Theories of motivation

Motivation is the psychological feature that causes us to act or behave in a particular way. In the context of organization, motivation can be defined as “the desire to achieve a goal or a certain performance level, leading to goal-directed behavior” (Bauer and Erdogan, 2009). As a result, motivation is very important for organization because it is one of the forces that lead to performance and productivity. The following equation show the relationship between job performance and motivation:
Performance and Motivation
The purpose of this post is to briefly introduce the theories of motivation. More practical and detailed discussion about motivation will be presented in later posts.

Generally speaking, the theories of motivation can be divided into 2 categories:
  • Need-based theories: These theories are conducted basing on studies and examination of individual needs. Most of need-based theories are introduced before process-based theories.
  • Process-based theories: These theories view motivation as a rational process rather than just an action aimed at satisfying a need. According to process-based theories, individuals analyze their environment, develop thoughts and feelings, and react in certain ways. As a result, process-based theories attempt to explain the thought processes of individuals who demonstrate motivated behavior.

1. Need-based theories of motivation

1.1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
This theory is based on a simple premise: people have needs that are hierarchically ranked. The following diagram shows the hierarchy of needs and details about them:
Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs

There are 5 levels of needs, starting from Physiological level (the most fundamental needs) to Self-Actualization level (the most advanced needs). Maslow’s theory says that:
  • There are some needs that are basic to all human beings, and if they are absent, nothing else matters.
  • As we satisfy these basic needs, we start looking to satisfy higher order needs.
  • Once a lower level need is satisfied, it no longer serves as a motivator.
  • By understanding what people need, we can have clues on how to motivate them.

1.2. ERG theory
ERG theory is a modification of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which basic human needs may be grouped under three categories: Existence, Relatedness, and Growth. Existence is equivalent to Maslow’s physiological and safety needs, Relatedness corresponds to social needs, and Growth refers to Maslow’s esteem and self-actualization.

ERG Theory

Here are some important points about this theory:
  • Unlike Maslow’s theory, ERG theory does not rank needs in any particular order and it explicitly recognizes that more than one need may operate at a given time.
  • ERG theory suggests that individuals who are frustrated in their attempts to satisfy one need may regress to another.
  • ERG theory implies that we need to recognize the multiple needs that may be driving individuals at a given point to understand their behavior and properly motivate them.

1.3. Two-Factor theory
This theory states that some factors eliminate job dissatisfaction (Hygiene Factors) and other factors increase job satisfaction (Motivators). Hygiene Factors include company policies, supervision, working conditions, salary, safety, and security on the job. When employees are happy with the Hygiene Factors, it does not mean that they are motivated. However, when the employees are not happy with the hygiene factors, they are demotivated.

Two Factor Theory

In contrast, Motivators are factors that are intrinsic to the job, such as achievement, recognition, interesting work, increased responsibilities, advancement, and growth opportunities. According to this theory, Motivators are the conditions that truly encourage employees to try harder.

1.4. Acquired-Needs theory (Three Needs theory)

This theory says that individuals acquire needs as a result of their life experiences and these needs can be categorized into 3 types:
  • Need for Power: The need to influence and lead others, and control one’s environment.
  • Need for Achievement: The need to accomplish goals, excel, and strive continually to do things better.
  • Need Affiliation: The need for friendly and close interpersonal relationships.

Acquired Needs Theory
According to this theory, all individuals possess a combination of these needs, and the dominant needs are thought to drive employee behavior. Among the need-based approaches to motivation, this theory is the one that has received the greatest amount of support.

2. Process-based theories of motivation

2.1. Equity theory
This theory says that an employee will compare his job’s inputs and outcomes with those of relevant others and then attempts to correct any inequity.

Equity Theory

Inputs are the contributions that the employee feels that he is making to the organization such as hard work, loyalty and skills. Outcomes are the perceived rewards that the employee can receive from the situation such as salary, promotion or even treatment from his manager. The referent that the employee uses to compare with can be a category of people or a specific person, such as a co-worker who has the same job title and performs the same type of tasks.

If the employee thinks that there is inequity or unfairness then he may have one or more of the following potential reactions:
  • Altering his perceptions of inputs and outcomes by:
    • Downplay his own inputs
    • Valuing his outcomes more highly
    • Value the referent’s inputs more highly
    • Downplay the referent’s outcomes
  • Having the referent increase inputs
  • Reducing his own inputs
  • Attempting to increase his outcomes
  • Changing the referent, comparing with someone else
  • Leaving the situation by quitting

2.2. Expectancy theory

This theory says that individual motivation is determined by a rational calculation in which individuals evaluate their situation by asking 3 questions:
  • Will my effort lead to high performance?
  • Will performance lead to outcomes?
  • Do I find the outcomes desirable?

Expectancy Theory

According to this theory, motivational strength is determined by the perceived probabilities of a given outcome and the attractiveness of that outcome to the individual. This equation show the relationship between those factors:
T = M x E x R
– T = tendency to act
– M = strength of motive
– E = expectation that motive will be rewarded
– R = reward value

2.3. Reinforcement theory
According to reinforcement theory, behavior is a function of its outcomes. This theory based on a simple idea: people will repeat the behaviors if those behaviors lead to good consequences and vice versa, people will stop the behaviors if those behaviors lead to negative outcomes. Reinforcement theory describes four interventions to modify employee behavior:

Reinforcement Interventions

Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement are the two methods to increase the desired behavior whereas Extinction and Punishment are used to reduce the frequency of negative behaviors. By properly tying rewards to positive behaviors, eliminating rewards following negative behaviors, and punishing negative behaviors, organization can increase the frequency of desired behaviors.


Bess, D., 2012. Motivation, BUS 626 Organizational Behavior. University of Hawaii at Manoa, unpublished

Bauer, T. and Erdogan, Berrin., 2009. Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. Flat World Knowledge, Inc.

Wikipedia, 2012. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 7 December 2012 ].


4 thoughts on “Theories of motivation

  1. Pingback: Motivating people using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs | Agile Vietnam

  2. Pingback: More discussion about Equity Theory | Agile Vietnam

  3. Pingback: More discussion about Reinforcement Theory | Agile Vietnam

  4. Pingback: What is your motivation orientation? | Agile Vietnam

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