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Theories of Motivation and Their Significance for Personnel Management

In this article, we will discuss motivation theories and their application in the workplace.

Motivation holds significance for businesses.


Motivated employees perform better, are more productive, and more engaged. It is an important task for managers and HR managers to create working conditions where employees feel motivated and effective.

Motivation and Its Benefits

Motivation stems from the satisfaction derived from the work itself and the desire to achieve specific goals, such as earning more money or advancing in one’s career.


In simple terms, people’s behavior is determined by what motivates them. The performance of employees is the result of their abilities (such as skills and experience) and motivation. A talented employee who lacks motivation is unlikely to perform well, while a motivated employee often goes above and beyond what is expected of them.


In other words, employees have certain needs or desires, which drive them to engage in specific behaviors that fulfill those needs, and this can subsequently change which needs and desires take precedence.

A well-motivated team can provide the following advantages:

  • Increased Productivity: A highly motivated team tends to achieve the best levels of productivity. This can lead to reduced production costs, enabling the organization to offer its products at a lower price and gain a competitive edge in the market.
  • Reduced Absenteeism: Motivated employees are less likely to skip work since they are satisfied with their work lives.
  • Lower Employee Turnover: High employee turnover (the number of employees leaving the business) can be costly in terms of training and recruitment. Motivated employees are more likely to stay with the company, reducing turnover rates.
  • Enhanced Employer Reputation: Satisfied employees contribute to a positive employer reputation, making it easier to attract top talent to the company.
  • Improved Product and Customer Service Quality: Motivated employees are more likely to take pride in their work, which can lead to higher product quality and better customer service.


Types of Motivation Theories

At a basic level, it seems obvious that people do things, such as going to work, to achieve what they want and avoid what they don’t want. However, why they want what they do and why they don’t want what they don’t do still remains a mystery. It’s like a black box, and it has not been fully opened yet.

There are several directions in motivation theories:


  • Content Theories
  • Process Theories


Content theories focus on WHAT motivates individuals, while process theories focus on HOW a person’s behavior is motivated.


Content theories are the early theories of motivation. They have had the most significant impact on managerial practice in the workplace, even though they are less accepted in academic circles. Content theories are often referred to as need theories because they attempt to identify our needs and link motivation to the fulfillment of these needs. Content theories are unable to fully explain what motivates or demotivates us. Process theories, on the other hand, are concerned with how motivation occurs and what influences our motivation.


Key content theories include Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, McClelland’s Need Theory, Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, and others.


Key process theories include Skinner’s Reinforcement Theory, Vroom’s Expectancy Theory, Adams’s Equity Theory, Locke’s 

Goal-Setting Theory, and others.


No single motivation theory can explain all aspects of human motivation or its absence. However, each theoretical explanation can serve as a foundation for developing motivation strategies.

Content Theories

Maslow’s Theory

Maslow focused on the psychological needs of employees. He proposed a theory that within the hierarchy of human needs, there are five levels that employees must fulfill at work.


All these needs are structured in a hierarchy, and only after the lower-level needs are completely satisfied, an employee will be motivated to satisfy the next level of needs in the hierarchy. For example, a person who is starving will be motivated to earn a basic salary to buy food before worrying about having a secure employment contract or the respect of others.

How to Apply in Practice

Satisfying basic work needs, such as providing a comfortable workspace, a fair salary, and insurance, will help employees move up the hierarchy and, therefore, become more effective, creative, and innovative. Therefore, the primary task of an employer is to provide employees with comfortable working conditions.


The company should offer various incentives to help employees sequentially fulfill each need and progress up the hierarchy. Managers should also recognize that not all employees are motivated in the same way, and they do not all move up the hierarchy at the same pace. Therefore, it may be necessary to offer a slightly different set of incentives for different employees.

Key Points in Maslow’s Theory:

  • Employees are motivated to satisfy each level of needs in the hierarchy in order of their progression.
  • The hierarchy of needs includes the following levels: physiological, safety, social, self-esteem, and self-actualization.
  • The company should fully satisfy the basic level of employees’ needs before they are motivated to pursue higher levels of needs.

Herzberg’s Theory

Herzberg had close ties to Maslow and believed in a two-factor theory of motivation. He argued that there are specific factors that businesses can introduce:


  • Factors that directly motivate employees to work harder (motivators).
  • Factors that, if lacking, do not motivate employees but, if present, prevent dissatisfaction (hygiene factors).


Motivators are more related to the nature of the work itself. For instance, how interesting the job is and how many opportunities it provides for additional responsibility, recognition, and advancement. Hygiene factors, on the other hand, surround the work. For example, employees will only work if the company provides a reasonable level of pay and safe working conditions, but these factors will not make them work harder.


Herzberg believed that companies should motivate employees by employing a democratic approach to management and by improving the nature and content of the actual work through certain methods.

How to Apply it Practically

  • Expanding job roles – Providing employees with more diverse tasks (not necessarily more complex) to make the job more interesting, rather than increasing the workload.
  • Teamwork involves giving employees a broader range of more complex tasks related to the project, which should give them a greater sense of achievement.
  • Expanding rights and opportunities allows employees to make decisions regarding their work life.

Key Points in Herzberg’s Theory:

  • Employees are motivated to work harder if they have more responsibilities, more interesting work, and more recognition for good work.
  • Employees can lose motivation if hygiene factors, such as pay, working conditions, and relationships with colleagues, are not met.


McClelland’s Theory

McClelland’s theory differs from Maslow’s theory, which focuses on satisfying existing needs rather than creating or developing them.


McClelland identified three core needs:


  • Achievement: The need to achieve and demonstrate competence or mastery.
  • Affiliation: The need for love, belonging, and affiliation.
  • Power: The need to control one’s work or the work of others.


McClelland asserts that these three needs exist in all of us in one form or another, regardless of age, gender, race, or cultural background. These needs are studied through one’s life experiences and are not innate. This is why this theory is sometimes called the learned needs theory.


For example, while some people may desire power, not everyone wants to be powerful at any cost. Similarly, while some people may avoid attention at all costs, many still seek some form of recognition. Most people fall somewhere in between the extremes of each need.

How to Apply in Practice

  • Identify the needs of each team member. If you have limited experience in assessing the psychotypes of your employees or don’t know your team well, you can ask them to self-assess the importance of each of McClelland’s theory needs for themselves.
  • Decide how you will adjust your style and approach for each team member.

Core of McClelland’s Theory:

The theory of three needs can help identify the key motivators that drive your employees, and then use this information to help get the maximum output from each team member. You can do this by altering feedback methods, goals, leadership style, and your approach to motivating them.


Process Theories

Vroom’s Theory

The Expectancy Theory of motivation was developed by Victor H. Vroom and further expanded upon by Porter and Lawler.


This theory is based on the assumption that our behavior is rooted in a conscious choice from a set of possible alternative actions. According to the Expectancy Theory, the behavior we choose is always the one that maximizes our satisfaction and minimizes negative emotions.


This theory aims to integrate many elements of previous theories, combining the perceptual aspects of justice theory with the behavioral aspects of other theories.


Mostly, it all boils down to this equation:



  • M (Motivation) – is the value that determines how motivated a person will be in a given situation.
  • E (Expectancy) – a person’s perception of the likelihood that their efforts will lead to performance. In other words, it’s an individual’s assessment of the degree to which effort correlates with performance.
  • I (Instrumentality) – a person’s perception that performance will be rewarded, i.e., an individual’s assessment of how well the reward value corresponds with the quality of performance.
  • V (Valence) – the strength of the perceived reward resulting from performance. If the reward is small, motivation will be low, even if expectancy and instrumentality are high.

Please note that the model is formulated from the perspective of external motivation, where the question is asked: “What are the chances that I will receive a reward if I do a good job?” But for internal situations, we will think differently: “How will I benefit if I can achieve this?”

How to apply in practice:

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory can help understand how individual team members make decisions regarding behavioral alternatives in the workplace.


The greatest benefit of Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of motivation lies in the following:


  • Rewards must be directly related to performance.
  • The method of reward selection must be transparent.
  • Rewards must be earned.
  • Rewards must be desirable.

Key Points of Vroom’s Theory:

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory is a workplace motivation theory. It states that a person in your team will be motivated when they believe they can achieve their goal, know they will be rewarded for it, and value the reward. Therefore, by properly rewarding all team members, you can create highly motivated personnel and highly effective teams.

Skinner’s Theory

The reinforcement theory was developed by the American psychologist B.F. Skinner. The theory argues that people’s internal needs can be ignored when trying to motivate them to behave in a certain way. Why? Because it assumes that people learn to change their behavior based on what happens to them when they behave in a certain way and use levers.


Four factors that serve as motivation levers are:


  1. Positive Reinforcement: This is the reward you give to an employee when they exhibit desired behavior. Positive reinforcement encourages the employee to continue demonstrating this behavior.
  2. Negative Reinforcement: Negative reinforcement also uses rewards. Here, the employee receives a reward for desired behavior by removing something unpleasant.
  3. Punishment: Punishment occurs when negative consequences are used in the workplace to prevent or stop team members from undesirable behavior.
  4. Extinction: Extinction involves stopping positive reinforcement. You can stop behavior by withdrawing the positive reinforcement that led to it.

To achieve the desired behavior change, reinforcement must be consistent. There are two approaches to provide reinforcement:

  • Continuous Reinforcement: This happens when the desired behavior is reinforced every time it is observed.
  • Intermittent Reinforcement: This occurs when reinforcement is provided periodically; it can be on a fixed schedule or variable schedule.

How to Apply in Practice:

  • Identify the desired behavior. If you want someone to change their behavior, the first thing you need to do is clearly communicate your expectations. Do this as explicitly and objectively as possible.
  • Next, determine how and when frequently observed behavior currently occurs.
  • Reinforce the desired behavior. You need to determine how and when you will reinforce the new behavior.
  • Evaluate the change. The final step is to determine how quickly the new behavior you desire is increasing.

Key Points of Skinner’s Theory:

The reinforcement theory aims to explain what motivates both good and bad behavior in the workplace. It also provides a mechanism for influencing the behavior of our team using what the theory calls reinforcement, punishment, or extinction.

Reinforcement pertains to rewards used to encourage good behavior, while punishment is used to reduce undesirable behavior. Extinction is similar to punishment but involves removing the reward.

Why Motivation Theories Are Needed:

Motivation theories provide insights into what drives employees to perform better. They equip managers with motivation tools and help them understand how to better manage their personnel. Hence, it’s crucial to focus on employee motivation in the fields of human resource management and organizational behavior.


A lack of knowledge about motivation theories can lead managers to believe that monetary incentives are the only way to motivate employees. However, these theories have helped managers understand that people have different needs. It’s essential to identify these needs and learn how to influence employees correctly. Motivation impacts not only workforce effectiveness but also retention, engagement, job satisfaction, and more.

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