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What makes people show up to work every day? If your first thought was “money,” it’s a lot more complicated than that. For decades, psychologists have been trying to tackle the subject of workplace motivation, developing, debating and expanding upon multiple motivation theories to get to the heart of what drives employees.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably in charge of a team and trying to figure out how to get them to be more motivated, and ultimately, perform at their best. So below, we’ll cover four major theories of motivation, how they can apply to your workplace and what you can do to inspire your team’s best performance.
One of the earliest theories, and one that has had significant influence on organizational psychology, is Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation. He first proposed this theory formally in a research paper published in 1943.
You probably learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in grade school science class in a nifty pyramid diagram. Maslow theorized that human needs were hierarchical and “pre-potent,” meaning one need must be met before we are motivated to fulfill the next need.
Below are the needs, in order of most basic to highest, along with some examples from the workplace:
So according to Maslow’s theory, if a man were working for, say, a factory that had major safety violations, he wouldn’t be focused on making friends at work or winning awards—he would be worried about avoiding danger. Until his need for safety is met, he can’t strive for higher needs.
When proposing his theory of motivation, Maslow was not specifically addressing the workplace, but his theory can apply to it.
In 1959, Frederick Herzberg and his colleagues published the book The Motivation to Work, in which he proposed his Motivation-Hygiene theory.
Herzberg pointed out that job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction are not opposites of each other, but rather, two separate categories altogether.
The factors that contribute to job satisfaction are related to the content of the job and are called “motivators.” They include:
The factors that contribute to job dissatisfaction relate to the context or environment in which one must do their job. These are referred to as “hygiene” factors and include:
When considering the motivator factors that contribute to job satisfaction, ask yourself the following:
When considering the hygiene factors that contribute to job dissatisfaction, ask yourself the following:
In 1964, Victor Vroom published Work and Motivation in which he outlined expectancy theory. In his book, Vroom describes workplace motivation as a “force” that is a function of the following three variables:
In 1968, American psychologist Edwin Locke published his famous goal-setting theory, which cited studies showing that:
Later, Gary Latham teamed up with Locke as they continued to build upon his earlier goal-setting theory research. In 1979, they published a paper of findings from field experiments with logging crews. In it, they outline a three-step process for setting goals that enhance motivation and performance:
At the end of their paper, Locke and Latham add, “Goal setting is no panacea. It will not compensate for underpayment of employees or for poor management.”
So when applying goal-setting theory to your workplace, make sure you do a broader analysis of your company as a whole before thinking goals will fix everything. We recommend revisiting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Herzberg’s two-factor theory first.
We just went over a lot of information on motivation theories. Instead of getting overwhelmed, try choosing just one of the following action steps below to get started on this week. You’ll be that much closer to a more motivated, better-performing team!
This doesn’t have to be a fancy plaque or a grand gesture. You could simply tell a team member something like, “Thank you for coming in early to finalize the conference itinerary. That really made my job easier today!” According to research from O.C. Tanner, 39% of employees don’t feel appreciated, and the best way to show thanks is by giving specific, timely praise. Plus, praise satisfies the “esteem” part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the “recognition” factor of Herzberg’s theory.
Review the five tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and think about how they pertain to your workplace. Then, create a survey to administer to your employees based on these five needs. The goal of the survey is to figure out how well you are helping them with those needs and what more you can do to support them. Once you review the results, see how you can implement the changes your employees ask for.
Get clear on the individual strengths of your team so you can better assign tasks according to their capabilities. (Our F4S motivations tool can help!) Meet one-on-one with each team member and ask them about the rewards they value. Is it quarterly bonuses? Commissions? A private office? Recognition? Higher salary? According to expectancy theory, it’s not enough to simply create rewards; those rewards must have real value to the potential recipients.
If you don’t have a goal-setting system set up in your workplace, consider implementing one now. A popular framework is OKRs (objectives and key results), where you set goals (objectives) and define the key results that will help you numerically track success. Key results ensure that your goals are specific, which as we learned with goal-setting theory, can boost performance.
By now, you can see that workplace motivation goes far beyond paychecks and prestige. It’s an intricate interplay between goals, interests, rewards, environment, relationships and more.
Keep in mind there’s no one “perfect” motivation theory. Every team is different, and every human being is different, so what works for some may not work for others. (We've spent 20 years studying this!)
Even so, you can extract lessons from each of the major theories and apply them to your workplace to see how they help your team.
If you want more insight into exactly what drives your team, try our evidence-based people analytics tool. You’ll get a detailed report of strengths and blind spots and even be able to compare results between other team members.
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