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 ].

Tips for effective communication

The previous post is all about theoretical knowledge of communication. In this post, I will make it more practical by suggesting tips that can be used to improve the effectiveness of communication. The tips will be categorized into 4 sections: conversation, listening, writing and emails.


Tips for better conversation
  • Think before you speak: Some people response very quickly to other’s saying or questions, thinking that it would make them look smart. However,  a careful silence moment for preparation can make us sound more intelligent and prevent mistakes.
  • Be receptive to new ideas: By saying “Tell me more” instead of “That’s stupid” when hearing something that you do not agree to can help you to get more information and move the conversation forward.
  • Ask questions: This show that you are interested in the topic.
  • Listen as much, if not more, than you speak: You can not learn from the conversation if you are the only one who speak.
  • Use eye contact: Eye contact shows that you are engaged in the conversation. It should be noted that for some cultures, it is rude to maintain eye contact with the speakers. For other cultures, such as in the US, maintaining eye contact shows that you are a trustworthy person.
  • Mirror the other person:  Repeat what the other say in your own words “So you mean that …”.
  • Have an exit strategy: Sometimes, good conversation is a brief one, leaving others wanting more.
Tips for active listening:
  • Pay attention: This can be done by keeping eye contact with the speaker and avoiding having distracted thoughts. Research also shows that people listen more effectively when they do nothing else at the same time. So no multitasking while listening, including taking note. In addition, the body language of the speaker should also be checked to see if it actually matches with the message or not. If they do not match, the message should be confirmed with the speaker.
  • Show that you are listening: This can be done by nodding occasionally or by other facial expressions such as smiling. In addition, such small verbal comments as “Uh…”, “Yes…” should be used to encourage the speaker.
  • Provide feedback: This can be done by asking questions or reflecting what has been said by paraphrasing.
  • Defer judgment: Preparing for counter arguments while listening is strongly not recommended. This is also consistent with the first tip about no multitasking while listening. In addition, it is very important not to interrupt the speakers with counter arguments. Interrupting can be offensive and aggressive in some situations.
  • Silence can be a beautiful thing: It is totally fine to have a moment of silence for some preparation before you start your turn to speak.
Tips for effective writing:
  • Picture the receiver in your mind before you begin to write: This can help you to select the words and expressions that can be understood by the readers.
  • Choose simple words: For words that have the same meaning, simpler one should be used. For example, “car” should be used instead of “automobile”.
  • Be polite: It is always good to be polite in your writing.
  • Trim redundant words or phrases: “Having thus explored our first option, I would now like to begin to explore the second option that may be open to us.” should be replaced by “After considering option 1, I would like to look at option 2”.
  • Choose strong, active verbs: Instead of writing “It would seem to me that we might…”, “I suggest…” should be used.
Tips for emails:
  • Be concise: The shorter the email is, the better it is. It is also a good practice to have only one topic for one email.
  • Communicate “action steps” first, not last: Make the request in the first line (or even in the subject) of the email. Repeat the request again at the end if the email is long.
  • Number the questions or ideas: When there are multiple questions or ideas in the email, they should be numbered. This can help the recipients to address those questions or ideas more quickly in their replies.
  • Include deadlines: If the request in the email has a deadline, it should also be included in the email.
  • Use “FYI” for emails that have no actionable information: This is more convenient for the recipients to prioritize their emails.
  • Tell them that you will get to it later: This can minimize the anxiety of the senders and prevent them from sending the email again.
  • Avoid sending “Thanks!” emails: This can be arguable. Some people prefer receiving replied email with just the word “Thanks!” but for some people, this type of email is quite spammy because it has no value information.
  • Check before “Reply All”: This is to avoid sending sensitive information to some recipients who should not receive it or spamming unrelated recipients with irrelevant information.

Bruno Kahne . (2008). Lessons of Silence. Available: Last accessed 26th Nov 2012.

Jocelyn K. Glei. (2010). Email Etiquette for the Super-Busy. Available: Last accessed 26th Nov 2012.

Mind Tools. (2012). Active Listening: Hear What People are Really Saying. Available: Last accessed 26th Nov 2012.

Talya Bauer and Berrin Erdogan (2009). Organizational Behavior. USA: Flat World Knowledge, Inc.


During my bachelor degree at University of Technology, Sydney, I had a course called “Engineering Communication”. That was a compulsory course for all engineering students and it was a 6 credits one. Basically the course taught us a lot of knowledge about communication as well as good practices to have effective communication not only at work but also in our daily life. It has been nearly 10 years since I studied that course and I still appreciate it. The course does not only improve my communication skills but it also helps me to acknowledge the significant importance of communication, both at work and in my daily life. As a result, I would like to write about this interesting topic, may be in several posts. I will begin with the general knowledge about communication in this post. Discussion about good practices and tips for effective communication will be provided in the next post.

1. Understanding communication

According to Webster’s dictionary, communication is a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior. The following diagram explains the communication process:
Communication process
A communication process must have at least two people: a sender and a receiver. The sender has some ideas in his mind and he translates the ideas into words by encoding the message. The medium of this encoded message can be spoken words, written words or signs. This message is transmitted to the receiver and the receiver decodes the message by assigning meaning to the words. However, the understanding of the receiver about the message may not be the same as what the sender means. This problem is caused by noise. Noise is anything that interferes with or distorts the message being transformed and it can be both external or internal. External noise is noise that is in the environment such as distractions whereas internal noise occurs within the sender or the receiver. For example, the sender may be too upset to encode an accurate message or the receiver may be too nervous to pay attention to the message.

Communication is important due to the following reasons:
  • In most organizations, communication is considered as one of the most important soft skills that employees should have and it is assessed in most performance appraisal evaluations.
  • Researches have shown that from 50% to 90% of a manager’s time is spent on communicating.
  • Poor communication also has significant impact on productivity. According to Bauer and Erdogan (2009), 14% of each workweek is wasted on poor communication.
  • Miscommunication is a causal factor in approximately 70% to 80% of all accidents (Bauer and Erdogan, 2009).

2. Types of communication

There are 3 types of communication:
  • Verbal: Verbal communications take place over in person or over the phone. The medium of the message is oral.
  • Written: The medium of the message in written communications is printed.
  • Nonverbal: In nonverbal communications, the messages are transmitted via eye contacts, tone of voice, facial expressions, postures, touches, body languages or even the distance between the sender and the receiver.

Research has shown that only 7% of a receiver’s comprehension of a message is based on the sender’s actual words, 38% is based on para-language (the tone, pace, and volume of speech), and 55% is based on nonverbal cues such as body language (Bauer and Erdogan, 2009). Another interesting fact is that our average speaking speed is just approximately 150 words per minute whereas the listening speed is about 400-500 words per minute. This simply means that the audience has more than enough time to hear and as a result, their minds may wander during the conversation.

In communication, the distance between the speakers is also important and this varies from culture to culture. The following chart shows the relationship between the distance and the intimacy level between people when communicating in Western culture:
Communication distance
People have intimate distance when they are really close to each other such as couples. Personal distance is for friends and family members whereas social distance is the distance that one keep with strangers. The distance between people while communicating can tell the intimacy level between them and vice versa, people adjust the distance according to the relationship between them. However, this can vary from culture to culture. For instance, people in such Asian cultures as Vietnamese or Chinese may stay closer when communicating and the chart above may not be applied to them.

3. Communication channels

Different communication channels have different levels of information richness. The following table illustrate that:
Information richness
The key to effective communication is to match the communication channel with the goal of the message. The following table suggests the usage of written communication versus verbal communication depending on the scenarios:
Written communication versus verbal communication

4. Barriers to effective communication

There are a lot of barriers to effective communication. In this post, I only discuss the four barriers that are important in my opinion:

Selective perception
Selective perception refers to the fact that we automatically filter what we see and hear to suit our own needs. This process happens unconsciously and it can act as a time-saver to help us process huge and complex information. However, it can also lead us to missing important or urgent information.

Information overload
Information Overload
In this information age, we are bombarded daily with so much information that we can take in. Those information can come from many sources: TV, newspapers, magazines, mail, emails, faxes and the world wide web. Research shows that information overload can significantly impacts our efficiency, creativity, and mental acuity.

Emotional disconnects
Emotional disconnects
Emotional disconnects happen when the sender or the receiver is emotional upset. A sender who is emotionally upset may be unable to present ideas or feelings effectively. Similarly, a receiver who is emotionally upset tends to ignore or distort what the sender is saying.

Same words can mean different things (or sometimes, nothing at all) to different people and this is called semantics. This usually happens with the usage of acronyms. For example, in my company, we have a project called DFS, which stands for Dragon Fly System. This same DFS acronym may have different meanings for different companies: for an IT company, DFS can stand for Distributed File System whereas for another company, it can stand for Department of Financial Services. Semantics can also happen in the usage of buzzwords, business jargons or technical jargons. For instance, the word “driver” can be understood as a person who drive a car but as a technical jargon, it also means “a computer program that operates or controls a particular type of device that is attached to a computer”.

5. References

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

Organizational Culture

1. Preface

The reason why I choose to write about organizational culture in my first post is because I think that it is one of the key factors that contributes to the success or failure of an organization. People talk about organizational culture all the time: in casual discussions between co-workers, in formal speeches given by a CEO, in interviews, etc…  but from my experience, not all of us have a clear understanding about it. Such questions as “What is organizational culture? How can we identify it? How can we measure or evaluate it?” are still a myth to some people.

The purpose of this post (and other similar posts after this) is to help the readers to gain more knowledge about organizational structure. What will be presented here is a combination of what I learn, read and experienced.

2. What is organizational culture?

Organizational culture is a set of basic beliefs and assumptions that are shared by members of an organization, showing them what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior (Bauer and Erdogan, 2009). To make it more casual, organizational culture is basically “how we do things around here”. The verb “do” in this definition has a very broad meaning, covering all activities that happen at an organization. Such things are all part of the organizational culture:
  • How do people dress? Formal or casual?
  • Is it appropriate to argue with the boss in public?
  • Is it normal to work overtime?
  • Is it important to check email regularly during weekend?
  • Is it normal to take risk?
  • How are people rewarded or promoted?
  • … and many more things

Organizational Culture

So the scope of what define an organizational culture is broad. But where are they “stored”? Where are they “contained” or documented? According to Bauer and Erdogan (2009),  an organizational culture is “contained” at three levels: assumptions, values and artifacts.

Levels of organizational culture

The first two levels, assumptions and values, are below our conscious awareness. They are the shared beliefs, principles, standards, and goals of members within the organization. And at the surface, there are artifacts, the visible aspects of organizational culture. Here are some examples of these artifacts:
  • Logo
  • Slogan
  • Policies, rules and procedures
  • Guidelines
  • Reward system
  • Workflow and process
  • Organizational structure and titles
  • Orientation plan
  • Training programs
  • Physical environment
  • Office layout
  • Employee interaction

3. Key dimension of organizational culture

So now you can identify what make your organizational culture. How can you analyze and evaluate it? There are many approaches for this but the one that I prefer is to use the key dimensions. In this approach, organizational culture will be analyzed and evaluated basing on the seven key dimensions:
  • Individual autonomy: the level of responsibility, independence and empowerment that an individual has in the organization.
  • Structure: the number of rules and regulations, the number of hierarchical levels in the  organizational structure.
  • Support: the degree of assistance provided by managers to their subordinates.
  • Identification: the level of proudness that members have to be part of the organization.
  • Performance reward: the degree to which reward allocations (promotions, salary increases, bonus…) are based on performance criteria.
  • Conflict tolerance: the level of conflict exists in the relationships between members of the organization.
  • Risk tolerance: the degree to which employees are encouraged to be aggressive, innovative, and risk seeking.

4. Primary characteristics of organizational culture

Another approach to characterize an organizational culture is to use the OCP (Organizational Culture Profile) framework.

Organizational Culture Profile

According to the OCP framework, an organizational culture can have one or more of the following characteristics:
  • Innovative: companies that have innovative cultures are flexible, adaptable, and experiment with new ideas. They usually have flat structure in which titles and other status distinctions tend to be downplayed. Examples for this are startup software companies.
  • Aggressive: companies with aggressive cultures encourage competitiveness and outperforming competitors. Such companies as Microsoft or Apple are good example of this type of culture.
  • Outcome-oriented: cultures that focus on achievement, results, and actions. In such cultures, rewards are tied to performance indicators, not to seniority or loyalty. Best Buy is a good example in this case.
  • Stable: cultures that are predictable, rule-oriented, and bureaucratic. Examples of this type of culture can be found in most of the public sector institutions.
  • People-oriented: cultures that value fairness, supportiveness, and respect for individual rights. Company with this type of culture believe that people are their greatest asset and create an atmosphere where work is fun.
  • Team-oriented: cultures that emphasize collaboration and cooperation among employees. In team-oriented organizations, members tend to have more positive relationships with their coworkers as well as their managers. Southwest Airlines can be a good example for this type of culture.
  • Detail-oriented: cultures that focus on precision and paying attention to details. Examples for this are big hotels or McDonald’s Corporation.

5. Strong versus weak organizational culture

A strong organizational culture is the one that is aligned with the strategic plan of the company. In strong organizational cultures, all members have a consensus on the values that drive the organization. Researches have shown that strong organizational  culture usually has positive impacts on performance of the organizations.

On the contrary, a weak organizational culture will have negative impacts on the performance of the organization because it fails to align with the strategic plan. Here are some signs of a weak organizational culture (Deal and Kennedy, 2000):
  • Organizational members have no clear values or beliefs about how to succeed in their business.
  • Organizational members have many beliefs as to how to succeed but cannot agree on which are most important.
  • Different parts of the organization have fundamentally different beliefs about how to succeed.
  • Those who personify the culture are destructive or disruptive and don’t build on any common understanding about what is important.
  • The rituals of day-to-day organizational life are disorganized or working at cross-purposes.

6. Sources of organizational culture

So where do organizational cultures come from? Here are the three main sources of organizational culture:
  • Founders and CEO: an organizational cultures are usually tied to the personality, background, and values of its founder or upper managers, especially during it early years.
  • Industry determinants: industry characteristics and demands act as a force to create similarities among organizational cultures. For example, IT companies usually have innovative culture whereas companies in the insurance and banking industries are stable and rule-oriented.
  • National or regional culture: the culture of the country or the area where the company is located also has significant influence on its organizational culture, mainly via its staffs. A US company and a Vietnamese company, despite the fact that they are in the same industry, will have some certain differences in their organizational cultures.

7. Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize the following important points:
  • Companies need to select people who fit into its organizational culture (and fire people who do not). People usually don’t change how they do things.
  • 30% of company merging is failed due to collapse of culture.
  • Organizational culture must be aligned with the strategic plan.
  • Leaders (founder, CEO, Executive team…) are very important factors that drive the organizational culture. People always look up to see what their leaders are doing. As a result, leaders need to walk the talk.

8. References

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

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

Deal, T. and Kennedy, A., 2000. Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. 1st ed. Basic Books.