Motivation to work


Need theories

The word ‘motivation’ originates from the Latin word movere, meaning “to move”. Motivation itself is, broadly, a force that activates or arouses a person into pursuing goal-directed efforts. Steers and Porter (1991) said that motivation energises, directs and sustains the behaviour of a person with regards to reaching a goal.

Motivation theories are concerned with how and why human behaviour is activated; how we are motivated into acting. Need theories of motivation specifically look at how a person’s needs are satisfied and how this affects their levels of motivation.

Hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1970)

Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, introduced this theory in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. He discussed how people are motivated to fulfill their basic needs before they can move on to more advance needs.

Physiological, safety, belongingness and love, and self-esteem needs are “deficiency needs”. They arise from deprivation whereas the self-actualisation is a “growth need” that stems from the desire to grow and progress as a person.

Physiological needs are our most basic, instinctive needs, like food, sleep and sex. Maslow said that other needs cannot be fulfilled unless physiological needs are being met. Safety needs can be seen as steady employment or a sheltered home. Social needs are our longing for love, affection, companionship, understanding and acceptance from others. Self-esteem needs involve things like social recognition, status, responsibility and accomplishments, reflecting on our perception of our own self-worth. Self-actualisation is the “peak” of onself; a self-actualised person is self-aware, concerned with personal growth, less bothered by external opinions and determined to fulfill their own potential.

Maslow’s theory can be applied into a workplace. Physiological needs would be wages, breaks and lunch. Safety needs would be a safe working environment and job security. The social needs would be an acceptance among colleagues. Self-esteem needs would be the recognition of achievements, giving responsibility for important projects and showing a general appreciation for the workers. Self-actualisation would revolve around challenging work that inspires creativity, innovation and progress towards long-term goals.

However, Maslow’s theory is not popular and has little evidential support. Can everyone be generalised to this hierarchy?

Individual differences strike again!

ERG theory (Alderfer, 1972)

Sort-of-fun fact: Alderfer’s name is spelt wrong in your syllabus.

Clayton Alderfer recategorised Maslow’s hierarchy into a simpler, broader and less-rigid continuum, as opposed the the hierarchical structure.“Existence needs” consist of basic necessities, including all physiological and physical safety needs. “Relatedness needs” encompass social and external self-esteem needs. “Growth needs” refer to personal development, intrinsic self-esteem and self-actualisation.

Alderfer also believed that as we satisfy higher needs, the feeling we get from them becomes more intense; sort of like an addiction. This means we will keep working on strengthening those needs.

Achievement motivation (McClelland, 1965)

David McClelland, an American psychologist, elaborated Maslow’s hierarchy. He classified needs into three groups: n-Ach, n-Aff and n-Pow. McClelland believed that needs and motivators are acquired over time and are influenced by personal aspects. He also argued that achievement is the most critical motivator, particularly for economic growth and success.

“Achievement” is the need to accomplish, excel and succeed. People set challenging but realistic goals. Individuals with a strong need for achievement prefer to work alone or only with people that share the same mind-set and goals. This need makes individuals require feedback on their achievement and success. McClelland believed that people with a high need for achievement make the best leaders.

“Affiliation” refers to friendly relationships and social interaction. People with a strong need for affiliation want acceptance and companionship; they work well to avoid conflict in teams. However, focusing so much on social opinions could prevent the person from growing as they would hesitate to voice alternative opinions.

“Power” is the need that is motivated by a desire for authority. Power-oriented individuals want to lead, teach, be influential and make an impact on others. This can be positive and negative; leaders would be strong and direct teams towards achieving goals, but may become very narrow-minded.

Although need theories have played a huge role in research on motivation, Miner (1983) argued that such theories have not given us any useful applications or strategies to improve work motivation in employees. Hunter (1976) elaborated by claiming these are descriptive theories but cannot make actual predictions about human behaviour.



Goal-setting theory (Latham and Locke, 1984)

Gary Latham and Edwin Locke’s goal-setting theory is a very popular theory which emphasises the role of specific performance goals and workers’ commitment to these goals as determinants of work motivation.

According to this theory, people with relatively difficult but attainable goals perform better than those who have less difficult goals. Goals can motivate people towards accomplishing them based on the extent to which they have clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback and task complexity. Goals may be either “directional” or “accuracy” goals.

  • People with directional goals work towards them without knowing the precise steps needed to achieve them and hence are more motivational (they aim to directly achieve the goal).
  • People with accuracy goals work with careful planning to identify the best paths to achieve their goals with minimal deviations (they plan for accuracy).

Setting effective goals

Latham and Locke’s theory also states that for an employee to be motivated, there goals must be: clear, specific, attainable and – if possible – quantifiable. General goals, such as “do your best”, will not be as effective as defined and measurable goals. The goal-setting theory also states that breaking a large goal into smaller, attainable goals will also result in more motivation.

Cognitive/rational theories

Cognitive theories are of a viewpoint in which the employee is seen as a rational being who will weigh up the pros and cons of a situation at work. Cognitive theories look at cognitive processes and phenomena to understand behaviour at work, particularly motivation.

VIE (expectancy) theory (Vroom, 1964)

Victor Vroom’s VIE (valence, instrumentality, expectancy) theory states that the strength of a tendency to perform in a particular manner depends on:

  • the strength of an expectation that the performance will be followed by a definite outcome
  • the attractiveness of this outcome to the individual

Valence refers to the significance associated to the expected outcome by the individual. Instrumentality is the faith that if you perform well, then a valid outcome will be result. Expectancy is the faith that better efforts will result in a better performance.

The cognitive process

Vroom’s theory focuses on three main relationships:

  1. Effort-performance relationship
  2. Performance-reward relationship
  3. Reward-personal goals relationship

Less motivation would stem from the above thought process


Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to internal motivators and internal satisfaction. Extrinsic motivation refers to external motivators and external rewards.

Deci and Ryan stated that by proving extrinsic rewards for behaviour that had been previously only rewarded intrinsically, will decrease the overall level of motivation.

Types of rewards systems

Reward systems may be formal or information, financial or non-financial. The appropriate reward system needs to be used in a situation where a particular level of motivation must be achieved in employees. Some financial (monetary) reward systems are:

  1. Variable pay system:
    This is a pay-extra-for-performance system – it is related to performance. It may be linked to the company’s overall performance, the results of a business project, an individual’s own accomplishments, and so on. The “variable pay” itself could take different forms, such as a bonus.
  2. Profit sharing system:
    This refers to the strategy of creating a pool of money that will be distributed to employees who will take a stated percentage of the company’s profits. The idea behind this is to reward employees for their contributions to their achievement of a profit goal.
  3. Stock options system:
    This reward system is similar to profit sharing. This system usually rewards employees for long-term commitment. They are given an allotted number of shares at a certain price which they may keep or sell for profit.

Non-monetary rewards

Not all reward systems revolve around money; the following are examples of non-monetary rewards:

  1. Continuous education:
    An employee incentive programme can be introduced, and it may include helpful seminars or training courses. An employee who is given this chance may feel like the manager expects a lot from them because they have talent, and would want to fulfill their maximum potential.
  2. Flexible schedule:
    A flexible schedule would be especially beneficial for employees who wish to manage their time. This gives the employee the impression that they are trusted enough to manage their own time.
  3. Recognition:
    A simple letter, email, certificate, plaque or public announcement to praise the employee’s hard work and achievements would be immensely motivating because the employee’s efforts are being recognised and appreciated. This would also arouse a healthy competition between employees, motivating them further.

Other non-monetary rewards are: respect, empowerment, and a sense of belonging in the work community.