Motivation and Motivation Theory

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Editor: Sonya D. Hill
Date: 2012
Encyclopedia of Management
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Motivation and Motivation Theory

Motivation can be broadly defined as the forces acting on or within a person that cause the arousal, direction, and persistence of goal-directed, voluntary effort. Motivation theory is thus concerned with the processes that explain why and how human behavior is activated.

The broad rubric of motivation and motivation theory is one of the most frequently studied and written-about topics in the organizational sciences, and it is considered one of the most important areas of study in the field of organizational behavior. Despite the magnitude of the effort that has been devoted to the study of motivation, there is no single theory of motivation that is universally accepted. In the modern workplace, the application of motivation theory can be a significant challenge without understanding its history as well as the available tools to managers. When applied effectively, the theory can lead to productivity improvements, more committed employees, streamlined processes, better resource integration, and the continued development of effective managers. As David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael I. Meltzer explain in The Enthusiastic Employee, “The key question is not how to motivate employees, but how to sustain—and prevent management from destroying—the motivation that employees naturally bring to their jobs.”

The lack of a unified theory of motivation reflects both the complexity of the construct and the diverse backgrounds and aims of those who study it. To delineate these crucial points, it is illuminating to consider the development of motivation and motivation theory as the objects of scientific inquiry.


Early explanations of motivation focused on instincts. Psychologists writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries suggested that human beings were basically programmed to behave in certain ways, depending upon the behavioral cues to which they were exposed. Sigmund Freud, for example, argued that the most powerful determinants of individual behavior were those of which the individual was not consciously aware.

According to Richard M. Steers, Lyman W. Porter, and Gregory A. Bigley, in Motivation and Leadership at Work, in the early twentieth century researchers began to examine other possible explanations for differences in individual motivation. Some researchers focused on internal drives as an explanation for motivated behavior. Others studied the effect of learning and how individuals base current behavior on the consequences of past behavior. Still others examined the influence of individuals' cognitive processes, such as the beliefs they have about future events. Over time, these major theoretical streams of research in motivation were classified into two major schools: the content theories of motivation and the process theories of motivation.


Content (or need) theories of motivation focus on factors internal to the individual that energize and direct behavior. In general, such theories regard motivation as the product of internal drives that compel an individual to act or move (hence, “motivate”) toward the satisfaction of individual needs. The content theories of motivation are based in large part on early theories of motivation that traced the paths of action backward to their perceived origin in internal drives. Major content theories of motivation are Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Clayton Alderfer's ERG theory, Frederick Herzberg's motivator-hygiene theory, and David McClelland's learned needs or three-needs theory.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow developed the hierarchy of needs, which suggests that individual needs exist in a hierarchy consisting of physiological needs, security needs, belongingness needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs. Physiological needs are the most basic needs for food, water, and other factors necessary for survival. Security needs include needs for safety in

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one's physical environment, stability, and freedom from emotional distress. Belongingness needs relate to desires for friendship, love, and acceptance within a given community of individuals. Esteem needs are those associated with obtaining self-respect and the respect of others. Finally, self-actualization needs are those corresponding to the achievement of one's own potential, to the exercising and testing of one's creative capacities, and, in general, to becoming the best person one can possibly be. Unsatisfied needs motivate behavior; thus, lower-level needs such as the physiological and security needs must be met before upper-level needs such as belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization can be motivational.

Applications of the hierarchy of needs to management and the workplace are obvious. According to the implications of the hierarchy, individuals must have their lower-level needs met by, for example, safe working conditions, adequate pay to take care of themselves and their family, and job security before they will be motivated by increased job responsibilities, status, and challenging work assignments.

Alderfer's ERG Theory. The ERG theory is an extension of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Alderfer suggested that needs could be classified into three categories, rather than five. These three types of needs are existence, relatedness, and growth (ERG). Existence needs are similar to Maslow's physiological and safety need categories. Relatedness needs involve interpersonal relationships and are comparable to aspects of Maslow's belongingness and esteem needs. Growth needs are those related to the attainment of one's potential and are associated with Maslow's esteem and self-actualization needs.

The ERG theory differs from the hierarchy of needs in that it does not suggest that lower-level needs must be completely satisfied before upper-level needs become motivational. ERG theory also suggests that if an individual is continually unable to meet upper-level needs the person will regress, and lower-level needs will become the major determinants of their motivation. ERG theory's implications for managers are similar to those for the needs hierarchy: managers should focus on meeting employees' existence, relatedness, and growth needs.

Motivator-Hygiene Theory. Herzberg's motivator-hygiene theory is closely related to Maslow's hierarchy of needs but relates more specifically to how individuals are motivated in the workplace. Based on his research, Herzberg argued that meeting the lower-level needs (hygiene factors) of individuals would not motivate them to exert effort but would only prevent them from being dissatisfied. Only if higher-level needs (motivators) were met would individuals be motivated.

The implication for managers of the motivator-hygiene theory is that meeting employees' lower-level needs by improving pay, benefits, safety, and other job-contextual factors will prevent employees from becoming actively dissatisfied but will not motivate them to exert additional effort toward better performance. To motivate workers, according to the theory, managers must focus on changing the intrinsic nature and content of jobs themselves by “enriching” them to increase employees' autonomy and their opportunities to take on additional responsibility, gain recognition, and develop their skills and careers.

McClelland's Learned Needs Theory. McClelland's theory suggests that individuals learn needs from their culture. Three of the primary needs in this theory are the need for affiliation, the need for power, and the need for achievement. The need for affiliation is a desire to establish social relationships with others. The need for power reflects a desire to control one's environment and influence others. The need for achievement is a desire to take responsibility, set challenging goals, and obtain performance feedback.

The main point of the learned needs theory is that when one of these needs is strong in a person, it has the potential to motivate behavior that leads to its satisfaction. Thus, managers should attempt to develop an understanding of whether and to what degree their employees have one or more of these needs, and the extent to which their jobs can be structured to satisfy them.


Process (or cognitive) theories of motivation focus on conscious human decision processes as an explanation of motivation. The process theories are concerned with determining how individual behavior is energized, directed, and maintained in the specifically willed and self-directed human cognitive processes. Process theories of motivation are based on early cognitive theories, which posit that behavior is the result of conscious decision-making processes. The major process theories of motivation are expectancy theory, equity theory, goal-setting theory, and reinforcement theory.

Expectancy Theory. In the early 1960s, Victor Vroom applied concepts of behavioral research conducted in the 1930s by Kurt Lewin and Edward Tolman directly to work motivation. Basically, Vroom suggested that individuals choose work behaviors that they believe lead to outcomes they value. In deciding how much effort to put into a work behavior, individuals are likely to consider:

  • Their expectancy, meaning the degree to which they believe that putting forth effort will lead to a given level of performance
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  • Their instrumentality, or the degree to which they believe that a given level of performance will result in certain outcomes or rewards
  • Their valence, which is the extent to which the expected outcomes are attractive or unattractive

All three of these factors are expected to influence motivation in a multiplicative fashion, so that for an individual to be highly motivated, all three of the components of the expectancy model must be high. And, if even one of these is zero (e.g., instrumentality and valence are high, but expectancy is completely absent), the person will have no motivation for the task. Thus, managers should attempt, to the extent possible, to ensure that their employees believe that increased effort will improve performance and that performance will lead to valued rewards.

In 1968, Lymam W. Porter and E. Lawler published an extension of the Vroom expectancy model, which is known as the Porter-Lawler expectancy model or simply the Porter-Lawler model. Although the basic premise of the Porter-Lawler model is the same as for Vroom's model, the Porter-Lawler model is more complex in a number of ways. It suggests that increased effort does not automatically lead to improved performance because individuals may not possess the necessary abilities needed to achieve high levels of performance, or because they may have an inadequate or vague perception of how to perform necessary tasks. Without an understanding of how to direct effort effectively, individuals may exert considerable effort without a corresponding increase in performance.

Equity Theory. Equity theory suggests that individuals engage in social comparison by comparing their efforts and rewards with those of relevant others. The perception of individuals about the fairness of their rewards relative to others influences their level of motivation. Equity exists when individuals perceive that the ratio of efforts to rewards is the same for them as it is for others to whom they compare themselves. Inequity exists when individuals perceive that the ratio of efforts to rewards is different (usually negatively so) for them than it is for others to whom they compare themselves.

There are two types of inequity—underreward and overreward. Underreward occurs when a person believes that he or she either puts in more effort than another, yet receives the same reward, or puts in the same effort as another for a lesser reward. For instance, if an employee works longer hours than her coworker, yet receives the same salary, the employee would perceive inequity in the form of underreward. Conversely, with overreward, a person will feel that his efforts-to-rewards ratio is higher than another person's, such that he is getting more for putting in the same effort, or getting the same reward even with less effort. While research suggests that under-reward motivates individuals to resolve the inequity, research also indicates that the same is not true for over-reward. Individuals who are overrewarded often engage in cognitive dissonance, convincing themselves that their efforts and rewards are equal to another's.

According to the equity theory, individuals are motivated to reduce perceived inequity. Individuals may attempt to reduce inequity in various ways. A person may change his or her level of effort; an employee who feels underrewarded is likely to work less hard. A person may also try to change his or her rewards, such as by asking for a raise. Another option is to change the behavior of the reference person, perhaps by encouraging that person to put forth more effort. Finally, a person experiencing inequity may change the reference person and compare him or herself to a different person to assess equity. For managers, equity theory emphasizes the importance of a reward system that is perceived as fair by employees.

Goal-Setting Theory The goal-setting theory posits that goals are the most important factors affecting the motivation and behavior of employees. This motivation theory was developed primarily by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham. Goal-setting theory emphasizes the importance of specific and challenging goals in achieving motivated behavior. Specific goals often involve quantitative targets for improvement in a behavior of interest. Research indicates that specific performance goals are much more effective than those in which a person is simply told to do his or her best. Challenging goals are difficult but not impossible to attain. Empirical research supports the proposition that goals that are both specific and challenging are more motivational than vague goals or goals that are relatively easy to achieve.

Several factors may moderate the relationship between specific and challenging goals and high levels of motivation. The first of these factors is goal commitment, which means that the more dedicated the individual is to achieving the goal, the more he or she will be motivated to exert effort toward goal accomplishment. Research suggests that having employees participate in goal setting will increase their level of goal commitment. A second factor relevant to goal-setting theory is self-efficacy, which is the individual's belief that he or she can successfully complete a particular task. If individuals have a high degree of self-efficacy, they are likely to respond more positively to specific and challenging goals than if they have a low degree of self-efficacy.

Reinforcement Theory This theory, traced to the work of the pioneering behaviorist B. F. Skinner, is considered a motivation theory as well as a learning theory. Reinforcement

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theory posits that motivated behavior occurs as a result of reinforcers, which are outcomes resulting from the behavior that makes it more likely the behavior will occur again. This theory suggests that it is not necessary to study needs or cognitive processes to understand motivation, but that it is only necessary to examine the consequences of behavior. Behavior that is reinforced is likely to continue, but behavior that is not rewarded or behavior that is punished is not likely to be repeated. Reinforcement theory suggests to managers that they can improve employees' performance by a process of behavior modification in which they reinforce desired behaviors and punish undesired behaviors.


The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a personality survey designed during World War II when women were entering the industrial workforce. The idea behind the questionnaire was to use women's personality preferences to place them in the positions where they would be most effective. Steven Flannes and Ginger Levin theorized that the MBTI could be used to determine what motivation strategies would be most effective on individual employees. The test analyzes four traits: the need for personal contact with others, the application of realism, the ability to apply logic, and influences of judgment. According to this theory, this information enables managers to tailor their communication approach according to the personality preferences of each individual.


While an abundance of different theories inform the concept of motivation, managers have a selection of effective practices they can use to actually put motivation theory to work. A chief task of the manager is to motivate her team to perpetuate a productive work environment and foster employee satisfaction. According to team development firm Accel, a number of tools can be utilized in accomplishing this:

  • Approval, praise, and recognition
  • Trust, respect, and lofty expectations
  • Loyalty (if workers are receptive)
  • Reducing barriers that stand in front of performance
  • Job enrichment
  • Effective communications
  • Financial incentives

Case studies suggest applying motivation theory can yield significant results. Swedish shipbuilding firm Kockums turned a $100 million profit from a $15 million loss in just a decade, while another manufacturer saw astonishing increases in output simply from a greater management focus on employees. Applying motivation theory requires persuasion rather than coercion, as the latter often extinguishes motivation. “Once convinced, the person is so motivated as to deliver the ‘goods,’” according to Accel. “The manager will have achieved the goal quietly, gently, and with the minimum of effort.”

Ultimately, motivating people is no easy task, and money is often not enough. Motivation that is tailored to the individual employee is more likely to be successful than a catchall policy that applies to an entire company's workforce.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4016600206