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A really quick guide to motivation theories

150 150 Matthew Doig


The vexed question of how to get people motivated and in to their work is as old as the workplace itself. Managers have long looked for the magic touch that will enable them to transform indifference into enthusiasm and at minimal cost and effort as well.

While there are a lot of theories out there relating to motivation here are four that have stood the test of time and are still actively discussed by motivators:

Need theories – people are prepared to exert a high level of effort on behalf of an organisation in order to have an internal need fulfilled. They are usually divided into deficiency needs such as needing money to feel secure or growth needs, where they have a desire to feel like they are growing in their job and achieving things. Workplaces need to ensure that these levels of need are considered in the way jobs and the workplace are structured. A famous name associated with this theory is Abraham Maslow and his “Hierarchy of Needs.”

Equity theory – people maintain a balance between what they put into a job and what they get out of it. If they feel they (and others with whom they work) are being treated fairly, then they will continue to put in an effort. This sense of fairness can change very quickly depending on the workplace environment. Staff will put in a lot of effort if they feel a fair balance is being maintained in other ways, even if it just by management showing appreciation for what they have been doing. When I worked in the Public Service, my manager was not is a position to pay me a bonus, but I still felt very motivated when he  thanked me for the hard work I had put in.

Job design theory – based on the work of Frederick Herzberg and still one of the most popular of the theories. This theory talks about hygiene versus motivational factors. The hygiene factors are the things which people need to avoid discomfort and a lack of satisfaction, and in the modern workplace would include good staff facilities and conditions. Whilst these may prevent dissatisfaction, only motivational factors such as being given the chance to advance and experience personal growth will result in true motivation. For this reason organisations look for ways to enrich the jobs people have through such things as job sharing in order to give people a feeling of progress and self development.

Expectancy theory – This theory was developed by Victor Vroom and talks about the  strength of people’s motivation being based on two things. The first relates to how strongly we feel we can succeed. People who feel they can never achieve a lot in their job will lack motivation, but if they feel something is attainable then they will more likely strive for it. The second factor relates to the likelihood that we will get something of value in return for our efforts. Would a money bonus or a guaranteed promotion motivate people; in many cases yes. The idea behind this theory is that if we help people believe they can succeed at something and then let them know they will get something valuable when they do, then they will be motivated to do the hard work required.

Having an awareness of these theories is useful, but at the end of the day you will need to look to your own solutions to ensure a motivated work force. All of this theory also overlooks the fact that some people are just naturally more enthusiastic than others and will respond to positive efforts to get them motivated more readily than others. The main thing is to ensure that the motivation of your people is something you, as the manager or business owner, spend a lot of time checking and thinking about!