What are the Major Theories of Motivation?

February 14, 2010 - Tags:

The term motivation is defined as the process of inducing a person to function actively in order to achieve certain goals. The influence of motivation on people’s behavior depends on a number of factors. It is very individual and changeable relative to various stimuli and feedback reactions to people’s activities.

By motive we normally mean the factor that causes a person to undertake certain activities, as well as her internal and external driving force. Motives determine what has to be done and how it will be done in order to satisfy a person’s needs.

Stimulus plays an important role in the process of satisfying needs. Although the usual understanding of the word stimulus considers it to be a rewarding mechanism, the initial meaning of the word can be interpreted as either an incentive or a reason for a person’s activities. There are four major types of stimuli to be considered: forcing, material incentive, influence, and self-actualization.

Theories of motivation started to be developed in the second part of the twentieth century, after World War II. The question of increasing people’s productivity had not previously been of any concern to large companies because social and economic conditions were such that productivity was easily achieved by pure material factors. In other words, the demand for a workforce had been lower than the supply of people willing to find jobs.

In the late 1950s, the need and importance of motivation was first proven by a number of practical experiments. These experiments led to factors that seriously improved the companies’ abilities to improve productivity without making large investments. Since then many experiments and investigations have been undertaken in this area. A number of theories of motivation have been developed, and they can be grouped into three major categories: initial theories, content theories, and process theories.

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Initial theories of motivation were developed on the basis of the analysis of the historical experience of people’s behavior and of the application of simple stimuli of forcing as well as material and nonmaterial incentives. So-called Theory X, Y, and Z is looked upon as a good and simple example of one of the initial theories of motivation. Theory X was fully developed by McGregor, who added his Theory Y, while Theory Z was suggested much later by William Ouchi in his model of personal behavior and motivation. Theories X, Y, and Z represent different models of motivation based on different levels of needs and therefore all three theories should be used by a manager and applied to different members of a group.

Theory X is based on the fact that biological needs are the major factors in people’s motives and the fact that some people have a historical and genetically inherited unwillingness to work and can work only under forced conditions and a high level of control. It is clear that people of the type described can be found in any group or society, and therefore a good manager has to be ready to increase the productivity of such people by means of forcing, which is supported by a material incentive.

Theory Y describes the contrary type of people, characterized by a willingness to socialize and to work well, as well as their wish to take responsibility for their work, their readiness and need to use their intellectual and creative potential, and the need for special rewarding factors related to satisfying their wish for self-actualization. These types of employees can be stimulated by opportunities for self-assertion and to a lesser extent by nonmaterial and material incentives. However, the normal percentage of such employees in the group is from 15 to 20 percent; they are most often strong individualists and cannot fully expose their talents in a social group.

Theory Z states that some people have a combination of biological and social needs and prefer working in groups and making group decisions, but they like to have individual responsibility for their results and prefer to be controlled informally on the basis of clear evaluation criteria. According to this theory, a person is the most important part of any enterprise and therefore the attention of the enterprise should be focused on the employee and provide him or her long-term or lifelong employment. This theory describes a good employee who prefers to work in a group and to have stable goals for a long period of time. The major stimuli for these people, in order of importance, include material and moral stimuli, self-assertion, and forcing.

As has already been said, all three theories describe different groups of people and consider different motives and stimuli to be used.

As the investigations in the area of motivation developed, the new theories of motivation added complexity to the initial theories in order to make them more realistic and practical. The two theories we want to look at are the well-known theories of motivation developed by Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg in the United States.

Maslow’s theory of needs considers the fact that people constantly have some requirements from the outside world in order to feel satisfied. He tried to group the needs and set them out hierarchically as a pyramid and made a statement that each need, if not satisfied, motivates people to actions that they stop when the need is satisfied. The need is then automatically replaced by the next need. He also considers that the needs that are closer to the bottom of the pyramid have to be satisfied first.

The five groups of needs stated by Maslow are food, shelter, and clothing; security; socialization; recognition; and self-actualization.

Maslow’s pyramid of needs, however reasonable it seemed on paper, did not really work out that well in practice when applied on the level of socialization at large companies in the United States. It turned out that there are a number of weak factors in Maslow’s theory. Different needs show themselves differently in relation to various situational factors, content of work, status in the organization, age, etc. The needs do not necessarily follow in the order Maslow stated with his pyramid; satisfying higher groups of needs does not necessarily weaken their influence on motivating people. The need for self-actualization and recognition can cause increasing influence on motivation and dampen the physiological needs.

In the second part of the 1950s, Fredrick Herzberg developed a new model of motivation that has a lot in common with Maslow’s pyramid but does partially solve its major shortcomings. Based on a major investigation carried out among the high-level managers of a paintwork company to find out the major factors of positive and negative stimuli experienced by these people at their work at different times, Herzberg distinguished between two major categories of factors that he called "maintenance factors" and "motivation factors". The first category was related to external facts and included company policies, working conditions, salary levels, interpersonal relations within a group, and the degree of direct control over work. The second group, motivation factors, had to do with the content of the work and included success, career advancement, recognition, high levels of responsibility, opportunities for creative work, and personal development. Furthermore, Herzberg said that the maintenance factors need to be taken care of to keep people from feeling dissatisfied.

Maintenance factors must be satisfied before people can be affected by the motivation factors. Persons who are motivated will achieve very high levels of performance.

It is easy to see the similarities between Maslow’s and Herzberg’s theories; generally speaking, the first three levels of Maslow’s pyramid correspond to Herzberg’s maintenance factors, while the last two levels can easily be related to motivational factors. However, unlike Maslow, Herzberg does not think that the maintenance, or hygiene factors, cause certain patterns of behavior in the employees; it will only prevent them from feeling dissatisfied; meanwhile, in order to get people motivated, a good manager has to use motivational factors, or the higher level needs of Maslow’s pyramid.

The content theories of motivation have lots of similarities, but they basically fail to develop an algorithm that will work under any possible circumstance; nor do they explain what is actually underlying the phenomenon of motivation. They pay most attention to the analysis of the factors used for motivation and do not analyze the process of motivation itself. This is done in so-called process theories of motivation, which mainly focus on the way a person distributes his or her efforts to reach various goals and how he or she chooses a certain type of behavior. They also consider the fact that the behavior of a person is a function of his or her expectations and perceptions related to the current situation as well as the possible consequences of the type of behavior chosen.

Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory is based on the fact that the active need is not the only necessary condition of motivation for a person to reach stated goals. A person has to also expect that the behavior chosen will allow her to reach satisfaction or get what is being wished for.

According to Vroom, the model of motivation consists of three components:

  • Expected Results, Ex (Expectancy): Perceived effort-performance relationship.
  • Expected Rewards, Ins (Instrumentality): Perceived performancereward relationship.
  • Valence: Value of a reward for a person.

If the value of any of the three factors Vroom considers critically important for reaching motivation is low, the overall motivation will be weak and the productivity of work will be insufficient.

The combination of these factors can be presented as the following formula:

The practical application of this approach requires a manager to set up clear relations between the results achieved and the reward given. It is also important to consider that in order to reach the level of results corresponding to the reward, the employees’ wish for the reward has to be consistent with their level of authority and professional abilities.

J. Stacey Adams’s theory of equity states that people subjectively relate the reward gained to the effort spent and then compare it to the rewards that other people completing similar work are gaining. If the comparison shows inequity, a psychological tension develops. In order to balance the feeling of inequity, people can either change the level of effort spent or try to change the level of rewards obtained. The major conclusion the theory makes is that, until people feel they are getting a fair reward, they are going to decrease the intensity of their work.

Unfortunately, the practical application that many American companies made out of this theory moved them in the wrong direction. Companies set policies to try to hide the salary levels of different employees in the company. Instead of improving the feeling of equity, this action often develops the feeling or suspicion of inequity even where there is none.

Lyman Porter and Edward Lawler developed a complex process theory of motivation that combines the elements of both expectancy and equity theories. Their model has five variables: effort spent, perception, performance achieved, reward, and level of satisfaction. According to this model, the performance achieved is dependent on the efforts expended by the employee, his abilities, and his character, as well as his perception of his role. The level of effort spent is determined by the value of the reward and the confidence that this level of effort will actually result in a certain level of reward. The model acknowledges the relationship between reward and performance because the person satisfies his needs by gaining rewards for performance achieved.

According to the model shown in PORTER-LAWLER PROCESS MODEL OF MOTIVATION, the performance achieved by an employee (6) depends on the effort spent (3), his abilities (4), and his perception of his role (5). The effort spent depends in turn on the value of the reward (1) and how much a person sees the relationship between the effort spent and the reward gained—perceived effort/reward probability (2). The performance achieved (6) can cause intrinsic rewards such as a feeling of achievement (7) as well as extrinsic rewards such as recognition, career advancement, etc. (8). The employee has a feeling of satisfaction (10) if the perceived equity of the reward (9) is present.

There could be a relationship between the performance achieved and extrinsic rewards when these rewards reflect opportunities set by management for this employee. There is also a connection between performance and perceived equity of reward, which brings us back to the equity theory and the fact that people have their own opinion of the level of the equity of the reward. The satisfaction represents the result of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards with the consideration of their equity. Satisfaction is a measure of how valuable the reward really is for a person. This evaluation will influence the person’s perception of similar situations in the future.

The important conclusion of the theory was that the resulting work leads to satisfaction and not the other way around. Satisfaction leads to higher results, as many managers had thought for a long time.

The theory also had lots of practical applications. For example, based on their model, Porter and Lawler pointed out that an increase in salary leads to increased productivity only in a case where people find salary to be important; they also see a clear relationship between increased performance and productivity and increased salary. Although many managers declare that they are willing and even attempt to relate the salaries of their employees to their work results, they still tend to compensate according to the time spent on doing work and pay off their seniority rather than their ability and effort. Therefore, the model of salary suggested by Lawler consisted of three comparable components, including one of payments for fulfilling certain professional responsibilities, equal for all the people of the same position and professional status in the organization; one that was based on seniority and life cost factors; and one that varied for each employee based on the results achieved by them in past work periods.