3 Theories of Employee Motivation

Motivation at work is critical to increasing productivity. Studies of employee motivation point to 3 theories that explain why people are motivated.

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Professional burnout. Two terrifying words that no employer wishes to hear. When there’s a lack of motivation in the workplace, it can not only bring down productivity, but it can mean that a business isn’t meeting its employees’ needs.

But keeping your employees motivated can require a little bit of planning and psychology. One size does not fit all in the motivation department. So what makes people tick, especially at work?

While it could be easy to narrow down motivations to simple aspirations such as money, human beings are more complicated than that. Some of us are motivated by external validation from our colleagues or our bosses, others by the intrinsic rewards of seeing the results of hard work.

Thankfully, the question of what motivates us has been examined before, and so there are some theories we can explore. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular and see how they can be applied to developing an engaging company culture.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

No list of motivational needs would be complete without this one. Arguably the most famous of the theories, Psychologist Abraham Maslow presented a hierarchy of 5 basic needs. Commonly presented as a pyramid, the needs go from the most basic survival needs to the highest of self-fulfillment. They are:

  1. Physiological needs: Food, water, warmth, sleep
  2. Safety needs: Personal security, health, finances
  3. Social needs: Family, friends, social involvement in one’s community
  4. Esteem needs: Self-confidence, respect, accomplishment
  5. Self-actualization needs: Authenticity, creativity, becoming the very best version of you possible

The theory implies that when someone meets their absolute basic physical needs, they will try to seek out the next one up. Having a good job with a competitive salary helps provide for physical needs, such as safety, food, and personal security.

But once those we meet those, it’s likely we’ll want more out of life — rather than just meeting the most mundane of needs. We start to seek fulfillment in other areas of our lives, especially at work. Humans spend approximately one-third of their lives at work, so naturally, employee satisfaction depends on other incentives.

Praise, bonuses, team building activities, training programs, and other perks of office life can help you not only to increase employee motivation but also keep top talent. A welcoming and inclusive workplace contributes to your employees’ social needs, a recognition program can boost their self-esteem, and professional development training provides a chance for self-actualization.

If you can hit every level of Marlow’s pyramid, it’s possible to foster long-term engagement and higher productivity.

A welcoming and inclusive workplace contributes to your employees’ social needs, a recognition program can boost their self-esteem, and professional development training provides a chance for self-actualization.

How to address potential disengagement

Some questions to help you conquer the higher levels of the pyramid and address potential disengagement are:

  • Is this a place where employees can grow into their potential?
  • Are my workers getting enough feedback on their projects?
  • Does everyone get the credit they deserve for what they’ve contributed?
  • Does the culture inside the workplace encourage warmth and respect?
  • Is there a clear path for my employees to improve and grow in their careers?

Of course, developing a good plan for tackling the more emotional needs requires more than just understanding a single theory. Let’s take a look at 2 more theories and see what they have to offer.

Motivation-hygiene theory

Psychologist Frederick Herzberg developed this theory after interviewing engineers and accountants. He theorized that workers are either satisfied or dissatisfied and called these “hygiene” factors. Hygiene factors don’t affect motivation, meaning one could be dissatisfied but still have motivation, such as fear. Motivation is either high or low for the worker, as are hygiene factors.

Hygiene factors include quality of working conditions, such as management, salary, and personal status in the company. Motivational factors on the other hand are things like achievement, personal responsibility for tasks, interest in the job, and employee recognition.

Given that there are both high and low factors for both hygiene and motivators, a workplace has 4 outcomes with this theory:

  1. High hygiene and high motivation: Best possible outcome. Employees feel both personally motivated and don’t have many complaints.
  2. High hygiene and low motivation: The job is basically a paycheck and nothing more. There is no personal motivation to perform better on the job.
  3. Low hygiene and high motivation: The job itself is challenging, perhaps even exciting. However, the pay is low enough that they’re struggling, and/or work conditions are not to standard.
  4. Low hygiene and low motivation: The bottom of the barrel. Nothing but complaints and the job itself is terrible.

Why your company should have high levels of hygiene and motivation

It’s essential that good management ensures that their employees have sufficient motivation to maximize output while maintaining a productive work environment for them.

In other words, having both high levels of hygiene and motivation are necessary for a successful and productive work environment. It’s essential that good management ensures that their employees have sufficient motivation to maximize output while maintaining a productive work environment for them.

This theory is great for reviewing your workplace culture and examining ways to maximize employee retention. You are more likely to keep happy employees if your company has high hygiene and motivation because even if your employees are motivated in a low hygiene environment, they are likely to leave as soon as another position offers them better pay or appreciation.

Three needs theory

Developed by psychologist David McClelland, this theory proposes that there are 3 basic needs: A need for achievement, a need for affiliation, and finally, a need for power.

While this might seem a bit similar to the other theories we’ve discussed already, we should make note that this one has a bit more of an individualistic application than the others.

The other 2 theories have focused on general needs with some note of the individual. This theory, on the other hand, proposes that there are 3 types of workers, and the needs reflect the worker themselves. For example, one person may be more interested in extrinsic rewards like personal recognition within group projects than another.

This theory proposes that there are 3 basic needs: A need for achievement, a need for affiliation, and finally, a need for power.

A worker with a need for achievement will focus on challenges and overcoming difficult tasks. They aren’t happy with tasks that are too simple or don’t utilize all of their skills. This kind of employee is extremely goal-driven and desires to receive recognition for what they’ve accomplished fulfilling these tasks.

Employees who need affiliation are much more focused on their social relationships with team members. Cooperation and maintaining social harmony are important to them, and they dislike standing out. This kind of employee doesn’t like to have sole responsibility for things as potential failure could mean their peers will dislike them.

Those who are motivated by power are workers who desire as much influence over the workplace as possible. Discipline is extremely important to them, and they very much so want to be the leader. Similar to the goal-driven employee, they are extremely goal-oriented and see growth within the company as a reward, not simply acknowledgment of what they’ve done.

Translating theories into business results

By being aware of the general basic needs, psychological needs, and finally the individual needs of your employees, creating a truly thriving workplace is definitely possible. These tools will help you and your HR department make better decisions when evaluating your workplace, but they will also enable your employees to be their best possible selves on the clock.

To learn more about how you can boost employee engagement at work, check out our free eBook on employee motivation.

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