Motivation: Definitions, & Linkages to the Workplace

What is Motivation and why is it important that you know and learn about it?


It has been a life-long mystery of what it is that influences an individual to behave in one way or another. Why no two individuals would always do something or activity the same way and achieve the same results time and time again, and why there is always differences in output of work when there is more than one person involved in a task or job. These differences are mainly because of the differences that humans have and it is these that lead to their respective different pushes to achieve particular results. This “push to achieve” is what is known as Motivation. Motivation is an internal state that persuades a person to behave in a particular way. According to Landy and Conte (2015), it involves intensity (amount of effort put in), persistence (behavior that is there over time), quality (value placed in an act), and direction (selecting to do one thing instead of another). Motivation is influenced by individuals’ wants, needs and desires, which explains why different people are motivated differently by different stimuli. Motivation is one of the main factors that drive performance of employees, as noted by Vitelle (Landy, F.J., Conte, 2015). It is therefore, of vital importance to every workplace and organization.


This paper will look at employee motivation through looking at the theories that try to explain it, how they relate to and influence the modern workplace, factors that bring positive or negative motivation in the workplace and personal differences and how they relate to people’s perception and consequently reaction to various stimuli and thereby explain stress and burnout.


Motivation theories are divided into two main categories, Content theories, those that try to explain the concept through focusing on the question “what?”, they look at motivation as a concept stemming from needs. Therefore, their explanations border around motivation as a process to satisfy the needs. Process theories on the other hand, focus on the question “how?”, explaining the processes behind motivation and also other factors that affect it. Jex (2002) further splits the theories into four categories. These are; Need Based (focusing on the extent to which employees satisfy the needs of the workplace), Job Based (explain motivation as coming from jobs that employees perform), Cognitive Processes Theories (decisions and choices employees make when carrying out their duties are the main emphasis), and Behavioral Approach (emphasizing on principles of learning).

It is worth noting that these differences in categorizing theories is a mere difference in opinion on how to broaden the theoretical explanation. The four categories dig even deeper than the two earlier categories. For simplicity and to better explain Motivation, this paper will base its discussion on the two general categories (content and process).


There are four main content theories. These are Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Alderfers ERG (existence, relatedness, and growth) theory, McClelland Achievement Motivation, and Herzberg Two Factor theory. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs explains that needs fall into 5 (five) main categories, physiological needs (like food, water, sleep), security needs (like shelter), love or social needs (like a sense of belonging), esteem (being respected for accomplishments or capabilities), and self-actualization (desire to develop ones capacities to the fullest) (Landy, F.J., Conte, 2015).  The needs were organized in the form of a pyramid; with the bottom level needs requiring to be satisfied before the higher needs. For instance, one cannot go looking to fulfill their potential when they barely have the necessities like food and shelter. However, factors like social pressure can force needs like esteem to be put before physiological and security needs, for example, an individual buying fuel for their car to satisfy their esteem when they do not have food in their home, just so that people see that they have a car and they are well off. Life experiences like divorce, chronic illness can force unexpected movement through the needs hierarchy.

This theory, like most of the others are lacking in that they are not able to explain motivation on their own. They just explain part of it. They do not mention job satisfaction and how it relates to motivation neither do they explain demotivation. They also do not take into account cultural factors that may come in between their explanations. For example, in the Western world, people leave in nuclear families meaning that they are isolated from others in their own society, this would force someone to look for a sense of belonging once they have a chance. On the other hand, in African societies, people are organized in groups, be it communities, villages, and extended families. This leads to people, especially the young, wanting to break free of these groups once they have a chance. This would affect the prioritization of needs.

Alderfers ERG theory is very similar to that of Maslow. Jex (2002) refers to it as Maslow’s closest descendant. It focuses on existence needs (basics for survival like safety), relatedness needs (significant relationships like family and peers), and growth needs (self-development and personal growth). This theory agrees with Maslow in that one level of needs must be satisfied before an individual seeks to satisfy another level. It goes further to claim that needs that are satisfied can reoccur unlike in Maslow’s hierarchy where upward mobility is the only way to go. This is significant as it paints human beings as dynamic beings and not machines in their quest to satisfy needs.

Mc Clelland’s Need for Achievement, Affiliation, and Power is a little different and Jex (2002) claims, more useful than the earlier two. It focusses primarily on the need for achievement to explain differences in the drive to attain goals. It is also known as learned needs theory as it bases its origin in Maslow. It sets itself apart by explaining that the dominating motivator is developed throughout ones culture and life experiences. Achievement is seen as the need to accomplish and demonstrate mastery, affiliation is need for love belonging and relatedness, and power is the need for control over ones’ own work and the work of others. The underlying principles (needs) are the same, the theories only differ in how the needs are achieved and what gains prominence over the other.

Herzberg 2 factor theory, also known as Motivation-Hygiene Theory argues that there are only two basic needs that are not hierarchical in nature. This is in opposition to Maslow who came up with five hierarchical needs. Its basic premise is that employees’ needs are sourced from the content of their jobs. Hygiene needs (salary, benefits, status, etc.) have positive satisfaction in the short term but less effect on the long term. Motivational needs (recognition, sense of achievement, growth, etc.) are work related other than external, they are psychological needs and are intrinsically rewarding. All the content theories have commonalities in that they all focus on the same building principle, need. Needs are split into levels, and individuals/employees are viewed as being capable of making a choice and prioritizing particular needs over others depending on their stage in life or career.


As earlier indicated, process theories try to explain how employees are motivated and consequently, the process behind motivation. Skinners Reinforcement theory states that an individuals’ behavior is determined by its consequences. Landy and Conte (2015) mention three elements as being central in the theory, stimulus, response and reward. If a particular stimulus (behavior) is rewarded, that behavior will likely occur again to elicit a similar reward. This is positive reinforcement, behavior being encouraged through reward; on the other hand, removing positive consequences from a behavior will lead to prevention of undesired behavior.  The theory however is lacking in its explanation when the current day situation is considered, where some behavior (protests, industrial strike action) is done while fully being aware of its negative consequences. Employees just do not do what is right based on reinforcement therein, but rather weigh their options and do what they consider right at a particular time, sometimes even without thinking they just join their peer groups.

Vrooms Expectancy Theory tried to tie down process and content theories. Jex (2002) highlights the uniqueness of humans in that their cognition allows them to expect the future and adjust ones behavior accordingly. Vroom suggested that motivation comes from belief that particular decisions will bring desired outcomes. This then leads employees to do one thing instead of another. This   belief is influenced by three factors, expectancy (belief that success is a result of greater effort), instrumentality (belief that activity is closely linked to goals), and valence (the degree to which an individual values a reward). If all three are present, chances are very high that an individual will become motivated and behave in a desired way. On the other hand, if there is absence of any of the three, there is no motivation. To an extent, the theory captures the essence of motivation, although as much as it combined the content and process approaches, it still fell short of explaining the social influence and pressure on motivation. For example a case where an individual who believes that success is a result of greater effort (expectancy) but doesn’t subscribe to instrumentality and valence for other reasons, but still gets motivated to perform so he/she can provide for their family.

Adams Equity Theory, states that people evaluate their actions by comparing their contributions, costs of their actions, and received benefits thereof in reference to the next person. Simply put, if two people are putting in the same amount of work, energy and resources, the expectation is that their rewards should be similar. Employees are motivated when they view their treatment as equitable to individuals in their frames of reference. This theory brings to light comparison (with people one thinks is in the same frame with) which is a very important aspect of motivation. However, it still needs to be partnered with other theories to fully explain the concept.

Austin and Vancouver cited in Jex (2002) allude to psychological research suggesting that human behavior is mostly being motivated and regulated by goals. This forms the basis of Lockes’ Goal Setting Theory. According to the theory, setting specific and challenging goals increases motivation. Accomplishing these goals is therefore, what motivates individuals to perform well. Jex (2002) further delves into attributes that make goals to motivate, he notes that goal specificity (specific and not vague), goal difficulty (difficult goals motivate more than easy ones), and goal acceptance (belief that a goal is attainable) are the main attributing factors. Being modern, the theory does account for itself well, but just like others before it, there is less focus of social influences and life experiences. Some people are motivated simply by altruism (selfless behavior) and may be doing some job so that they help. In this case, altruism is not a goal, but rather a personal trait.

As has been demonstrated above, the theories of motivation, both content and process theories are not able to explain motivation at least not each on its own, but they must all be considered in their totality when interventions in workplaces are being considered.

Motivation theories do have practical implications in organizations. Organizations try to influence some behaviors using the theories. Among the behaviors are attraction, productive behavior, counterproductive behavior, and retention (Jex, 2002). The process of motivation starts from before the organization employs, during attraction to it, the organization offers great salary, benefits, good working conditions and more. Then when employees are in the organizations, attention is turned to encouragement of productive behavior, which is about getting the best out of people for the organizations benefit. At the same time, focus is placed on discouraging counterproductive behaviors such as late coming and in discipline. Then the organization puts its efforts in retention, which means trying to keep the talent they have.


There are three main influencers of motivation in organizations, and these are work-life balance, personality and cross cultural issues (Landy, F.J., Conte, 2015). Work-life balance is the extent to which demands of work get into conflict with those of life outside work (family, social life). Too much conflict will lead to decreased motivation in most cases because this causes cognitive dissonance (mental discomfort) and employees are unable to put their energies towards achieving the best results.

People with a personality trait of internal Locus of Control (LOC) believe that their fate is in their hands and those with an external LOC believe that they are at the mercy of external forces. This affects motivation in that employees with internal LOC increases their chances of being motivated while external LOC does the opposite. Landy and Conte (2015) explain that research has backed the claim that internal LOC is positively connected with motivation.

The cultural diverse workplaces are also presenting a problem of their own. Due to differences in perception in different cultures, interventions for motivation are bound to be difficult and tricky. Landy and Conte (2015) present issues like how different cultures view masculinity-femininity, individualism-collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and long term-short term orientations. These issues will result in employees having different views of interventions and therefore not being able to achieve the required goals.

However, motivation in organizations employees can also be influenced by other factors. These are factors like job content (how challenging a job is), power expectancy (how much power one has over their and others work), salary and benefits (the rewards for their input), job satisfaction, upward mobility and personal development (opportunity to grow within the organization and ones career) among others  (Hosseini, 2014; Kivuva, 2012).


Lack of Motivation and its consequences is also a very important issue that must be discussed along with the concept of employee motivation. Research has shown that improved well-being of employees also improves their performance (Jong, 2002). This will conversely imply that employees who are unwell will also not perform. Simple logic will show that lack of motivation will lead to employees doing their work only as an evil necessary for their survival. This will mean effort levels are very low and consequently so is the performance. This situation usually ends in burnout.

Burnout is an extreme state of psychological strain resulting from continuous exposure to chronic job stressors and an employee is unable to amass resources to cope with them (Landy, F.J., Conte, 2015). To tie in everything together, it is important to know what job stressors are. These are environmental stimuli that trigger physiological or psychological stress. Examples of these stressors are increased workload, role ambiguity and role conflict, social stressors, change, control and many others. It is vital to note that stress is mostly a product of perception of task versus ones resources to cope. This perception will be worsened in cases where motivation is absent, as an individual would only see everything happening to them and around them as working against them.

Carefully considered, employee well-being and employee motivation are to an extent reciprocal, presence of one would easily result in the flourishing of the other. Strategies in employee well-being target the same important areas of motivation like work-life balance, communication, a sense of community, and bonding the various personality types.  These are the same issues that motivation strategies look to address in their interventions to employees.

Personal differences is yet another important factor to consider. The differences emerge from the simple fact that no two individuals are the same. The transaction model of stress looks at stress as an individual phenomenon that is based in psychological processes (Cartwright & Whatmore, 2005). Individuals being different means that perception will also be different. As earlier noted, it is perception that will enable an individual to consider an event or stimulus a threat, and thereby put together resources to deal with it. The individual differences also determine if one will be able to cope or not. Coming from a background of lack of motivation, an employee will therefore suffer from adverse effects of stress (burnout) due to the absence of a push to try and do better.


To sum up the discussion, it will be of great importance to consider further research in cross-cultural effects on motivation especially looking at the current African setting where Western influence is present and operates with long held African traditions and customs. This may mean a shift in perceptual processes and many other things that will affect theoretical perspectives. It would also be important to put all the theories to the test in one setting and come up with an all-encompassing theory that would be able to explain Motivation. Most theories were developed before the turn of the century, before the year 2000 and using an all-encompassing theory to solve current organizational problems would lead to advances in the concept and in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.


Author: the ultrapreneur blog

Management Consultant and Industrial Psychology Student, mad about entrepreneurship and self reliance.

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