May 28, 2024


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Faster, Higher, Stronger: Basic Theories of Motivation


Is it true that most people are motivated by a good salary and that a photo on the honor board is an atavism? What about those who can’t be surprised by bonuses and health insurance? We looked at the major theories of motivation and tried to understand how discoveries from 50 years ago can be used in managing people in 2022. ¬†Here’s what motivation is, how to solve the same problem using different approaches, and which ones are most effective.

What Motivation Is and Why Understand Motivation Theory

Motivation is the process of helping people achieve goals and strive for success in various activities. Unlike incentives, which are external factors, motivation is what pushes us to certain actions from within.

Let’s say you took John’s development team. He was a team leader, but he agreed to go to you as a senior developer at a higher wage. John has impressive experience, an excellent test case, and good theoretical knowledge. You expect a project involving such an experienced developer to take off in the coming months. But something went wrong: John isn’t involved, shows little initiative, and even makes annoying mistakes.

There could be many reasons for this, but one of them has to do with motivation. In his previous job, John was in a leadership position, communicating a lot with his team and solving managerial problems, while at his previous job he was getting considerably less, and now he is solely engaged in coding and doesn’t seem to be satisfied.

To unlock the potential of a good employee, a competent manager will turn to motivational theories. They allow us to understand what needs different people have, how they can be met, and how to help the employee perform better so that the team can move toward the intended goal

Now let’s find out what motivation theories are.

Content Theories

These theories are based on the definition of motives, internal human needs that motivate people to act in a certain way, and their classification and structuring.

Maslow Pyramid

This is one of the best known theories. Abraham Maslow divided all human needs into five levels and believed that the satisfaction of basic needs allows the transition to the satisfaction of higher level needs.

According to Maslow, until lower level needs are met, higher level needs don’t arise.

This theory has not been confirmed because in reality, human needs arise in an arbitrary order regardless of the satisfaction or non-satisfaction of needs at the level below. Besides, this theory doesn’t consider people’s individual characteristics.

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ERG Theory

Clayton Alderfer distinguished three groups of needs:

  • The need for existence (E – existence) is similar to the physiological needs in Maslow’s pyramid, such as food, drink, sleep, and security needs.
  • The need for connection or communication with others (R – relatedness).
  • The need for growth (G – growth) is the need for self-actualization, respect.

Alderfer believed that the movement from need to need can go both ways: if the need is satisfied, the person moves to a higher level, and if not satisfied, to a lower level. In this case, if a person moves to a lower level, he will put twice as much effort into the fulfillment of the need as the level above.

Here’s how this theory might help John and his supervisor. Obviously, John has an unfulfilled need for growth, which translates into self-actualization, leadership, and respect. If there are no conditions now for John to fulfill the need for growth, Alderfer suggests that the manager should redefine John’s efforts to fulfill the need for connection or existence. For example, introduce the practice of shared standups to discuss work performance or offer group activities after work: parties, gambling at PlayAmo¬†with each other, playing sports or games together. This is especially important if John works in a distributed team and doesn’t see his colleagues in the office.

McClelland’s Theory

In the theory proposed by David McClelland, people’s actions and motives are explained through the need for three components:

  • Such people are motivated by the ability to influence, mentor, or lead others. Discipline is important to them. However, they are not good team players: “In order for one to win or succeed, the other must lose.”
  • Employees for whom this factor is key tend to create and maintain social connections. They like to be part of a team, to feel the support, acceptance and respect of others. However, such people, according to McClelland, are unlikely to be good managers, because they worry too much about the opinions of others.
  • People with this need usually choose tasks of medium difficulty, which depend only on themselves, rather than on luck and good fortune. It is important for such employees to receive feedback on completed tasks.
  • According to this theory, people are motivated not by one of the factors, but by all three factors at once – in different proportions.

Here is how this theory can help John and his supervisor. Obviously, John is motivated in varying degrees by power and involvement – interaction with people, teamwork, the opportunity to be a mentor.

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His supervisor needs to identify these needs and suggest a new format of work: for example, create a working group with John as the leader.

Herzberg’s Two-factor Theory

The American psychologist Frederick Herzberg based his theory on the fact that job satisfaction is influenced by two types of factors:

  • Motivators are factors related to the nature and essence of the job. For example, success, career advancement, recognition and approval of performance, opportunities for creative and business development, and a high level of responsibility.
  • Hygiene factors related to the environment in which the employee must perform work. These include management policies, working conditions, salary, team relations, degree of job control, and status.

According to Herzberg, hygiene factors are not motivators, but if they are not properly enforced, employees will grow dissatisfied with their jobs.

Here’s how this theory might help John and his supervisor. On the one hand, John experiences job dissatisfaction because he does not feel influenced by some hygiene (external) factors – certain status, communication, and teamwork. On the other hand, he does not have enough intrinsic motivators to work harder either: he takes a position lower than in his previous job, does not see recognition of achievements and successes.

Here, the supervisor could make John the head of a small work group, so that he would feel valued and feel supported by his colleagues in teamwork. In this way, job satisfaction will increase.


Processual theories view motivation as an ongoing process in which people analyze their environment, develop reactions to the changing external environment, and choose certain behaviors.

Adams’ Theory of Fairness

This theory is based on the fact that people relate the effort invested in a task to the reward received and compare the amount of reward received for their contribution to that of others performing similar tasks.

Contribution can be understood as an employee’s time, expertise, qualifications, experience, and skills, while reward can be understood as monetary compensation, bonuses, various non-monetary bonuses, and flexible schedules.

According to Adams, if an employee believes that his colleague received more for the same job, he feels undeservedly offended and experiences psychological tension, which reduces motivation. Conversely, employees who are happy with the comparison of rewards and labor costs will try to work with the same or greater intensity.

Here’s how this theory might help John and his supervisor. It’s likely that John compares his experience and skills with his colleagues at the same level as him, and values his contribution to work tasks much higher because he has managerial experience, not only knows how to write code, but also looks at tasks strategically and coordinates his colleagues. In this case, John’s manager should think about additional rewards for him: it could be public praise and recognition of John’s contribution to the overall project, an offer to lead the working group.

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The Hawthorne Experiments

In the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, psychology professor Elton Mayo and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments in the small town of Hawthorne at Western Electrics.

The experiment was supposed to identify the main factors affecting labor productivity, for example:

  • The relationship between environmental changes and worker productivity.
  • The relationship between different combinations of work hours and rest breaks.
  • The relationship between team relationships and worker productivity.

These are the key findings after the experiments:

  • The economic success of a company is influenced by human problems or their absence: the acuteness of employees’ conflicts with the administration, their satisfaction with the work process, the degree of staff turnover, the relationship between employees, their attitude towards innovation.
  • Employees’ productivity depends on their desire to work, and this is influenced by how they evaluate their performance in the organization, the level of earnings and relations with colleagues and managers.
  • The need for recognition, security, and a sense of belonging play a greater role in motivating employees than physical working conditions.
  • A work group has a complex social organization with special norms of behavior, various social ties, and mutual evaluations. Within such groups, unscripted norms are established that govern the production and relationship with management.

Here is how this theory can help John and his supervisor. One of the findings of the Hawthorne experiments suggests to John’s supervisor that a sense of belonging and a satisfied need for recognition play an important role in motivating employees. We need to make John feel that he is part of the team, give him managerial authority, even if his area of responsibility is small, and praise John and his team’s successes.

Consider the climate established within work groups, how the “long-livers” explain the “rules of the game” to new employees, what example they set with their attitude to work and colleagues.