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Theories of Motivation

What is Motivation?

Elegantly described by Eisenhower, “Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it”. Creating an environment which encourages motivation helps individuals reach their full potential and promotes productivity. Motivated individuals believe they are investing their time in something worthwhile and usually enjoy their work. They tend to be highly adaptable, work hard and will complete tasks with a greater sense of urgency.

Motivation can be separated into two categories: intrinsic or extrinsic. See the education article on motivating students for a breakdown of motivation types in students.

Extrinsic Motivation

This is external to the individual. It describes the external factors that encourage your team members to do what you want. Examples include pay, time off or punishments.

Intrinsic Motivation

This is internal to the individual. It describes the personal desire to overcome a challenge or produce high quality work. They get satisfaction from what they do.

An organisation is composed of different individuals with unique personalities. Each individual will have different motivations and will respond differently to work demands or acts of feedback. Knowing what motivates your team members is crucial for learning how to manage your teams effectively. Motivation is a function of multiple motivators from both intrinsic and extrinsic categories. As a leader, you need to get to know your team members and discover what motivates them so you can create an environment to help them reach their full potential as they become intrinsically motivated.

Models for Improving Motivation

As with the different models of leadership, there have been multiple attempts to understand what causes motivation. While no theory is absolute, we will discuss several so you can gain a greater appreciation of motivation and form your own opinions on how to motivate your teams. See our article on transformational leadership for ideas on how to incorporate motivation with your leadership style. Here we will discuss five different theories of motivation.

Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory

Psychologist Fredrick Herzberg attempted to determine the effect of attitude on motivation during the 1950-60s. He asked employees to describe situations in which they felt really good about their jobs and then situations in which they felt really bad about their jobs. The responses were different and formed the basis of modern motivational practice. He further discussed his findings in the Harvard Business Review article “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?”.

Herzberg found that there are certain characteristics of a job which are consistently related to job satisfaction, while there are others which are associated with job dissatisfaction. He concluded that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not opposites. He proposed that the opposite of satisfaction is no satisfaction, and the opposite of dissatisfaction is no dissatisfaction. Therefore, correcting the causes of dissatisfaction will not create satisfaction, nor will increasing the factors for satisfaction reduce dissatisfaction.

If you were to reduce dissatisfaction, you may create harmony, but this will not necessarily enhance performance. Motivation can be achieved through focus on the factors for satisfaction. This assumes that job satisfaction is strongly associated with productivity, which may or may not be correct.

Herzberg's Theory of Motivation

Using a two-step process, you should set about first correcting the factors for dissatisfaction and then proceed to creating satisfaction by addressing the motivational factors associated with work. This final step is known as “job enrichment”. In broad terms, this involves:

  • Providing opportunities for achievement.
  • Recognising people’s contributions.
  • Creating work that is rewarding and matches people’s skills and abilities.
  • Giving as much responsibility to each team member as possible.
  • Providing opportunities to advance in the company.
  • Offer training and development opportunities so that people can pursue the positions they want within the company.

Remember, individuals will need tailored approaches. They have their own unique backgrounds and circumstances meaning they will be driven by different motivating factors. Make sure you get to know your team members and find out what really matters to them. This theory underpins the practice of allowing greater responsibility and control for individuals as a means of increasing motivation and satisfaction.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow proposed the Hierarchy of Needs in his 1943 article “A Theory of Human Motivation”. He proposed that leaders must understand and look after the needs and well-being of team members. He believed that once their most basic needs were met, individuals would strive to satisfy a higher set of needs such as self-esteem and self-actualisation.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Use this theory as a framework to guide you as you think about your team’s needs. It demonstrates that a simple salary raise is not always sufficient to meet the needs of an individual (i.e. it only addresses level 1 and 2), and that addressing the higher needs may be more beneficial at improving their satisfaction. Therefore, you can become a good leader by addressing the higher needs as you create a sense of belonging and help individuals improve their sense of self-esteem as they journey towards self-actualisation.

Sirota’s Three-Factor Theory

Created by Dr Sirota, this model is based on the idea employees in new jobs are both enthusiastic and motivated. He proposes this level of motivation is the natural state and it is steadily eroded over time due to bad practices and poor conditions. This model begins with three assumptions:

  1. The organisation’s goals are not in conflict with the workers’ goals.
  2. Workers have basic needs that organisations should try to meet.
  3. Staff enthusiasm is a source of competitive advantage.

He proposes that there are three factors which contribute to enthusiasm. By addressing all three factors you can restore the higher levels of enthusiasm and promote both satisfaction and motivation. Please note that these factors are not independent of one another; all three must be addressed in order to see the benefits. They are as follows:





Individuals should be provided basic conditions that respect three elements: physiological, economic and psychological needs. The components in this section are similar to the Hygiene Factors described by Herzberg.

  • Physiological Safety
    • Ensure the work conditions are safe with regular training offered to reduce the chance of accidents. Reasonable expectations should be made about establishing healthy work-life balance.
  • Economic Security
    • Provide a level of job security where individuals receive competitive compensation and variable bonuses for performance. In the case of redundancy, all possible opportunities must be explored first with voluntary layoffs leading the job losses. Honest and open communication is needed during this process with financial support available for those who have lost their job.
  • Psychological Health
    • Create an environment of respect where all staff are treated similarly, irrespective of status or power. Leaders should show interest in their team members and support individuals as needed. Positive feedback and recognition should be given freely, while sufficient autonomy should be encouraged.


Individuals want to feel proud about the work they do and what the organisation achieves as a whole. He believed that an organisation had to meet four needs for individuals to feel this sense of achievement.

  • Provide an Enabling Work Environment
    • Individuals should have all the tools necessary to do the job well. Support effective teamwork with a flat leadership structure that encourages participation from everyone.
  • Provide Challenging Work
    • Individuals like to do interesting work that tests their skills and abilities. Organisations should design enriching jobs; communicate how they contribute to the organisation and provide opportunities for personal development. New recruits should fit in with the company ethos.
  • Use Feedback, Recognition and Reward
    • Individuals should be regularly updated on their performance. Organisations must clearly communicate expectations, agree on priorities, use rewards to acknowledge achievement and promote from within.
  • Have Purpose and Principles
    • Individuals want to work for a company they can trust and be proud of. Organisations must communicate a vision with strong ethical principles, and it must be able to uphold what it stands for. Finally, the service or product provided must be of high quality.


Interpersonal relationships are very important for helping individuals enjoy themselves. Create a culture that encourages co-operation, communication and acceptance. This requires a culture of partnership.

  • Partnership Culture
    • Workers need to feel a sense of community and teamwork. Ensure that empathy, consideration and respect are expected from each individual. Provide social opportunities and encourage interactions across different teams. Reward positive team behaviours.

McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory

David McClelland built on Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs by identifying three motivators he believed were common to all people. McClelland believed that these motivators are learned, and our dominant motivator is the result of our culture and life experiences. Depending upon your dominant motivator, you will display different characteristics. The motivators and characteristics are as follows:


  • Has a strong need to set and accomplish challenging goals.
  • Takes calculated risks to accomplish their goals.
  • Likes to receive regular feedback on their progress and achievements.
  • Often likes to work alone.


  • Wants to belong to the group.
  • Wants to be liked and will often go along with whatever the rest of the group wants to do.
  • Favours collaboration over competition.
  • Doesn’t like high risk or uncertainty.


  • Wants to control and influence others.
  • Likes to win arguments.
  • Enjoys competition and winning.
  • Enjoys status and recognition.

Please note that power can be separated into personal power (want to control others) or institutional power (want to organise efforts of a team to further a company’s goals).

McClelland’s theory can be used to identify the dominant motivators of individuals on your team based upon their personality and past actions. You can use this knowledge to tailor your leadership approach towards their dominant motivator and gain the most effective results.

They will be motivated by challenging projects and thrive on overcoming difficulties. They may work well alone or in combination with other high achievers. They favour feedback that is balanced and shows them what they are doing both right and wrong.
They will be motivated by working in a group environment. Embed them into a team where possible and reduce both risk and uncertainty. Feedback should be personal and begin by emphasising their good working relationship with you. They prefer praise in private.
They will be motivated by being in charge. They enjoy competition and will perform well with goal-orientated projects or tasks. They may be effective in negotiations or situations requiring persuasion. Feedback should be direct and aimed at helping them further their career goals.

Progress Theory

Proposed by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in their 2011 book “The Progress Principle”, the Progress Theory is based on the power of small wins. They believed that the way in which people completed their work had a significant effect on motivation, creativity and productivity. Along with recognising successes, they have identified six objectives that can be met in order to give people the best chance of experiencing and recognising meaningful progress.

Set Clear Goals and Objectives

Use SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals so that everyone understands what is expected of them and they will know when they have achieved their goal. Make clear the value their tasks hold for the organisation as a whole.

Allow Autonomy

Give team members the autonomy on how to accomplish these goals. The more control they have, the more empowered and creative they will feel. They will also feel a greater sense of achievement.

Provide Resources

Ensure your team has sufficient tools and resources in place to consistently complete the required tasks.

Allow Ample Time

Find the right balance of time to enable your teams to complete their work efficiently without harming creativity or creating undue stress.

Provide Support and Expertise

Foster a collaborative environment where individuals have access to support and expertise that can help them move forwards in their role.

Learn from “Failure”

Not all failure is due to sloppy work or failure to prepare. There are plenty of honest failures where individuals have given their best. In any case, support individuals, discuss why it went wrong and learn from the experience. Do not assign blame.