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Work Motivation Theory – A Primer

In the last half-century a steady stream of motivation theories have each made their own indelible mark on the American workplace. This literature review does not attempt to cover every facet of every theory that has come on the scene in the last 60 years, but a brief summary of some of the star players is a good place to start when understanding what motivates people.

Motivation Theory

It is perhaps arguable that a summary of motivation research cannot be conducted without first acknowledging the work of Morris Viteles. One of the first researchers to address the question of work motivation, Viteles drew a distinction between the “capacity to work” and the “will to work” when examining behavioral drivers. In so doing, he suggested that for someone to perform, he or she must feel both a capacity and a willingness to do so. According to Landy and Conte, Viteles followed the logic that performance was an outcome of motivation, and that motivation was in turn an outcome of the fulfillment of needs. Viteles’s book, Motivation and Morale in Industry, was the first comprehensive work addressing motivation, and remained the authoritative book on the subject for close to three decades.

Need Hierarchy Theory

Another pivotal theory that had a profound effect on the question of workplace motivation was Maslow’s Need Hierarchy Theory. Maslow identified five primary needs:

Physiological needs: The need for things like food, water, and sleep.

Safety needs: The need for those things which provide an individual with a sense of safety and security.

Love needs: The interpersonal needs one has for acceptance by others.

Esteem needs: The need to be respected by others for one’s accomplishments and capabilities.

Self-actualization: The need to develop one’s self and capabilities to their fullest potential.

One aspect of need hierarchy theory worth noting is the iterative nature of the journey between these categories. According to Latham, the theory is characterized by needs shifting from one level to the next. As the one need is satisfied, its importance is diminished, while the importance of the next need then increases.

Theory X and Theory Y

Another theory to make a significant impression on the study of motivation at work is McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. In his theory, McGregor proposes that there are essentially two ways that managers might view employees: Theory X characterized managers that viewed employees as naturally lazy, passive, and even resistant to organizational needs, and that as such, would be unwilling to contribute in a meaningful way without active intervention on the part of the manager. In contrast, Theory Y managers take the opposite position, believing instead that employees are self-motivated and stand ready to direct their energies toward organizational goals. McGregor goes on to say that the externally-focused locus of Theory X was inadequate to motivate employees, and that Theory Y held the most promise for energizing a workforce.

Expectancy Theory

Expectancy Theory postulates that the effort an individual exerts is a function of his or her expectation of compensation. Simply put, the greater the expectation of reward, the greater effort someone is willing to invest in gaining that reward. The theory breaks this principles into four parts: the first is effort, the second is the intrinsic valence in the outcome resulting from the effort, third is the perceived causal relationship between the effort and the reward, and fourth is the valence of the reward itself to the individual. In essence, an individual becomes motivated to apply significant effort when he or she believes that the effort will result in improved performance, that the performance will then be recognized and rewarded, and that the rewards offered are perceived as valuable to that employee.

Equity Theory

Equity Theory simply states that people are motivated by their need to be treated fairly. It suggests that an individual looks at the ratio of his or her contributions, or “inputs” (effort, education, experience, etc.) in relation to his or her compensation, or “outcomes” (money, recognition, work conditions, etc.). The individual then compares this ratio with his or her peers. An unequal ratio, either in the input and outcomes ratio, or the comparison ratio, creates tension within the person that have to be addressed for him or her to feel motivated. If this tension is not addressed then something has to give. The individual may seek after greater compensation or may reduce the amount of effort exerted.

Goal Setting Theory

Goal Setting Theory suggests that specific and ambitious goals elicit better performance than ambiguous goals that are less than ambitious. Put another way, the greater the goal (in terms of specificity and ambition); the greater the performance. For example, it could be argued that elements of goal setting theory gave impetus to the space race and man’s first steps on the moon. With goal setting theory, the goal itself becomes a motivating force. Offering someone a specific and challenging goal can elicit greater motivation that simply telling that person to “do your best.” According to Mitchell and Daniels, goal setting theory is far and away the predominate theory in the field, with over a thousand articles and reviews published on the topic over the past three decades.

Social Cognitive Theory

Social Cognitive Theory details three specific factors that influence human behavior, then proposes five basic human capabilities by which cognitive motivational processes initiate, execute, and maintain behavior in a workplace environment. This means that people are neither spontaneous self-agents, nor are they automatic transmitters of environmental factors or influencers. Instead, behavior is influenced by both a proactive discrepancy production system that works in conjunction with a reactive discrepancy production system. To state it another way, behavior is an outcome of reciprocal causation between the individual and his or her unique characteristics, the environment and how it is designed to encourage performance, and the behavior itself and how successful it may have been in past experience. This suggests that organizational participants are products as well as the producers of their own motivations, environments, ultimately behaviors.

As noted previously, Social Cognitive Theory explains the nature of this reciprocal model through five basic human capacities: symbolizing (transforming images into internal cognitive models that guide action), forethought (planning a course of action and anticipating likely consequences), vicarious learning (observing the behavior and resulting consequences of others), self-regulation (aligning personal concerns and objectives with those of the organization), and self-reflection (considering and analyzing personal experiences to better understand the self, environment, and behaviors).

Organizational Justice Theory

Organizational Justice Theory states that decisions that are perceived as fair and equitable enhance employee acceptance of organizational outcomes. In other words, an individual’s perceptions or fairness in an organization can affect performance. This theory has significant implications for organizational leaders, not just the organization as a separate entity. Leaders that represent these organizations must be perceived as fair and equitable for employees to be motivated.

The perception of fairness is fed by several factors: distributive justiceprocedural justice, and interactional justiceDistributive justice concerns itself with the perceived fairness of the allocation or distribution of outcomes and rewards to organizational members (Adams, 1965). Procedural justice addresses the processes by which these outcomes and rewards are distributed. Interactional justice is concerned with the degree to which organizational members feel respected and valued by the leadership and the sensitivity with which they are treated.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory focuses on people’s inner motivational resources in an attempt to address psychological well-being and autonomous self-regulation. Self-Determination Theory assumes that people are curious, exploring, adventurous, and self-motivating by nature, and that success in-and-of-itself is the greatest reward, not necessarily what comes as a result externally. It asserts that “people have considerable capacity to choose behaviors based on inner desires and perceptions.” However, the theory also recognizes though that people can become mechanized, disaffected, and passive in their behavior. Self-Determination Theory accounts for this division by examining the types of motivation people experience and their effect on well-being.



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