Theories of Motivation

What you’ll learn to do: Describe various theories of motivation

We talked a little bit about what motivation is and what it looks like within an organization. To do that, we used Victor Vroom’s expectancy framework, a model that attempts to dissect and explain employee performance by distilling it down to its most basic level.

The expectancy framework is just one of many models that have been developed over the years. Since the industrial age, scientists have been examining what motivates people to perform in employment situations. None of them have it all wrong, but none of them have it all right. They’ll continue to try, we’re sure, because a lot is at stake for organizations, and situations change every day.

In this unit, we’re going to take a look back at how we got to where we are now, and how we can apply that today, domestically and abroad.

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the role of the Hawthorne effect in management
  • List the various levels of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy
  • Summarize the changes to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in Alderfer’s ERG theory
  • Describe how employees might be motivated using McClelland’s acquired needs theory
  • Differentiate between Theory X and Theory Y
  • Explain the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in Herzberg’s two-factor theory

The Hawthorne Effect

During the 1920s, a series of studies that marked a change in the direction of motivational and managerial theory was conducted by Elton Mayo on workers at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company in Illinois. Previous studies, in particular Frederick Taylor’s work, took a “man as machine” view and focused on ways of improving individual performance. Hawthorne, however, set the individual in a social context, arguing that employees’ performance is influenced by work surroundings and coworkers as much as by employee ability and skill. The Hawthorne studies are credited with focusing managerial strategy on the socio-psychological aspects of human behavior in organizations.

Aerial view of the Western Electric Company Hawthorne Works

The following video from the AT&T archives contains interviews with individuals who participated in these studies. It provides insight into the way the studies were conducted and how they changed employers’ views on worker motivation.

The studies originally looked into the effects of physical conditions on productivity and whether workers were more responsive and worked more efficiently under certain environmental conditions, such as improved lighting. The results were surprising: Mayo found that workers were more responsive to social factors—such as their manager and coworkers—than the factors (lighting, etc.) the researchers set out to investigate. In fact, worker productivity improved when the lights were dimmed again and when everything had been returned to the way it was before the experiment began, productivity at the factory was at its highest level and absenteeism had plummeted.

What happened was Mayo discovered that workers were highly responsive to additional attention from their managers and the feeling that their managers actually cared about and were interested in their work. The studies also found that although financial incentives are important drivers of worker productivity, social factors are equally important.

Practice Question

There were a number of other experiments conducted in the Hawthorne studies, including one in which two women were chosen as test subjects and were then asked to choose four other workers to join the test group. Together, the women worked assembling telephone relays in a separate room over the course of five years (1927–1932). Their output was measured during this time—at first, in secret. It started two weeks before moving the women to an experiment room and continued throughout the study. In the experiment room, they were assigned to a supervisor who discussed changes with them and, at times, used the women’s suggestions. The researchers then spent five years measuring how different variables affected both the group’s and the individuals’ productivity. Some of the variables included giving two five-minute breaks (after a discussion with the group on the best length of time), and then changing to two ten-minute breaks (not the preference of the group).

Changing a variable usually increased productivity, even if the variable was just a change back to the original condition. Researchers concluded that the employees worked harder because they thought they were being monitored individually. Researchers hypothesized that choosing one’s own coworkers, working as a group, being treated as special (as evidenced by working in a separate room), and having a sympathetic supervisor were the real reasons for the productivity increase.

The Hawthorne studies showed that people’s work performance is dependent on social issues and job satisfaction. The studies concluded that tangible motivators such as monetary incentives and good working conditions are generally less important in improving employee productivity than intangible motivators such as meeting individuals’ desire to belong to a group and be included in decision making and work.

Practice Question

Need-Based Theories

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Human motivation can be defined as the fulfillment of various needs. These needs can encompass a range of human desires, from basic, tangible needs of survival to complex, emotional needs surrounding an individual’s psychological well-being.

Abraham Maslow was a social psychologist who was interested in a broad spectrum of human psychological needs rather than on individual psychological problems. He is best known for his hierarchy-of-needs theory. Depicted in a pyramid (shown in Figure 1), the theory organizes the different levels of human psychological and physical needs in order of importance.

A triangle is divided vertically into five sections with corresponding labels inside and outside of the triangle for each section. From top to bottom, the triangle's sections are labeled: “self-actualization” corresponds to “Inner fulfillment” “esteem” corresponds to “Self-worth, accomplishment, confidence”; “social” corresponds to “Family, friendship, intimacy, belonging”’ “security” corresponds to “Safety, employment, assets”; ““physiological” corresponds to “Food, water, shelter, warmth.”

Figure 1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is illustrated here. In some versions of the pyramid, cognitive and aesthetic needs are also included between esteem and self-actualization. Others include another tier at the top of the pyramid for self-transcendence.

The needs in Maslow’s hierarchy include physiological needs (food and clothing), safety needs (job security), social needs (friendship), self-esteem, and self-actualization. This hierarchy can be used by managers to better understand employees’ needs and motivation and address them in ways that lead to high productivity and job satisfaction.

At the bottom of the pyramid are the physiological (or basic) human needs that are required for survival: food, shelter, water, sleep, etc. If these requirements are not met, the body cannot continue to function. Faced with a lack of food, love, and safety, most people would probably consider food to be their most urgent need.

Once physical needs are satisfied, security (sometimes referred to as individual safety) takes precedence. Security and safety needs include personal security, financial security, and health and well-being. These first two levels are important to the physical survival of the person. Once individuals have basic nutrition, shelter, and safety, they seek to fulfill higher-level needs.

The third level of need is social, which includes love and belonging; when individuals have taken care of themselves physically, they can address their need to share and connect with others. Deficiencies at this level, on account of neglect, shunning, ostracism, etc., can impact an individual’s ability to form and maintain emotionally significant relationships. Humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, whether it comes from a large social group or a small network of family and friends. Other sources of social connection may be professional organizations, clubs, religious groups, social media sites, and so forth. Humans need to love and be loved (sexually and non-sexually) by others. Without these attachments, people can be vulnerable to psychological difficulties such as loneliness, social anxiety, and depression. These conditions, when severe, can impair a person’s ability to address basic physiological needs such as eating and sleeping.

The fourth level is esteem, which represents the normal human desire to be valued and validated by others, through, for example, the recognition of success or status. This level also includes self-esteem, which refers to the regard and acceptance one has for oneself. Imbalances at this level can result in low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. People suffering from low self-esteem may find that external validation by others—through fame, glory, accolades, etc.—only partially or temporarily fulfills their needs at this level.

At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization. At this stage, people feel that they have reached their full potential and are doing everything they’re capable of. Self-actualization is rarely a permanent feeling or state. Rather, it refers to the ongoing need for personal growth and discovery that people have throughout their lives. Self-actualization may occur after reaching an important goal or overcoming a particular challenge, and it may be marked by a new sense of self-confidence or contentment.

Practice Question

Alderfer’s ERG Theory

Photo of lush, old-growth forestClayton Paul Alderfer is an American psychologist who developed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into a theory of his own. Alderfer’s ERG theory suggests that there are three groups of core needs: existence (E), relatedness (R), and growth (G)—hence the acronym ERG. These groups align with Maslow’s levels of physiological needs, social needs, and self-actualization needs, respectively.

Existence needs concern our basic material requirements for living. These include what Maslow categorized as physiological needs (such as air, food, water, and shelter) and safety-related needs (such as health, secure employment, and property).

Relatedness needs have to do with the importance of maintaining interpersonal relationships. These needs are based in social interactions with others and align with Maslow’s levels of love/belonging-related needs (such as friendship, family, and sexual intimacy) and esteem-related needs (gaining the respect of others).

Finally, growth needs describe our intrinsic desire for personal development. These needs align with the other portion of Maslow’s esteem-related needs (self-esteem, self-confidence, and achievement) and self-actualization needs (such as morality, creativity, problem-solving, and discovery).

Alderfer proposed that when a certain category of needs isn’t being met, people will redouble their efforts to fulfill needs in a lower category. For example, if someone’s self-esteem is suffering, he or she will invest more effort in the relatedness category of needs.

Practice Question

McClelland’s Acquired Needs Theory

Photo of a chess master, making his next move.Psychologist David McClelland’s acquired-needs theory splits the needs of employees into three categories rather than the two we discussed in Herzberg’s theory. These three categories are achievement, affiliation, and power.

Employees who are strongly achievement-motivated are driven by the desire for mastery. They prefer working on tasks of moderate difficulty in which outcomes are the result of their effort rather than luck. They value receiving feedback on their work.

Employees who are strongly affiliation-motivated are driven by the desire to create and maintain social relationships. They enjoy belonging to a group and want to feel loved and accepted. They may not make effective managers because they may worry too much about how others will feel about them.

Employees who are strongly power-motivated are driven by the desire to influence, teach, or encourage others. They enjoy work and place a high value on discipline. However, they may take a zero-sum approach to group work—for one person to win, or succeed, another must lose, or fail. If channeled appropriately, though, this approach can positively support group goals and help others in the group feel competent.

The acquired-needs theory doesn’t claim that people can be neatly categorized into one of three types. Rather, it asserts that all people are motivated by all of these needs in varying degrees and proportions. An individual’s balance of these needs forms a kind of profile that can be useful in creating a tailored motivational paradigm for her. It is important to note that needs do not necessarily correlate with competencies; it is possible for an employee to be strongly affiliation-motivated, for example, but still be successful in a situation in which her affiliation needs are not met.

McClelland proposes that those in top management positions generally have a high need for power and a low need for affiliation. He also believes that although individuals with a need for achievement can make good managers, they are not generally suited to being in top management positions.

Practice Question

McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

The idea that a manager’s attitude has an impact on employee motivation was originally proposed by Douglas McGregor, a management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1950s and 1960s. In his 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise, McGregor proposed two theories by which managers perceive and address employee motivation. He referred to these opposing motivational methods as Theory X and Theory Y management. Each assumes that the manager’s role is to organize resources, including people, to best benefit the company. However, beyond this commonality, the attitudes and assumptions they embody are quite different.

Theory X

According to McGregor, Theory X management assumes the following:

  • Work is inherently distasteful to most people, and they will attempt to avoid work whenever possible.
  • Most people are not ambitious, have little desire for responsibility, and prefer to be directed.
  • Most people have little aptitude for creativity in solving organizational problems.
  • Motivation occurs only at the physiological and security levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  • Most people are self-centered. As a result, they must be closely controlled and often coerced to achieve organizational objectives.
  • Most people resist change.
  • Most people are gullible and unintelligent.

Photograph of a woman holding a gold coin up to her eye.Essentially, Theory X assumes that the primary source of employee motivation is monetary, with security as a strong second. Under Theory X, one can take a hard or soft approach to getting results.

The hard approach to motivation relies on coercion, implicit threats, micromanagement, and tight controls— essentially an environment of command and control. The soft approach, however, is to be permissive and seek harmony in the hopes that, in return, employees will cooperate when asked. However, neither of these extremes is optimal. The hard approach results in hostility, purposely low output, and extreme union demands. The soft approach results in a growing desire for greater reward in exchange for diminished work output.

It might seem that the optimal approach to human resource management would lie somewhere between these extremes. However, McGregor asserts that neither approach is appropriate, since the basic assumptions of Theory X are incorrect.

Drawing on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, McGregor argues that a need, once satisfied, no longer motivates. The company uses monetary rewards and benefits to satisfy employees’ lower-level needs. Once those needs have been satisfied, the motivation disappears. Theory X management hinders the satisfaction of higher-level needs because it doesn’t acknowledge that those needs are relevant in the workplace. As a result, the only way that employees can attempt to meet higher-level needs at work is to seek more compensation, so, predictably, they focus on monetary rewards. While money may not be the most effective way to self-fulfillment, it may be the only way available. People will use work to satisfy their lower needs and seek to satisfy their higher needs during their leisure time. However, employees can be most productive when their work goals align with their higher-level needs.

McGregor makes the point that a command-and-control environment is not effective because it relies on lower needs for motivation, but in modern society those needs are mostly satisfied and thus are no longer motivating. In this situation, one would expect employees to dislike their work, avoid responsibility, have no interest in organizational goals, resist change, etc.—creating, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy. To McGregor, a steady supply of motivation seemed more likely to occur under Theory Y management.

Theory Y

The higher-level needs of esteem and self-actualization are ongoing needs that, for most people, are never completely satisfied. As such, it is these higher-level needs through which employees can best be motivated.

In strong contrast to Theory X, Theory Y management makes the following assumptions:

  • Work can be as natural as play if the conditions are favorable.
  • People will be self-directed and creative to meet their work and organizational objectives if they are committed to them.
  • People will be committed to their quality and productivity objectives if rewards are in place that address higher needs such as self-fulfillment.
  • The capacity for creativity spreads throughout organizations.
  • Most people can handle responsibility because creativity and ingenuity are common in the population.
  • Under these conditions, people will seek responsibility.

Photograph of two people drawing on a board, collaborating to make an outline.Under these assumptions, there is an opportunity to align personal goals with organizational goals by using the employee’s own need for fulfillment as the motivator. McGregor stressed that Theory Y management does not imply a soft approach.

McGregor recognized that some people may not have reached the level of maturity assumed by Theory Y and may initially need tighter controls that can be relaxed as the employee develops.

If Theory Y holds true, an organization can apply the following principles of scientific management to improve employee motivation:

  • Decentralization and delegation: If firms decentralize control and reduce the number of levels of management, managers will have more subordinates and consequently need to delegate some responsibility and decision making to them.
  • Job enlargement: Broadening the scope of an employee’s job adds variety and opportunities to satisfy ego needs.
  • Participative management: Consulting employees in the decision-making process taps their creative capacity and provides them with some control over their work environment.
  • Performance appraisals: Having the employee set objectives and participate in the process of self-evaluation increases engagement and dedication.

If properly implemented, such an environment can increase and continually fuel motivation as employees work to satisfy their higher-level personal needs through their jobs.

Practice Question

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

American psychologist Frederick Herzberg is regarded as one of the great original thinkers in management and motivational theory. Herzberg set out to determine the effect of attitude on motivation, by simply asking people to describe the times when they felt really good, and really bad, about their jobs. What he found was that people who felt good about their jobs gave very different responses from the people who felt bad.

The results from this inquiry form the basis of Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory (sometimes known as Herzberg’s “Two Factor Theory”). Published in his famous article, “One More Time: How do You Motivate Employees,” the conclusions he drew were extraordinarily influential, and still form the bedrock of good motivational practice nearly half a century later. He’s especially recognized for his two-factor theory, which hypothesized that are two different sets of factors governing job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction:  “hygiene factors,” or extrinsic motivators and “motivation factors,” or intrinsic motivators.

Hygiene factors, or extrinsic motivators, tend to represent more tangible, basic needs—i.e., the kinds of needs included in the existence category of needs in the ERG theory or in the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Extrinsic motivators include status, job security, salary, and fringe benefits. It’s important for managers to realize that not providing the appropriate and expected extrinsic motivators will sow dissatisfaction and decrease motivation among employees.

Motivation factors, or intrinsic motivators, tend to represent less tangible, more emotional needs—i.e., the kinds of needs identified in the “relatedness” and “growth” categories of needs in the ERG theory and in the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Intrinsic motivators include challenging work, recognition, relationships, and growth potential. Managers need to recognize that while these needs may fall outside the more traditional scope of what a workplace ought to provide, they can be critical to strong individual and team performance.

The factor that differentiates two-factor theory from the others we’ve discussed is the role of employee expectations. According to Herzberg, intrinsic motivators and extrinsic motivators have an inverse relationship. That is, intrinsic motivators tend to increase motivation when they are present, while extrinsic motivators tend to reduce motivation when they are absent. This is due to employees’ expectations. Extrinsic motivators (e.g., salary, benefits) are expected, so they won’t increase motivation when they are in place, but they will cause dissatisfaction when they are missing. Intrinsic motivators (e.g., challenging work, growth potential), on the other hand, can be a source of additional motivation when they are available.

Chart showing the factors that contribute to job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction according to Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory. Job dissatisfaction is influenced by hygiene factors; job satisfaction is influenced by motivator factors.

If management wants to increase employees’ job satisfaction, they should be concerned with the nature of the work itself—the opportunities it presents employees for gaining status, assuming responsibility, and achieving self-realization. If, on the other hand, management wishes to reduce dissatisfaction, then it must focus on the job environment—policies, procedures, supervision, and working conditions. To ensure a satisfied and productive workforce, managers must pay attention to both sets of job factors.

Practice Question