What are motivation theories?

7 min read  |   2 November, 2021   By Laura Sands


Do you know what makes your staff tick? This is the fundamental question behind motivation theories.

Figuring out who is motivated by what can be a challenge for HR managers and employers. But with only about a third of employees saying they feel engaged, motivation theory has never been more important.

What is motivation theory?

Motivation theory is the study of understanding what drives a person to work towards a particular goal or outcome. It’s relevant to all of society but is especially important to business and management.

That’s because a motivated employee is more productive, and a more productive employee is more profitable. Indeed, research has shown that happy, motivated employees can increase productivity by around 12%.

So how do you motivate your employees and make them happier in the workplace?

Motivation theories: the basics

There are numerous branches of motivation theory but at its simplest, it boils down to two factors:

  • Extrinsic factors. Here people are motivated by external factors such as a bonus for hard work or a sanction if targets are not met.
  • Intrinsic factors. Here people are motivated by a desire to satisfy human needs. These might include a desire to please their boss or to achieve certain professional or personal goals.

Most people are motivated by a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation factors. As a manager, you must understand what that combination is.

Group of employees putting their thumbs up

Using employee motivation theories to increase productivity

Because we’re all different, there’s no single way to motivate individual workers.

There are assessment tools which help you understand what makes a particular employee tick. But better still is a manager who invests time in getting to know his or her staff. This means they understand the different personalities and can figure out their behaviours.

What tools do employers have to improve motivation?

  • Reward – Receiving a bonus or raise can be all the incentive some need to work harder. But reward can take many different forms and could be something as simple as incentive pay or paid time off, gift vouchers or prizes for hitting targets, travel perks or health benefits.
  • Trust –Employees want to know you have their best interests at heart while employers want to know they can trust employees to do a job well. Building a culture around trust creates a positive atmosphere which motivates your staff and benefits productivity.
  • Recognition –It’s simple but recognising an employee’s hard work can have a tremendous impact. It can also spur them on to achieve more. Recognition can take many forms from an informal “thank you” or Kudos to a glitzier employee of the month or year award.
  • Career advancement –One study found that the number one reason for employees leaving their jobs was career development. It makes sense - employees want to use their skills. They also want to learn new skills. If your company doesn’t offer a clear career development path, they may leave. And if they don’t leave, they’ll be far from productive. Combat this by talking to your employees about their career expectations and by building career development into your business.
  • Purpose –Increasing numbers of employees want more from their jobs than a paycheque. Organisational purpose is a strong motivator for many workers – especially younger employees. Engaging your staff with your business’s purpose can help increase commitment to your business and improve motivation.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

One of the most commonly known and influential workplace motivation theories was presented by Abraham Maslow and it is the Hierarchy of Needs.  The theory suggests that humans are motivated to satisfy five basic needs which, as the title suggests, are arranged in a hierarchy.

The hierarchy is represented by 5 steps:

  • Physiological needs – e.g. hunger, thirst, sleep
  • Safety needs – e.g. freedom, protection and no pain
  • Social needs – e.g. love, friendship and involvement in social activities
  • Esteem needs – e.g. self-confidence, recognition and appreciation
  • Self-actualisation – e.g. becoming the very best you can be

These 5 progressive categories begin with basic physical needs and progress up to the need for personal growth and career development.

It's asserted that a satisfied need is not a motivator and so once one set of needs has been met an individual is motivated to reach the next level of needs. A human’s innate desire to work our way up the hierarchy means that it is the unsatisfied needs that motivate a person to pursue satisfaction rather than the achievement of a set of needs.

It's claimed that employers must meet each level of an employee’s needs for them to be fully committed to workplace goals. Failure to meet an employee’s needs at any level may result in a lack of job fulfillment and cause such individuals to fulfill these needs on their own. This could be through seeking new employment that provides better opportunities.

How you can apply this in your business?

Lower level stuff

Many companies excel at meeting the lower level needs of their employees. There is no secret that companies such as Google provide their staff with free meals, juices, coffee and snacks and that is great, but it’s not something that makes them unique.

That is something easily replicated in any business. These are basic, physiological needs that you are probably already doing in your small business. Do you provide your staff with a kettle and tea and coffee? You’re already heading in the right direction.

What is different however, is that these things soon become the norm and, as previously mentioned, your employees are motivated by constantly striving for more. So if you’re not quite there with progressing to the higher stages of the pyramid you could try gradually introducing new elements that you’re happy to make a norm in the future. It could be that you buy in lunch for the team once a month.

You should remember that this doesn’t just count for food, although that is something that satisfies all of us. Other simple ways that you can help your employees on their journey up the Hierarchy of Needs is by mixing up your office environment.

Giving your white walls a splash of colour or investing in ergonomic furniture that is going to prevent your employees seizing up over their desks will go a long way to achieving employee satisfaction at the lower levels of the pyramid.

Getting to the top

Ideally what every business owner, manager, HR professional and well, any person is aiming for, is to get to the top of the Hierarchy of Needs and achieve true satisfaction, according to Maslow.

However, the majority of companies fall short and often remain stagnant on those lower levels of the pyramid. This is because as businessmen/women used to dealing with quantifiable numbers and objects, the abstract concept of self actualisation is hard to get your head around.

Totally understandable. Even as individuals it is difficult for us to realise what it will take for us to truly be the best we can be, let alone be able to do that for someone we work with.

Larger companies like Netflix are coming round to this realisation; they no longer have set working hours or a set number of holiday days, as long as the job gets done, they don’t mind when it’s happening. This taps into the esteem level of the pyramid, showing that they respect their employees and trust them enough to work when it suits them, whilst also having a positive effect on their work life balance.

Another large company that is working towards mastering the top level stuff is Deloitte. They offer two different sabbatical programmes; an unpaid one-month sabbatical that can be taken for any reason; and a three – six-month sabbatical that can be taken to pursue personal or professional growth opportunities.

This is all very well for these large businesses that can afford to give up these resources without huge consequence. There are ways that your small business can do these things too. Try hosting a company ‘work on what you want day’. This gives your employees the freedom to explore something that is a world away from their rigid to-do list or it could be a chance to achieve something they’ve wanted to do for ages but time restraints have prevented them from doing so. This is a small step into that top tier and providing your employee’s with the opportunity to realise their potential.

The satisfaction of achieving the lower levels of the Hierarchy of Needs are important as they are the foundation of the rest of the pyramid. However, you must remember that it can’t stop there. These basic needs will quickly become the norm and employees will be continually striving to progress further up the hierarchy.

If you, as an employer, are unable to provide them with the tools to help them to reach the top, because of your inability to understand the importance of abstract concepts, and achieve satisfaction with their professional life then they will seek that satisfaction elsewhere and continue to climb that career ladder.

The pros and cons of motivation theories 

The biggest difficulty of using motivation theories to get the most out of your staff is that there’s no single approach that works for everyone.

Financial reward may be important for some employees but for others it’s a small part of the puzzle. They may be more motivated by the job itself.

Similarly, incentives can be powerful. But beware, if those incentives appeal to only a few employees there is no impetus for other members of staff to increase their productivity.

Positive incentives such as a bonus or negatives incentive such as fear of being laid off, can affect people in different ways. Some employees will be inspired and go on to achieve while others will be consumed by anxiety which can have a detrimental effect on their productivity.

Ultimately, it’s part of a manager’s job to understand what motivates each employee. It’s not a quick and easy task, but the long-term gains of happy employees and increased productivity outweigh the time and effort of uncovering those motivations.

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Author: Laura Sands

Laura is a writer who enjoys getting into the detail of subjects and sharing that knowledge with snappy, interesting content. When not typing away, she enjoys walks in the woods and curling up with a good book and mug of something hot.

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