our most valuable resource – our people, through motivation.

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