Motivation Theories (Definition, Types And Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 19 May 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Motivational theories can help employees and management staff determine the best way to achieve a business goal or work towards an outcome. Successfully applying motivation theories can also help managers support their employees efficiently. If you are a professional, a manager or a student of management, understanding motivational theories can be beneficial. In this article, we explore different types of motivational theories, describe five important theories and examine how you can use these theories effectively.

What are motivation theories?

Psychologists and management experts develop motivation theories to identify factors that motivate an individual. These theories also cover how an organisation can apply them to optimise performance. Motivation is a force that drives employees to work towards individual and organisational goals. Qualified professionals may require motivation to perform at their optimum level consistently. A motivated employee is likely to perform better than an unmotivated employee at work, because they derive satisfaction from their professional engagement.

Motivation is a continuous process and managers use motivation theories to improve productivity, profits, employee retention rates and employee satisfaction levels. The objective of a motivation theory is to discover what factors drive individuals to work towards a goal or an outcome. Managers and organisations may adopt and implement motivational theories that suit them to create a consistently productive workforce.

Related: Motivation At Work: How To Motivate Employees In Their Jobs

What are the different types of motivational theories?

Motivational theories can be content-based theories, process-based theories and cognitive theories. Content theories describe needs that can drive motivation, whereas process theories describe how motivation happens. Cognitive theories examine how an individual's perceptions and environment affect motivation. Teachers can apply these theories to motivate students and coaches can use them to improve the performance of sports persons.

5 Popular motivational theories

These are some effective and popular motivational theories that businesses and individuals can employ:

1. Maslow's theory of hierarchical needs

Maslow's hierarchy is a content-based motivational theory. It outlines a few basic needs a person wants to fulfil before progressing to more complex needs. This hierarchy categorises needs into five levels:

  • Physiological: An individual's basic physiological needs are water, shelter, clothing and food. In a work setting, an employee's salary may fulfil their physiological needs.

  • Safety: This level refers to a feeling of protection that individuals experience. This need may align with an employee's expectation of job security.

  • Socialisation: To meet socialisation needs, employees may develop friendships at work to create a sense of belonging for themselves. Management can fulfil this need by creating opportunities for employees to bond, by hosting company lunches and team-building activities.

  • Esteem: Employees often reach this level by receiving recognition, which can help them feel confident in their work and increase their self-esteem. Recognising a professional's achievements and providing positive feedback are two methods that can help build their self-esteem.

  • Self-actualisation: To reach this level, employees may try to achieve complex, long-term professional or personal goals. Self-actualised employees can motivate themselves to complete workplace goals effectively.

An administrative professional can use Maslow's theory of hierarchical needs to understand the aspirations of their team and work towards fulfilling them. They can organise professional development and team-building programmes in addition to the pay, benefits and perks that an employee earns. Managers can begin by periodically communicating with employees about plans or operations to make them feel that they are a part of an organisation. They can create an environment that is naturally conducive to cooperation and collaboration. The quality of projects, growth opportunities and work-life balance are factors that can motivate an employee to excel in a role.

2. McClelland's theory of needs

This is a content-based theory and it affirms that humans have three motivational drivers, regardless of age or gender. One of the three drivers may be dominant in every human being, depending on their life experiences. The three drivers are:

  • Achievement: People who thrive on achievement may have a powerful urge to set and achieve goals and take calculated risks during the process. They may expect feedback, acknowledgement and appreciation for their work and may prefer to work alone.

  • Affiliation: People who thrive on affiliation favour collaboration and may prefer to work in a group. They would want team members and colleagues to like them and may side with the majority to do what a larger portion of the group insists on.

  • Power: People who thrive on power may show tendencies to control and influence others and win arguments. They may be highly competitive and may enjoy status and recognition.

An administrative professional can use McClelland's theory to identify the primary motivational drivers of team members and use the information to build a team with diverse competencies and character traits. This theory helps team managers and hiring managers identify the right candidates for a job role. Employees who enjoy power may become good leaders, mentors and supervisors. Employees who thrive on affiliation may not be effective managers as they may struggle with tough decisions while trying to cater to the interests of all concerned parties.

Related: What Is Self Motivation? And How To Use It To Meet Your Goals

3. Incentive theory

The incentive theory suggests that management can invoke motivation by reinforcement, recognition, through incentives and rewards. The incentive theory also proposes that people display certain behaviours to achieve a specific result, incite a particular action or receive a reward. Here are a few examples of incentives in the workplace:

  • Bonus: A bonus is a monetary reward that a company may give an employee based on their performance.

  • Praise: Praise can be useful for one-on-one situations, such as quarterly employee reviews. Praising and appreciating an employee by giving positive feedback about their performance helps build trust and significantly reduce attrition.

  • Training and education: Providing opportunities such as paid training or continuing education may give a team an incentive to increase their knowledge in a specific field or develop a skill set.

  • Promotion: Providing an opportunity for career advancement is often one of the most influential incentives a manager can offer because it can give an employee a feeling of importance and growth. A promotion may include an advanced role, a new job title and a salary increase.

  • Salary or wage hike: Management teams find that offering a pay raise or a salary increase can be effective motivators. For optimal results, managers use salary or wage incentives for individual employees, rather than for all employees and departments within a business.

  • Paid vacation or time off: Consider offering employees compensation for taking days off or give them additional vacation days every quarter or year. Employees may value this incentive if they plan for a family vacation or desire some extra time to rest at home.

Managers can use incentive theories to help employees to work on tough or challenging tasks that many professionals avoid. Some popular incentives are cash, products, experiences, gift cards and tickets to popular sporting and entertainment events. It is important that a manager uses these incentives as rewards only for achieving goals and not without reason.

4. Herzberg's two-factor theory

Herzberg's two-factor theory is a content-based theory. It describes two sets of factors that may lead to either satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Herzberg defines the factors that lead to satisfaction or dissatisfaction as hygiene and motivating factors:

  • Hygiene factors: These are factors affecting satisfaction, relating to working conditions, professional relationships, office policies, rules of conduct and attitudes of supervisors. Improving a few or all hygiene factors can help decrease dissatisfaction and improve motivation among employees.

  • Motivating factors: Factors like professional achievements, recognition, responsibility and career and personal growth are motivating factors for professionals. Addressing these factors increases job satisfaction.

Management can implement Herzberg's two-factor theory by reforming company policies, offering competitive wages and providing effective supervision, job security and more autonomy. Administrative professionals can take a proactive role in employee welfare initiatives. A company can reduce dissatisfaction by offering professionals ways to find a sense of purpose, both professionally and personally.

Related: Types Of Motivation For Career Advancement (With Examples)

5. Vroom's expectancy theory

Vroom's expectancy theory is a process-based motivation theory which assumes that an individual's behaviour results from the conscious choices they make from multiple available alternatives. Individuals make specific choices believing that they may guarantee more satisfaction and comfort. Vroom's theory suggests that an individual gets motivation from the following three factors:

  • Expectancy is an individual's belief that the harder they work, their chances of success increases.

  • Instrumentality is an individual's belief that they may receive a reward if they meet performance expectations.

  • Valence is the importance an individual places on an expected outcome.

Vroom's expectancy theory states that if an employee believes that they can accomplish a task, it may motivate them to work harder. An unrealistic or unattainable goal can demotivate professionals. Managers can assess how well employees understand their role in achieving organisational goals. If an employee is unsure of their capability or feels that a goal is challenging, managers can train them to align their performance with organisational goals.

Explore more articles