Using Theories of Motivation to Get It Done Already

How do we become one of those people with endless stores of motivation? How do some people so easily achieve their goals? These are the questions that motivation psychology tries to answer. Over the years, many brilliant minds have attempted to define exactly what motivates people. Understanding the theories of motivation put forth by psychologists can actually help you increase your self-awareness and as a result, your success.   

There are many, many theories of motivation. In this article, we’ll look at some of the most popular ones, so you can analyze what factors are most likely to motivate you.  

Ready to learn about the theories of motivation in psychology and find the one that resonates with you to fast-track your goals?

What Are The Theories Of Motivation?

Motivation can change multiple times a day, seemingly without a reason. Once we understand what triggers the behavior, we can achieve our goals faster, become better managers in the workplace, and even improve our parenting skills.  

There are so many theories on motivation that they are typically broken down into categories. Let’s explore each one.

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Content Theories Of Motivation

The first types of motivation theory are content theory. These are also known as need-based theories or humanistic theories. 

Need-based theories posit that we are motivated by what we need or want. 

Theories Of Motivation By Maslow

Perhaps the most famous of these need-based theories is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.[1]https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1943-03751-001 Maslow’s theory is often depicted as a triangle, with the most basic needs forming the base of the pyramid and realizing your full potential at the top of the pyramid. 

Think of your needs as levels to ascend. Your needs must be fulfilled at the lowest level to focus on the needs in the next level, and once those needs are met, you can ascend to the level after that. Unmet needs at the lower levels make needs at the higher levels substantially more difficult to achieve.

  • Physiological. Food, water, and sleep form the base of the pyramid. If these needs aren’t met, you won’t be able to focus on the others.
  • Safety and security. Once your basic physical needs are met, you can then focus on shelter, physical health, financial security, and establishing a stable job.
  • Relationships with others. When you feel that you are secure with those needs, you have the mental space to focus on building relationships.
  • Self-esteem and status. Validating and rewarding needs come next, like recognition and awards.
  • Self-actualization. The pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy is where you realize your full potential. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Self-actualization Full potential and abilities
Self-esteem and status Respect, awards, grades
Love and belonging Relationships with others
Safety and security Shelter, health, financial, and job security
Physiological  Food, water

ERG Theory

Clayton Alderfer took Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and collapsed it from five levels of motivation into three to form the ERG Theory of Motivation.[2]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/003050736990004X He named his three core needs existence, relatedness, and growth — or ERG for short. ERG theory takes the needs from Maslow’s theory and combines them like so:

Category Need What Fulfills the Need
Growth Self-actualization Full potential and abilities
Growth/Relatedness Self-esteem and status Respect, awards, grades
Relatedness Love and belonging Relationships with others
Existence Safety and security Shelter, health, financial and job security
Physiological  Food, water

Alderfer also added his own spin to Maslow’s theory by adding that once the higher-level needs in the growth category become satisfied, the need for them grows in intensity. For example, once you start gaining respect, the more you will hunger for it. 

He also said that when we’re prevented from achieving higher-level needs, we regress to lower levels. 

Acquired Needs Theory

Also known as the achievement motivation theory, three needs theory, learned needs theory, and the theory of needs, David McClelland proposed the Acquired Needs Theory, which states that everyone has three needs:

  • Achievement
  • Affiliation 
  • Power

McClelland’s theory says that each person is motivated in differing amounts by each of these three needs. Some people are more prone to be motivated by a high need for power, others by a high need for achievement. Others may crave affiliation more. 

Two-Factor Theory of Workplace Motivation From Frederick Herzberg

Herzberg came up with a motivation theory that acknowledges taking things away from people can motivate them as well. His spin on motivation is called the two-factor theory, motivation-hygiene theory, and dual-factor theory. It is usually applied to motivation in the workplace. 

He divided his factors of motivation into two camps:

  • Hygiene factors. Hygiene factors are things associated with job dissatisfaction, like unsafe working conditions or a hostile work environment. The presence of negative hygiene factors can prevent motivation.
  • Motivators. Motivators are things like challenge, interesting work, and growing responsibility. Herzberg said that these are the elements that motivate people.  

This is called the dual-factor theory because the hygiene factors and motivators are on two separate planes. 

The hygiene factors affect dissatisfaction and the motivators increase satisfaction. If motivators are present but hygiene factors are an issue, workers have dissatisfaction and are difficult to motivate.  

Herzberg explains that in order to motivate people on the job, you must first eliminate dissatisfaction and then increase job satisfaction. Problem is, eliminating dissatisfaction doesn’t create motivation. Only the motivator factors will work when motivating employees.

So, for a workplace to create proper motivation in its people, it should incorporate a positive work environment, good wages, and opportunity for advancement and interesting work. 

What Does the Science Say about Herzberg’s Two-factor Theory?

Some studies say Herzberg’s theory does not predict job satisfaction.[3]https://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/docs/publications/75905635251f81e09ecbfa.pdf But others say employee satisfaction lines up with Herzberg’s theory pretty well.[4]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7486437/

Process Theories Of Motivation

The process theories come at motivation from a slightly different angle than the content theories. These theories look at the process of how people are motivated instead of looking at what they need. 

Reinforcement Theory

Also known as operant conditioning theory, reinforcement theory was proposed by B.F. Skinner. He believed that behavior could be evaluated through the consequences of said behavior. Essentially, he said people were motivated by punishment or reward. [5] … Continue reading

Skinner describes four kinds of reinforcement:

  • Positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is exactly what it sounds like. This is when you get rewarded for good behavior. 
  • Negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is where you experience having something you don’t enjoy taken away as a result of good behavior. For example, punishment is lifted if you complete your chores. 

Both positive and negative reinforcement encourage a behavior.

  • Extinction. Extinction is where a reward gets taken away as a result of an action. Say you stay late at work voluntarily, but you don’t get thanked for it or a bonus, so you stop staying late. 
  • Punishment. Punishment is receiving disciplinary action as a result of behavior. You call in sick too many times so you get fired.   

Extinction and punishment alike discourage a behavior. 

Expectancy Theory

Canadian Victor Vroom of Yale School of Management gave birth to the expectancy theory of motivation. He said that people are motivated by the following equation:

Level of Motivation = Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valance [6]https://psycnet.apa.org/journals/bul/78/1/1/

  • Expectancy is what you expect to receive for your effort.
  • Instrumentality is what you calculate you will earn, either in extrinsic or intrinsic rewards (external recognition/money or feelings of personal satisfaction) if you accomplish a task.
  • Valance is the size of the expected reward (or punishment) by which the expectancy and instrumentality are both multiplied.

Vroom also talked about the importance of perception. Just because you think you’re rewarding someone well, doesn’t mean that their valuation of the reward will equal yours.

Goal Setting Theory  

The goal-setting theory of motivation [7]http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.553.1396&rep=rep1&type=pdf was put forth by Edwin Locke [8]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0030507368900044and he later expounded upon his theory with the help of his colleague Gary Latham. 

According to Locke and Latham, there are five main elements that when applied to goal-setting, increase chances of success and motivation.

They are:

  1. Set a clear, specific goal.
  2. Make sure your goal is not too easy or extremely difficult. Ideal goals are complex and just the right amount of challenging. 
  3. Commit to the goal. 
  4. Regularly evaluate your progress. Otherwise, how will you know if you’re making progress?
  5. Consider the complexity of the goal and adjust your methods accordingly. If it’s too complex, break it down. 

Locke and Latham have influenced much of today’s thinking about goal setting. Their work is where the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) goal (which many productivity and success gurus advocated) stems from. 

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Equity Theory Of Motivation

Equity theory [9]https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/equity-theory was originally posited by Edward Lawler[10]https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1969-07445-001and expounded upon by Goodman and Friedman, Campbell and Pritchard, and J. Stacy Adams. [11]https://web.mit.edu/curhan/www/docs/Articles/15341_Readings/Justice/EquityTheoryPredictionsOfBehavoirInOrganizations_Mowday.pdf[12]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0065260108600581

Equity theory, like Vroom’s expectancy theory, talks about perception. This theory says people are motivated by reward — but only if they think the reward is fair in relation to the effort they have to put forth in order to receive the reward. Furthermore, people’s perception of how they think other people are being rewarded affects their level of motivation. 

Think about how you would feel if you found out a coworker with the exact same skills, education, and performance was making 50% more money than you for the same job…how motivated would you feel to continue doing your job? That’s the equity theory of motivation.  

Physical Motivation

Theories of motivation don’t just apply to strictly psychological factors. Several scientists have looked at how both psychology and biology may play a role in motivation. 

Arousal Theory

The arousal theory of motivation, developed by RE Thayer, says that every person has an ideal arousal level, and that they are motivated by trying to achieve that state. [13]https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2005-10492-001

Arousal theory postulates that motivation is achieved through the search for the release of dopamine, a chemical that acts on your brain’s reward system. For some people, this would mean a high drive to seek reward, and for others, it would mean a lower drive. 

Drive Theory 

Clark Hull’s drive theory, or drive reduction theory of motivation states that we are always seeking equilibrium — and therefore any time we feel out of balance, we are motivated to take action to return to our natural, stable state. [14]https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1955-01742-001

Hull and his associate Kenneth Spence believed in this way, motivation was a result of biological “drives.” So, if we are hungry, we are motivated to find food and satisfy the tension of the unmet need. 

Which Motivation Theory Is Best?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is by far the best known of all the motivation theories, but in psychology, it’s actually not well respected. And in reality, it’s not really the most practical. Especially when it comes to motivation in the workplace.

Yes, everyone needs a certain baseline of physiological and safety needs met in order to find motivation at work.

But it’s Herzberg’s theories, centering on appropriately challenging and meaningful work that allows for increases in responsibility that more aptly apply to the modern worker. Locke and Latham’s work on goal setting appears highly relevant as well. 

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer [15]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17494252/ backed this up in their 2007 study that looked at the diary entries of 12,000 knowledge workers over the course of three years. When they analyzed the study participant’s thoughts and feelings recorded in the journals, they found that people were happier and more motivated to work when they felt they had done a good job and received recognition from their manager for it. 

They found that motivation was higher when employees had a passion for their work and felt positive about their team, bosses, and company. Furthermore, when employees were able to make meaningful progress every day on their work goals, they were more motivated. 

In truth, there’s no one way to categorize everyone’s motivation — which is why we’ve spent so much time trying to figure out what makes people driven to succeed over the years. 

The best we can do is motivate ourselves according to what feels right for us…whether that be the pursuit of dopamine as RE Thayer suggested, or the need for affiliation as McClelland proposed. 

Then hopefully, we can use the study of the theories of motivation to be more empathetic with our employees — and motivate them well, too.

It’s impossible to find one, universal motivating factor that explains human behavior. Nor is there one type of motivation that inspires an individual.  But lots of psychologists have tried to distinguish the types of motivation that we most often employ to get work done and achieve our goals.

Basically, motivation theories try to establish why humans behave in certain instances to satisfy unmet needs. In other words, we’re in a constant loop of needs (or wants) followed by behavior that satisfies the need…and motivation theories attempt to understand what triggers the behavior. 

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