A Retrospective Analysis of Employee Motivation Studies

“Does half a century of human motivation research enough to make managements truly understand what ticks their employees..?”

“What motivates people to work in the first place?  Is it money and material gains?  Or is it the need for interpersonal interactions?  Is it the need to feel needed, or a need to feel powerful?  Or is it an interaction of all of these factors and more?” (“Motivation to work”, 2013). Motivation is an intrinsic drive that influences one’s behavior. However, as emphasized in the above extract, one’s motivation towards work is affected by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Over the years, many psychologists and researchers have developed several models that highlight how these intrinsic and extrinsic factors influence one’s motivation. Broadly, these theories of motivation can be divided into two categories; Content theories and Process theories.

Content Theories of MOTIVATION

“Content theories deal with what motivates people and it is concerned with individual needs and goals” (Zan, n.d.). In this category, the work by Abraham Maslow, Clayton P. Alderfer, Frederick Herzberg and David McClelland are considered the most significant.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is probably the most well-known content theory of motivation to date. In his article A Theory of Human Motivation published in Psychological Review magazine of July 1943, Maslow argued that human needs can be represented in a pyramid as in figure 1.

Figure 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


Source: Wikipedia, 2013b

According to Maslow, an individual’s motivation is driven by the existence of unsatisfied needs, and these needs are stacked upon one another as in the shape of a pyramid. The basic lower-level needs such as physiological and safety must be satisfied before an individual pursues higher-level needs such as the need for esteem and self-actualization. When a need is mostly satisfied, it no longer acts as a motivator and the next higher need takes its place. Thus, in identifying what motivates each employee, it is important that the management clearly understands and differentiates which needs each employee considers most important and least satisfied. Although the hierarchy of needs theory was subsequently questioned and criticized, it is still best-known due to:

  • representing a foundation from which contemporary theories have grown
  • being regularly used by practicing managers in explaining employee motivation.

ERG Theory of motivation introduced in 1969 by Clayton P. Alderfer in his article An Empirical Test of a New Theory of Human Need, redefined Maslow’s needs hierarchy in better synchronization with empirical research findings. Alderfer argued that, there is no particular order in which an individual pursue needs, thus no real hierarchy of needs as proposed by Maslow. He re-categorized Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into three broader classes of needs as illustrated in figure 2. He also emphasized that an individual may pursue needs of more than one class in parallel. This explains why a management focusing exclusively on one need at a time, will not effectively motivate employees to do their job (Redmond, 2013a).

Figure 2: Comparison of Hierarchy of Needs and ERG Theory


Source: Eduster, 2012

In 1959 a psychologist Frederick Herzberg, in his book The Motivation to Work proposed, Two Factor Theory or motivation-hygiene theory. The theory was based on the data gathered in an interview of 203 accountants and engineers in Pittsburgh. The respondents were asked to describe a work situation where they felt exceptionally good or bad about their job, and to describe the factors which led to that positive or negative feeling.

The analysis of the responses confirmed that some factors contribute to job satisfaction, which Herzberg referred to as motivators while others were found to be a source of dissatisfaction when absent. The later was called hygiene factors which in essence are the basic maintenance factors that are necessary to avoid dissatisfaction, but, that by themselves do not provide any satisfaction. Figure 3 illustrates how these two factors affect an employee’s satisfaction and motivation towards work.

Figure 3: Two Factor Theory of MOTIVATION


Source: 12manage – The Executive Fast Track, 2013

Herzberg’s two factor theory provides the answer to one of the prevailing questions that most managers’ face, “why a satisfied employee tends to work in the same organization but this satisfaction does not always result in better performance?” (Zan, n.d.).

In his book The Achieving Society published in 1961, David McClelland introduced a new theory of motivation, the Acquired Needs Theory. McClelland proposed three types of motivational needs, on which he argued that one’s style of being motivated and motivating others relied. Figure 4 illustrates these three types of needs proposed by McClelland.

Figure 4: Acquired Needs Theory of Motivation


Source: Redmond, 2013a

McClelland argued that most individuals possess some level of all three needs but some display a strong bias towards a particular need that will in turn influence the individual’s motivation towards work and managing others (Redmond, 2013a). He also argued that the need group to which an individual falls may change as they grow, and those who do not naturally possess specific needs can acquire them through training and experience (Mendenhall, Punnett, and Ricks, 1995). From a management’s perspective, “McClelland’s Need Theory suggests that understanding these needs and accurately placing the right people in the right positions should yield greater levels of motivation which, in turn, should increase productivity and reduce turnover” (Redmond, 2013a).

Process Theories of Motivation

“Process Theories deal with the process of motivation and is concerned with how motivation occurs” (Zan, n.d.). From the many theories of motivation that attempt to describe how motivation occurs, the work by John Stacey Adams, Victor H. Vroom, Edwin A. Locke and Albert Bandura are considered significant contributions in the field of organizational behavior.

Equity Theory was the first to evaluate how an individual gets satisfied and in turn motivated by going beyond the individual’s self. Introduced in 1963 by John Stacey Adams, a workplace and behavioural psychologist, equity theory explained how an individual evaluates equity in the form of a comparison which commonly manifests as a sense of what is fair. As explained in the following extract, equity theory provides the answer to another prevailing question that most managements face, namely, ‘why pay and conditions alone do not determine motivation?’

Equity, and thereby the motivational situation we might seek to assess using the model, is not dependent on the extent to which a person believes reward exceeds effort, nor even necessarily on the belief that reward exceeds effort at all. Rather, Equity, and the sense of fairness which commonly underpins motivation, is dependent on the comparison a person makes between his or her reward/investment ratio with the ratio enjoyed (or suffered) by others considered to be in a similar situation (Businessballs.com, 2013).

Adams argued that, an employee perceiving a state of equity in this comparison will consider his/her situation as fair and just. An employee perceiving an inequity, either under-rewarded which creates anger or over-rewarded which creates guilt, will be motivated to do something to correct it. Adams also highlighted four referent others whom an individual will take into account in his/her comparison; self-inside, self-outside, other-inside and other-outside (Robbins, Judge, & Vohra, 2012).

Later researchers have further improved Adams’s equity theory beyond its initial scope. Rather than defining fairness merely on the basis of amount and allocation of rewards among individuals, which is commonly referred to as distributive justice, today’s equity theory attempts to describe Organizational Justice of which distributive justice is only one of three contributing components. Figure 5 illustrates the three components contributing to organizational justice.

Figure 5: Organizational Justice


Source: Robbins, Judge, & Vohra, 2012

Expectancy Theory of motivation proposed by Victor H. Vroom in 1964 is one of the most widely accepted explanations of motivation today. The theory “does not attempt to explain what motivates individuals, but rather how they make decisions to achieve the end they value” (Scholl, 2002). In essence it explains ‘why individuals choose one behavioural option over others’. According to Vroom, an employee will be motivated:

  • to exert a high level of effort when they believe that it will lead to a good performance appraisal (effort-performance relationship)
  • that a good appraisal will lead to organizational rewards (performance-reward relationship)
  • and that the rewards will satisfy the employee’s personal goals (rewards-personal goals relationship) (Robbins, Judge, & Vohra, 2012).

Expectancy theory provides a powerful tool to managers in understanding ‘how individuals make decisions regarding various behavioural alternatives’. It argues that, when deciding among behavioural options, individuals select the option with the greatest Motivational Force (MF) (Scholl, 2002). Figure 6 illustrates how the three components of expectancy theory, Expectancy, Instrumentality, and Valance contribute to this MF.

Figure 6: Motivational Force


Source: Scholl, 2002

First introduced in 1968 by Edwin A. Locke in his article Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives, Goal Setting Theory is probably one of the most researched theories of motivation to date with over thirty years of research by Locke himself (Wikipedia, 2013a; Redmond, 2013b). Some researchers have even argued that goal setting is the underlying explanation for all major theories of work motivation (Lunenburg, 2011). Locke emphasized that, specific difficult goals, when accepted, together with specific constructive feedback, results in higher motivation towards work, in turn performance (Robbins, Judge, & Vohra, 2012; Redmond, 2013b).

According to goal setting theory, four conditions must be met to make goals effective in invoking motivation (Redmond, 2013b).

  1. Goal Acceptance/Goal Commitment – A goal should be accepted by the individual and he/she should put forth a degree of determination towards achieving the accepted goal.
  2. Goal Specificity – A goal must be specific and measurable, thus, should answer the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why”, and “how” of the expectations of the goal.
  3. Goal Difficulty – A goal should be set high enough to encourage high performance but low enough to be attainable.
  4. Feedback – Specific constructive feedback should be made available to make the individual aware of his/her progression or regression towards achieving the goal. It will also let the individuals know that their work is being evaluated and that their contributions are being recognized.

Goal setting theory is widely used by today’s managers to clarify expectations, improve performance, and develop employees into stronger workers while the most popular application of the goal setting theory being the Management By Objectives (MBO) (Robbins, Judge, & Vohra, 2012; Redmond, 2013b).

Albert Bandura first introduced his ideas about Self-Efficacy Theory in his article Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioural Change published in Psychological Review magazine of 1977. “Perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations. Efficacy beliefs influence how people think, feel, motivate themselves, and act.” (Bandura, 1995).

As illustrated in figure 7, four sources of information help individuals to judge and improve their self-efficacy.

Figure 7: Sources of Information for Self-Efficacy


Source: Bandura, 1977

Managers can benefit by facilitating these four sources of information to improve employee’s effort, persistence, goal setting, and performance on specific tasks (Redmond, 2013c). Additionally, some researchers have shown how self-efficacy theory in conjunction with Locke’s goal setting theory can be used to boost motivation, in turn performance (Robbins, Judge, & Vohra, 2012; Redmond, 2013c).

IN Summary…

Type Theory Strengths Weaknesses Applications
Content Theories of Motivation







Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Clear categorization of needs. The sequence of hierarchy of needs is questionable. Identify priority needs of the employees.
Logical and easy to understand. People may try to fulfil several requirements simultaneously and there can be possible overlaps. Helps the managers to understand the behaviour of their employees.
Provides summary of human needs, which can be used in marketing. Too much of culture-bound: Different cultures and the assumptions are lacked. Individual going through the stages in reaching the highest level of capability.
Increases the efficiency, productivity and profitability of the organization. Ignorance of motivating factors like expectations, experience and perception. Provides the right financial and non-financial motivation to their employees.
Alderfer’s ERG Theory Recognizes that people are different and they do have multiple needs. Sociocultural elements are not identified .The theory is difficult to test with the current tools and research methods. Acts as a recipe to motivate people based on their motivation factors.
Provides a workable solution to addressing the dynamics of human needs at workplace. Consumes more time in understanding the employees’ need and changes that negatively affect motivation and performance. Helps to construct a communication strategy by leaders to address the needs for relatedness and growth with less resistance of the work force.
More flexible and discusses the reality of how a person’s needs change in reaction to changes. Doesn’t provide a motivational value for each motivator.
Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory Clear categorization of the two factors. There can be border factors. It is very digital kind of a criterion. Ambiguities are ignored. To identify the hygiene factors and make sure they are satisfied first and then the motivation factors.
Provides awareness that job design is related to employee satisfaction and motivation. Not be appropriate to all groups of employees or individuals within a group. Used by managers to mitigate the demotivating effect by providing open communication.
Satisfaction of our higher needs leads work motivation. Hourly employees may not be particularly interested in job enlargement and enrichment, and may be more motivated by increased pay.
Standardised scales of satisfaction while ignoring various job factors.  
McClelland’s Acquired Needs Theory Addresses an individual’s development related to motivation. Socio-cultural factors/contextual factors are not considered. Better decisions on which type of employees to put in to various positions.
More useful with more empirical evidence to support the theory. Lack of predictive power as it relates to entrepreneurship. Identifying different motivation factors since people are motivated differently.
Helps to identify the need for achievement with positive organizational behaviours and performance. Rewarding with praise and financial incentives to managers who have high need for achievement.
Enables to react proactively for the employees behaviours.   Building a strong sense of team spirit among subordinates, of pride in working as part of a team.
Process Theories of Motivation Adams’s Equity Theory Highlights the performance based rewarding system. Purely looks at output vs. input. Socio-cultural factors are ignored. Can be used as the basis to create a good reward system.
Motivating people by comparing with people who gets rewarded and trying to perform well. People compares with others and complain on the rewards since rewards are not solely based on performance. Fair return for what they contribute to their jobs, a concept referred to as the “equity norm”.
Helps to predict employees’ basic behaviours. Overpayment does not give more productivity. Piece rate payments reflecting input/outcome ratios.
Maintains and increases productivity.   Keeping procedural and distribution justice at high levels help the managers to motivate people.
Vroom’s Expectancy Theory Highlights the key influencers and the link among them. Focusing on extrinsic factors, thus, is complex. To design a performance based reward systems.
Helps to achieve maximum satisfaction and minimum dissatisfaction based on self-interest individual. Lack of transparency and incompleteness of information. Clear link to the organizational culture. Preferred to apply in results driven cultures.
Since people consider an expected outcome for many actions, this theory has practical relevance. Assumes all necessities are in place, which is not the case. Employees need to have ability, resources and opportunity to perform well.
Locke’s Goal Setting Theory Highlights the importance of stretch goals. Narrowly looking only at the goals ignoring the contextual factors. Set specific and individual goals and include employees in goal setting (MBO).
One of the most popular theories and highly researched and practitioner support. Exerting too much focus on one goal may make it difficult to achieve the others. Meetings with employees regularly regarding performance and progress on developmental objectives.
Ability to inspire individuals and is a critical key to self-management. Does not explain how setting goals is linked to performance. Design the reward systems with desirable results.
Leads to better performance by increasing motivation and efforts. When employees focus so intently on their goals, they will ignore other aspects of their job. Ensure that the goals are focused on areas that are important to current and future goals.
Bandura’s Self-Efficacy Theory Encourages employees to set higher and difficult goals. Complexity and overly individualistic. To identify high flyers and encourage to do more.
Brings the individual’s positive perception in approaching challenging tasks. Ambiguity and lack of definition in self-efficacy and not adequately evaluated. Using verbal persuasion to show praise for a job well done and giving positive feedback.
Leads to innovation and creativity through new ideas. Impossible to exclude outcome considerations from efficacy expectations. Setting up small basic goals at the beginning and based on the success go for more difficult goals.
Increases one’s persistence and focus on a given task beyond previous levels. High self-efficacy beliefs do not always guarantee positive outcome expectations. Improving learning by improving the self-efficacy.


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Bandura, A. (1995). Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Businessballs.com. (2013). Adams’ equity theory. Retrieved from http://www.businessballs.com/adamsequitytheory.htm.

Eduster. (2012, December). Motivation Theories. Retrieved from http://eduster.blogspot.com/2012/12/motivation-theories.html.

Lunenburg, F. C. (2011). Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation. International Journal of Management, Business and Administration, 15(1), 1.

Mendenhall, M. E., Punnett, B. J., & Ricks, D. (1995). Global Management, Cambridge: Blackwell.

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Redmond, B. F. (2013, February 3). Needs Theories Overview. Retrieved from https://wikispaces.psu.edu/display/PSYCH484/2.+Need+Theories.

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Redmond, B. F. (2013, February 25). Self-Efficacy and Social Cognitive Theories. Retrieved from https://wikispaces.psu.edu/display/PSYCH484/7.+Self-Efficacy+and+Social+Cognitive+Theories.

Robbins, S. P., Judge, T. A., & Vohra, N. (2012). Organizational Behavior, 14e, New Delhi: Pearson Education, Inc.

Scholl, R. W. (2002). Motivation: Expectancy Theory. Retrieved from http://www.uri.edu/research/lrc/scholl/webnotes/Motivation_Expectancy.htm.

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Wikipedia. (2013, May 20). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs.

Zan, O. (n.d.). A Brief Introduction to Motivation Theory. Retrieved from http://ozgurzan.com/management/management-theories/theories-about-motivation/.

A Retrospective Analysis of Employee Motivation Studies