Motivation Theory: Top 5 Motivation Theories Explained

Scientists have been trying to figure out what gives us the motivation to work, study, lose weight – basically, where the motivation to do anything comes from. Each of them had a different approach and a different theory coming out of it.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Coined in the early 40s, this famous theory is based on human needs. Relying mainly on his clinical experience, Maslow divided and classified all of our needs in a hierarchical manner explaining that the lower levels need to be fulfilled if we want to get to the higher levels. He identified five categories of needs that dictate our behaviour:

•      physiological needs

•      safety needs

•      love and belonging

•      esteem

•      self-actualization

Our need to grow does not come from a lack of something, but from our desire to grow as a person. Only once we satisfy the four lower levels are we able to get to the highest level of self-actualization.

Everyone is able and has the desire to go up in the hierarchy. However, our progress often gets messed up when we fail to meet our lower-level needs. Our life experiences, such as losing a job or getting divorced can cause us to alternate between levels of the hierarchy.

It is important to realise that all of us will not move through the hierarchy in one direction only, but rather go back and forth between the four categories of needs.

Herzberg’s Two-factor Theory

Herzberg extended Maslow’s work and proposed an alternative theory known as the Hygiene or Two-Factor Theory. The psychologist conducted a motivational study on 200 workers, primarily accountants and engineers working in the area of Western Pennsylvania. 

The workers were asked to describe two occurrences at their jobs – when they felt particularly good about their job and when they felt really bad. Their responses turned out to be very interesting and quite consistent. Their good feelings were mainly associated with job satisfaction, and their bad feelings were a result of job dissatisfaction. Herzberg identified the job satisfiers (motivating factors), and he named the job dissatisfies hygiene or maintenance factors. Collectively, the motivators and hygiene factors came to be known as Herzberg’s two-factor theory of motivation.

The psychologist came to the conclusion that the opposite of satisfaction is not dissatisfaction. He claims that the reason for this is that once the dissatisfying factors are removed from a job it doesn’t necessarily lead to making the job satisfying. What Herzberg believes in is the existence of a dual continuum. As he interprets it, the opposite of ‘satisfaction’ is ‘no satisfaction’ while the opposite of ‘dissatisfaction’ is ‘no dissatisfaction’. 

Herzberg concluded that today’s motivators are tomorrow’s hygiene since the latter stop influencing our behaviour once we get them. Subsequently, one man’s hygiene may be another man’s motivator.

McClelland’s Theory of Needs

Another famous theory of motivation founded on needs, but different from the hierarchy of needs based on satisfaction and dissatisfaction, was developed by David McClelland and his associates. This American psychologist formed his theory around Henry Murray’s long list of motives and manifest needs utilized in his early studies of personality. McClelland’s theory of needs is closely tied to the learning theory, since he believed that our needs are learned or gained by personal exertion stemming out of the events we experienced in our environment and culture.

He discovered that those that obtain a particular need behave differently from those who don’t. McClelland’s theory focuses on the three needs described by Murray; achievement, power and affiliation. 

Vroom’s Theory of Expectancy

Vroom’s Theory is one of the most commonly accepted explanation of motivation. Victor Vroom’s theory of expectancy is actually a cognitive process theory of motivation. It is founded on the key notions that people will be motivated to employ a high level of effort when they suppose there is a correlation between the effort they make, the performance they achieve, and the results or rewards they receive.

The key concepts in the expectancy theory of motivation are:

  • valence – the value or strength we place on a particular outcome
  • expectancy – relates efforts to performance
  • instrumentality – the conviction that performance is related to rewards

In this manner, Vroom expressed his theory with a mathematical formula: Motivation = Valence × Expectancy × Instrumentality.

Since the model is progressive in nature, all of the variables need to have high positive values to entail motivated performance choice. When one of the variables approaches zero, the possibility of a motivated performance also drops down to zero.

The valence we place on different rewards varies. For instance, one employee might prefer salary to benefits, and another one might choose benefits over salary. The value for the same outcome changes from situation to situation.

McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

The American social psychologist Douglas McGregor developed his theory while working as a management professor at the MIT Sloan School. The X and the Y refer to two styles of management – authoritarian (X) and participative (Y).  

Theory X is founded on the following presumptions:

  • Humans are naturally indolent. Specifically, they like to work as little as possible.
  • We lack ambition, don’t like responsibility, and favour being directed by others.
  • Humans are self-centred by nature and apathetic to organisational needs and goals.
  • We are generally naive and not very bright.

On the other hand, Theory Y is founded on the following presumptions:

  • Humans are not passive or resistant to organisational goals by nature.
  • We want to assume responsibility.
  • We want our organisation to succeed.
  • We are capable of directing their own behaviour.
  • We have a need for accomplishment.

McGregor tried to outline the extremes a bit dramatically to draw the barrier within which the organizational person is typically seen to behave. In reality, no organizational person actually belongs to either of the theories, but shares the traits of both. 

Although both X and Y styles of management can motivate employees, the success of each will depend on the needs and wants of your team and your organizational goals.

Motivation is a mental state that pushes all of us to do something with a high spirit and positivity. Those whose task is to organize other people have to ensure that the individuals in the team, as well as the organization are motivated. These different motivation theories can help us understand what motivates people so we can adapt our approach accordingly.