Motivation and its theories


It is a cardinal truth that one of the most important aspects of successful management is to motivate its employees - Motivation and its theories introduction. Motivation can be defined as “the willingness to exert high levels of effort towards organizational goals, conditioned by the effort’s ability to satisfy some individual needs” (Robbins, 1998). In any organization, a manager must know what motivates his subordinates the most in order to make each of them to perform to the best of their ability. In other words, motivation is a human psychological characteristic that affects a person’s degree of commitment and dedication (James and Charles, 1987). It is an energy that drives a person towards a goal. The management’s challenge, thus, is to channelize this energy towards the organization’s ends (Mitchell, 1982). Leaders or managers always need to motivate others by fostering enthusiasm along with cultivating an environment in the organization in which the work is considered inspiring and satisfying. This will, obviously, persuade the employees to contribute in all possible ways to increase the productivity, efficiency and effectiveness of the organization.

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                                                           Theories of Motivation

A number of theories have been developed by the behavioral scientists regarding the process of motivation of employees by the managements. These theories can be classified broadly under two categories – the Content or Need theories and the Process theories. Motivation theories which are based on needs deal with the reasons which drive individual behavior. It contends that people are motivated in order to fulfill their internal needs. These theories specify the contents of human needs and, therefore, are rightly termed as content theories. Various other theories are concerned with the mechanics of motivation. These theories are referred to as process theories of motivation. While the content theories focus on the individual need that leads motivates them, the process theories aims at the dynamics of motivation and the process through which it occurs.

Content Theories

There are four major content theories proposed by Abraham Maslow, Frederick Herzberg, Clayton Alderfer and David McClelland. These theories are discussed hereunder one by one:

Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy Theory:

According to this theory, human needs form a five level hierarchical structure – physiological needs, safety and security needs, social needs, esteem needs and finally, self-actualization needs. All these needs are required to be satisfied one by one.

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory:

According to Herzberg, human beings are motivated by certain job content factors like job security, good pay, working conditions, recognitions, achievements etc. These factors contribute to the individual satisfaction and are known as motivators. Similarly, the opposite factors (like job insecurity, low pay and benefits, poor supervision, uncomfortable working conditions etc.) lead to employees’ dissatisfaction and are known as hygiene factors.

McClelland’s Needs Theory:

According to this theory, people are primarily motivated by three factors – achievement needs (desire for personal success), affiliation needs (love, friendship, affection, good relationship with other people of the society) and power needs (desire to be influential and to have an impact on others). He opines that human beings have a high need for institutional power, a moderate need for achievement and at least a minimum need for affiliation.

Alderfer’s ERG Theory:

This theory states that human beings are motivated by three groups of core needs – existence (need for psychological well being), relatedness (desire to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships) and growth (desire to be creative, personal development etc). All these needs can emerge simultaneously and people can move backward and forward through these needs continuum according to the circumstances.

                                                           Process Theories

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory:

This theory comprised the key concepts of valance, expectancy and instrumentality. Valence refers to the preference of individuals for a particular outcome. Expectancy is the chance that certain efforts will lead to required outcome and instrumentality means the probability that a successful performance will lead to a certain outcome.

Porter-Lawler Model:

This theory proposed that performance did not result from the satisfaction of an individual, rather performance leads to satisfaction through the reward process. The model suggests that the management should integrate the effort-performance-reward-satisfaction system to motivate the employees towards the achievement of desired goals.

Adam’s Equity Theory:

This theory is based on two variables – inputs and outcomes. The inputs refer to effort, experience and education. The output may consist of payment, benefits, rewards etc. An individual is always motivated only if the outcomes match his inputs. Hence, the theory refers to subjective judgment of an individual about the fairness of his reward relative to the inputs, with respect to the rewards of others.

Content Theory and Process Theory

Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy Theory:

One of the most popular explanations for human motivation was developed by a psychologist, Abraham Maslow and was widely accepted around the 1960s. The theory argues that human needs form a five-level hierarchical structure as follows:

Physiological Needs: They are the primary needs of human beings for food, clothing and shelter. An organization can fulfill the physiological needs of its employees by offering them adequate payments. According to Maslow, until these needs are satisfied the other needs will not act as a motivator. Further, once these needs are satisfied, it will not motivate individuals.

Safety and Security Needs: Once the psychological needs are met, individuals intend to be free from the fear of physical and financial harm. Once they feel reasonably safe and secure, they turn their attention to developing relationships with other.

Social Needs: They are also called need for belongingness. It involves the desire to affiliate with and be accepted by others. Organization can satisfy these needs of employees by allowing social interactions between them through coffee breaks, recreational facilities etc.

Esteem Needs: This level represents higher needs of individuals which include the desire to possess a positive self-image and obtain respect from others. The management can fulfill these needs by rewarding pay hike, promotion, office-car, stock options etc to its employees.

Self-actualization Needs: these comprise the highest level of needs that includes the desire to realize one’s own potential through continuous growth and self-development. The management can satisfy these needs of its employees by allowing them to participate in decision-making, providing them power to shape their jobs, freedom to express creativity etc.

Maslow argued that, unless the lower needs are satisfied, people would not be having the upper needs in the hierarchy; and, if one need is satisfied, people will not be motivated further by the same need.

Organizations Adopting Content Theories

Several organizations are inspired by the need theory of motivation. They motivate employees by providing good working conditions, recognizing good performance and reward employees accordingly, encouraging teamwork, providing training and development etc.

            Eli Lilly gives special attention to the creation of a work environment in which the employees would love to work. The new employees are personally greeted by their bosses. If the new employee is not a local resident, the boss goes to the railway station or airport to receive him, arranges for his accommodation, food and even laundry, if required. Though employees in other organizations work for six days a week, Eli Lilly provides holidays on alternate Saturdays (second and fourth). It also offers one week of paternity leave to its married male employees. The company takes timely feedback from its employees regarding the policies and work environment and adapt necessary action to rectify the weakness and problems identified by its employees.

            Nokia motivates employees through both monetary and non-monetary benefits. The company shares its profits with its employees. Up to 5 per cent of company’s earnings per share (EPS) are distributed among its employees. Nokia provides quick promotion for meritorious employees irrespective of their age, qualification and experience. Even a frontline staff stands a chance of being promoted to managerial positions.

            Cadbury India believes in developing informal culture. Employees can attend office in casuals. It provides gym, cafeteria, piped music etc. to its employees. Cadbury quickly allocates budgets to managers who propose innovative and feasible proposals.

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory:

The expectancy theory of motivation was proposed by Victor H. Vroom. It states that before putting in the effort for a particular job, individuals consider the following three issues:

What is the probability that the performance will be up to the required level?
What is the probability that the performance will lead to the desired outcomes?
What is the value assigned by the individual to the potential outcomes?
The key components of this theory are valence, expectancy and instrumentality and their relationship can be expressed as – Motivation = Valence x Expectancy x Instrumentality.

Valence: It is the motivational component that refers to the performance of an individual for a particular outcome. In simple words, it signifies the quantitative value of reward that one wants. When an individual has strong desire for outcome, the valence is positive and when the former wishes to avoid the outcome, the valence is negative. However, if the individual is indifferent to the outcome, the valence is zero.

Expectancy: It is the probability (ranging from 0 to 1) that a particular action or effort will lead to a particular outcome. In other words, all individuals will be motivated to reach their goal only when there is a connection between their effort and performance.

Instrumentality: This refers to the probability that a successful performance will lead to certain positive outcomes. The major outcomes that individual consider are the potential rewards such as incentives or bonuses, or a good feeling of accomplishment. The concept that, – “If I get a first class in MBA, what is the probability that I will get a good job” is an excellent example of instrumentality.

                                   Organization Adopting Process Theory

Wal-Mart stores Inc., the Arkansas-based retail giant, operates more than 2600 stores and supercenters in the United States. In addition to these, it also runs 472 Sam’s Clubs and more than 1000 stores worldwide. The number 1 retailer in the world takes the help of Vroom’s expectancy theory to motivate employees to deliver their best performance and give their 100 per cent to the company every day.

Vroom’s theory is based on the identification of three variables – expectancy or effort-performance linkage, instrumentality or performance-reward linkage, and valence or attractiveness of the reward. At Wal-Mart, all employees (referred to as Associates) are valued highly and provided with a lot of benefits in order to motivate them to work at the best possible levels. The benefits provided by the company to its Associates include – vacation and personal time, pay during holidays, medical and bereavement leave, maternity or paternity leave and so on. The company also provides the Associates and their spouse a 10 percent discount on select merchandise, confidential counseling services, Child Care Discounts, and GED (General Educational Development) scholarships and reimbursements on completion of GED. They also provide healthcare benefits, incentive bonuses, stock purchase programs, holiday bonuses and other benefits even to the part-time Associate.


It is beyond any iota of doubt that both the content theories and process theories are equally significant in motivating individuals. The content theories specify what motivates individuals and the process theories, on the other hand, focus on the dynamics of motivation and the way the process of motivation occurs. Both these theories, if implemented properly, can increase the productivity of an organization and limit its employee turnover by ensuring that its employees are satisfied with their job, which in turn, helps to increase their efficiency and effectiveness as well.


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