These 4 major motivation theories can help boost team performance
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.
Maslow’s theory of motivation
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:
- Physiological: Food, water, warmth, sleep
- Safety: Safe place to work, financial stability, job security
- Love/belonging: Supportive boss, work friends, helpful coworkers
- Esteem: Awards, bonuses, formal recognition, promotions
- Self-actualization: This is the highest tier of Maslow’s pyramid, the ultimate goal: to achieve your full potential. In the workplace, that might look like landing your dream job or finding a sense of purpose in your work.
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.
How Maslow’s theory of motivation can apply to your workplace:
- Are you taking care of your employees’ physiological needs? This could look like installing a water cooler, keeping the environment at a comfortable temperature, stocking the office kitchen with snacks and making sure not to overwhelm your employees with work they have to do after hours (and thus cutting into their sleep time).
- Are you making sure your employees feel safe? This might mean ensuring you’re paying a fair wage so they can meet all their financial obligations, securing your office building and ramping up a diversity and inclusion program.
- How are you helping your employees achieve a sense of love and belonging? You can help them by devising team building activities, providing training to managers to ensure they’re supporting their direct reports and hosting fun activities for team members to bond.
- Are you providing for your employees’ esteem needs? Make sure you’re providing timely and specific praise when someone does a good job; look into creating a formal recognition program to reward top employees; or consider offering performance-based bonuses.
- How are you helping your team reach self-actualization? Focus on developing your employees’ abilities to help them reach their full potential. This might mean providing mentoring, sending them to workshops or covering tuition so they can return to school.
Herzberg Motivation-Hygiene Theory (Two-Factor Theory)
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:
- Task achievement
- Interest in the task
- Occupational growth
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:
- Company policy and administration
- Working conditions
- Personal life
- Work relationships
- Job security
How Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory can apply to your workplace:
When considering the motivator factors that contribute to job satisfaction, ask yourself the following:
- Task achievement: Are you setting your employees up for success by assigning tasks they are capable of achieving?
- Recognition: Are you recognizing your employees for their achievements, either through informal praise or a formal recognition program?
- Interest in the task: Are you ensuring your workers are genuinely interested in the tasks you’ve assigned them to do? Have you asked them what their interests are?
- Occupational growth: Do you seek to promote those who have shown loyalty, talent and interest? Do you give your team opportunities to develop their skills through things such as mentorships, conferences and higher education?
When considering the hygiene factors that contribute to job dissatisfaction, ask yourself the following:
- Company policy and administration: Are your company policies clearly outlined and available for your employees to read? Are your policies fair?
- Supervision: Does your team feel supported by supervisors, or do they feel micromanaged?
- Working conditions: Do you provide a safe working environment for your employees? Do they have the resources they need to be fully productive?
- Salary: Are you paying your employees a fair wage? Do you offer raises at regular intervals?
- Personal life: Do you promote work-life balance in your workplace? Are you understanding of your employees’ needs regarding their family life?
- Work relationships: How are you working to strengthen bonds within teams? Do you encourage your managers to develop a supportive relationship with their direct reports?
Vroom’s Expectancy Theory
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:
- Expectancy refers to how likely a person is to accomplish a goal if they try.
- Instrumentality refers to how likely they are to receive an outcome/reward if they do accomplish the goal.
- Valence refers to how much satisfaction the person will derive from this outcome/reward.
How you can apply expectancy theory to your workplace:
- Let’s begin with expectancy, the likelihood that doing the work will lead to successfully achieving a goal. If a worker doesn’t think they can reach a performance goal, they won’t be motivated to put forth an effort. As a manager, you can boost motivation in a few ways: by setting realistic goals, by assigning those tasks and corresponding goals to the person most qualified to reach them and by building up that worker’s self-confidence in the task.
- When it comes to instrumentality, the likelihood that success in the task will lead to a reward, it’s up to you as the manager to be clear about rewards and the performance tied to receiving those rewards.
- Lastly, you still need to consider valence, or the desirability of the reward to each person. Someone might believe they can achieve a performance goal and know that they will receive a reward for doing so—but if that reward has no value to them, they still won’t be motivated.
Edwin Locke’s goal-setting theory
In 1968, American psychologist Edwin Locke published his famous goal-setting theory, which cited studies showing that:
- Difficult goals lead to higher effort and performance than moderately difficult or easy goals.
- Specific, hard goals are better at maximizing performance than vague “do your best” goals.
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:
- Set the goal: Be specific, give it a time limit, and make it difficult, yet attainable.
- Obtain goal commitment: As a manager, you may have goals in mind for your team, but you still need them to accept and be committed to those goals. Locke and Latham found that this required that the subordinates trusted their manager. To overcome resistance to goals, Locke and Latham suggest providing more training to equip employees with the skills to attain the goal and involving your team in setting their own goals.
- Provide support: This means making sure your team has everything they need to succeed, such as skills, time, and feedback.
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.
How you can apply Locke’s goal-setting theory to your workplace:
- Challenge your team: It turns out, people like a challenge! Employees want to grow and develop their skills. You’re not doing any favors by giving them tasks that are too easy. Plus, as Locke found in his research, difficult goals inspire the highest levels of performance.
- Be specific: When giving instructions to your team when you assign a task, be specific. Telling them to simply “do their best” doesn’t maximize performance, as it doesn’t give them a clear idea of what they need to accomplish to successfully reach the goal.
How to motivate your team — 4 steps you can take right now.
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!
1. Give them praise.
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.
2. Evaluate how well you’re meeting your employees’ needs.
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.
3. Create an effective reward system:
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.
4. Devise a better goal-setting system:
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.
It’s time to turn motivation theories into practice
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.