Classic Employee Motivation Theories: Do They Really Work– Maslow, Herzberg, McClelland, McGregor, Alderfer…?

’Ability’ is what you’re capable of doing. ‘Motivation’ determines what you do. ‘Attitude’ determines how well you do it. ~Anonymous

Motivation is the driving force by which we achieve our goals. Motivation is said to be intrinsic or extrinsic. According to various theories, motivation may be rooted in a basic need to minimize physical pain and maximize pleasure, or it may include specific needs such as eating and resting, or a desired object, goal, state of being, ideal, or it may be attributed to less-apparent reasons such as altruism, selfishness, morality, or avoiding mortality. Conceptually, motivation should not be confused with either volition or optimism. Motivation is related to, but distinct from, emotion.

In spite of enormous research, the subject of motivation is not clearly understood and more often than not poorly practiced. To understand motivation one must understand human nature itself. And, there lies the problem! Human nature can be very simple, yet very complex too. Quite apart from the benefit and moral value of an altruistic approach to treating colleagues as human beings and respecting human dignity in all its forms, research and observations show that well motivated employees are more productive and creative. The inverse also holds true.

There is an old saying “you can take a horse to the water but you cannot force it to drink”; it will drink only if it’s thirsty – so with people. They will do what they want to do, or otherwise motivated to do. Whether it is to excel on the workshop floor or in the ‘ivory tower’ they must be motivated or driven to it, either by themselves or through external stimulus.

Thus, an overriding question: Are people born with self-motivation, or must they be instructed? It’s both, people can be self-motivated and they can be motivated. Most important and however it exists, motivation is an essential factor for any business to survive and succeed. Moreover, ‘job performance’ is considered to be a function of ‘ability’ and ‘motivation’, thus the formulation:          

                                 “Job performance = f(ability) (motivation)”

Whereas, ‘ability’ depends on education, experience and training and its improvement is a slow and long process, and ‘motivation’ can be improved quickly. As a guideline, there are broadly seven strategies for motivation:

  • Positive reinforcement / high expectations
  • Effective discipline and punishment
  • Treating people fairly
  • Satisfying employees needs
  • Setting work related goals
  • Restructuring jobs
  • Base rewards on job performance

Although these are the basic strategies, the mix for the final ‘recipe‘ will vary from workplace situation to situation. Essentially, there is a gap between an individual’s ‘actual state’ (mind-set) and some ‘desired state’, and the manager tries to reduce this gap. Motivation, in effect, is a means to reduce and manipulate this gap. It is inducing others in a specific way towards goals specifically stated by the motivator. Naturally these goals, as also the motivation system, must conform to the corporate policy of the organization…

In one of the most elaborate studies on employee motivation, involving 31,000 men and 13,000 women, the Minneapolis Gas Company sought to determine what their potential employee desire most from their job. This study was carried out during a 20 year period and was quite revealing. The ratings for the various factors differed only slightly between men and women, but both groups considered ‘security’ as the highest rated factor. The next three factors were; advancement, type of work, company. Surprisingly, factors such as; pay, benefits, and working conditions were given a low rating by both groups…

Among various motivation theories that have been embraced by American business are those of Frederick Herzberg and Abraham Maslow. Herzberg, psychologist, proposed a theory of job factors that motivate employees. Maslow, behavioral scientist and contemporary of Herzberg’s, developed a theory of various human needs and how people pursue these needs.

Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs Theory’ is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest and most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top. Herzberg proposed the ‘Motivation-Hygiene Theory’, also known as the ‘Two-Factor Theory’ of job satisfaction. According to his theory, people are influenced by two sets of factors; motivator factors and hygiene factors.

  • Motivated employees always look for better ways to do a job.
  • Motivated employees are more quality oriented.
  • Motivated workers are more productive.

There are similarities between Herzberg’s and Maslow’s models. They both suggest that needs have to be satisfied for the employee to be motivated. However, Herzberg argues that only the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy (e.g., self-actualization, esteem needs) act as a motivator. The remaining needs can only cause dissatisfaction if not addressed.

In Maslow’s theory, he identified five sets of human needs (on priority basis) and their satisfaction in motivating employees. Hertzberg refers to hygiene factors and motivating factors in his theory. Maslow’s theory is rather simple and descriptive. The theory is based on long experience about human needs. Hertzberg’s theory is more prescriptive, and it suggests the motivating factors that can be used effectively.

Other theories that expanded and extended those of Maslow and Herzberg included Kurt Lewin’s ‘Force Field Theory’, Edwin Locke’s ‘Goal Theory’ and Victor Vroom’s ‘Expectancy Theory’. These tend to stress cultural differences and the fact that individuals tend to be motivated by different factors at different times.

According to the system of scientific management developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, a worker’s motivation is solely determined by pay, and therefore management need not consider psychological or social aspects of work. In essence, scientific management bases human motivation wholly on extrinsic rewards and discards the idea of intrinsic rewards.

In contrast, David McClelland’s ‘Three Needs Theory’ recognizes that everyone prioritizes needs differently. He also believes that individuals are not born with these needs, but that they are actually learned through life experiences (acquired needs). McClelland identifies three specific needs:

  • Need for achievement; drive to excel.
  • Need for power; desire to cause others to behave differently.
  • Need for affiliation; desire for friendly and close interpersonal relationships.

The importance of each of these needs will vary from one person to another. If you can determine the importance of each of these needs to an individual, it will help you decide how to influence that individual.

David McClelland believed that workers could not be motivated by the mere need for money—in fact, extrinsic motivation (e.g., money) could extinguish intrinsic motivation (e.g., achievement). Although, money could be used as an indicator of success for various motives (e.g., keeping score).

Elton Mayo found that the social contacts a worker has at the workplace are very important and that boredom and repetitiveness of tasks lead to reduced motivation. Mayo believed that workers could be motivated by acknowledging their social needs and making them feel important.

As a result, employees were given freedom to make decisions on the job and greater attention was paid to informal work groups. Mayo named the model the Hawthorne effect. His model has been judged as placing undue reliance on social contacts at work situations for motivating employees.

Clayton Paul Alderfer, psychologist, further expanded Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs Theory’ by categorizing the hierarchy into his ‘ERG Theory’ (Existence, Relatedness, Growth). His approach proposes that unsatisfied needs motivate behavior, and that as lower level needs are satisfied, they become less important. Higher level needs, though, become more important as they are satisfied, and if these needs are not met, a person may move down the hierarchy, which Alderfer calls the frustration-regression principle.

Douglas McGregor, social psychologist, proposed his famous ‘X-Y Theory’ in his book ‘The Human Side of Enterprise’. Theory-X and Theory-Y are still referred to commonly in the field of management and motivation, and more recent studies have questioned the rigidity of the model but it remains a valid basic principle from which to develop positive management style and techniques:

  • Theory-X (authoritarian): Average person dislikes work and will avoid it.
  • Theory-Y (participative): Effort in work is as natural as work and play.

William Ouchi, professor business management, developed ‘Theory-Z’, which is not an extension of McGregor’s ‘X-Y Theory’. Theory Z is often referred to as the ‘Japanese Management Style’, which essentially advocates a combination of all that’s best about Theory-Y and modern Japanese management. It places a large amount of freedom and trust with workers, and assumes that workers have a strong loyalty and interest in team-working and the organization…

Workplace motivation is one of the most important aspects of good management. It may be a complex and frustrating issue, but unless it is understood and managed effectively, few organizations will flourish. Some managers may think that most employees are naturally pre-disposed to enthusiasm for their work, demonstrating an inherent preference for engagement and achievement. Ironically, it can be managers themselves who dampen this ardor, through either poor management or a lack of understanding of what workplace motivation is all about. Two quotes make this point rather succinctly:

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their jobs done.” ~Peter Drucker

“… the key question is not how to motivate employees, but how to sustain – and prevent management from destroying – the motivation that employees naturally bring to their jobs.” ~David Sirota