An employee’s performance is often defined as the sum of his ability, his motivation and his environment. In order to fully explore what role motivation plays in an employee’s performance, it is necessary to understand where motivation comes from in the workplace and how to use these working theories to help employees become more engaged.

Motivation is important because it can directly affect an employee’s output in terms of both quantity and quality. Luckily, researchers have broken down many psychological theories into specific angles directed at the organizational workplace.

What Is Motivation?

It’s important for managers and leaders to be familiar with the different ways motivation can be defined to be able to predict what sorts of motivation will help their team perform at its best.

The process of motivation is defined as the internal energy or drive that stimulates an individual to act in a particular way. Within an organizational context, this is the meeting place of a corporation's measure of the employee’s performance and the employee’s satisfaction in having performed her work. In the most basic sense, it’s the art of creating a drive within employees that makes them want to complete their work at the highest level possible.

Three Basic Types of Motivation

Most researchers acknowledge three basic types of motivation for most of our general actions.

  1. Extrinsic:

    Extrinsic motivation causes you to complete an action to obtain or avoid a separate outcome. For example, completing work to receive a paycheck or exercising to lose weight both focus on the desired result of that action.

    2. Intrinsic:

    Intrinsic motivation causes you to complete an action because of the way you feel after completing it. In this case, completing work makes you feel successful, or exercising makes you feel good about your body. The focus is on the satisfaction gained for completing this task and not the specific outcome.

    3. Family: Studies have shown that employees can be encouraged by thoughts of providing for their families.

Organizational Types of Motivation

When looking at what drives an employee’s performance specifically, researchers acknowledge anywhere from three to seven theories of motivation in psychology that drive employees. Within this list, the first three types are the most commonly referenced.

  1. Achievement: Employees want to pursue goals, continually better themselves and obtain new challenges.

  2. Affiliation: Employees want to feel like their co-workers are friends and family, and they want to pursue and nurture good working relationships and connect with people.

  3. Power: Employees are looking to influence people, make positive changes in the workplace and become visible leaders.

  4. Competence: Employees want to produce high-quality work, be recognized as experts in their field and solve new problems.

  5. Incentive: Employees are motivated by the reward for completing a task, whether it be financial, recognition or some other sort of benefit.

  6. Attitude: Employees want to have a positive effect on others, make impactful change for other employees and have the confidence that they are improving conditions.

  7. Fear: Employees are driven to act, occasionally against their will, due to the high potential of unfavorable consequences.

Each type of motivation can be used to influence employees, even the seemingly negative fear motivation. Occasionally, when no other methods are getting through, fear motivation can be used to make a critical point about an employee’s performance. Most employees may embody two or three different types of motivation, but it’s most likely that one certain type is dominant and can be identified.

Theories of Motivation in Management

Coming out of these various definitions are theories of motivation in organizational behavior and management that attempt to explain and thus advise on what drives motivation for employees. Experts acknowledge anywhere from three to five separate theories of motivation.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs breaks human needs down to a five-level hierarchy, with the main point being that basic needs must be met before higher needs like self-actualization come into play.

In the workplace, this means understanding the needs level of each employee and encouraging a workplace that may help meet the other levels of needs (for example, offering flexible hours and work-from-home days). It also means that each employee should have some idea of what self-actualization, the highest tier, means for his own career and his own role.

Hertzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Hertzberg’s two-factor theory, also called the motivation-hygiene theory, separates employee needs into two categories for consideration. Motivational needs are factors that lead directly to employee satisfaction, such as recognition, career progression and finding pleasure in one’s work.

Hygiene needs don’t necessarily lead to satisfaction on their own but do lead to dissatisfaction if they aren’t met, such as competitive salary, good working relationships and fair business policies. Identifying the two types of needs can help the company better meet employee expectations.

Equity/Process Theory

Equity or process theories focus on how motivation comes about rather than what specifically causes the motivation. These theories separate content (what specifically may motivate people or what they say is important) and process (the how or why).

The focus is then on the perceived reward an individual obtains and her satisfaction with this reward, defined as the output, whereas the work put in is the input. It’s cases where the output is perceived as greater than the input when employees are most satisfied and thus most motivated. It focuses mainly on the process of motivation because understanding how or why an employee feels motivated helps that how or why be reproduced.

The Expectancy Theory

The expectancy theory focuses on a mental calculation employees will undertake to determine the outcome and how desirable it is. There are three steps involved in this mental evaluation.

First is expectancy, which is the likelihood that the effort put in will result in the desired goal. Second is instrumentality, which is the belief that the desired goal will produce a reward. Third is valence, which is the value an individual places on that reward. In this case, an employee will be motivated to perform an action if he believes he can do it, if he believes he will be rewarded and if he values that particular reward.

The Process of Leadership

With all of this in mind, how does one convert these theories into tools that can be used by management? The process of leadership is the way an individual creates an environment in which a group can achieve a goal. It’s obviously much more complicated than that since leaders must create a space where individuals are motivated individually to act toward a group goal.

This involves making sure the organizational or departmental directions are clear and align with the company’s goals while using them to cultivate an environment in which the group has sufficient motivation to complete their tasks to the best of their ability.

The theories of motivation may seem complicated and perhaps too theoretical to be completely applicable, but chances are that your workplace and co-workers respond to a mix of these on a daily basis automatically. Take some time to think about these theories, what best matches your own motivational drive and what you see in each theory that may correlate to your employees and co-workers. From there, you should be able to generate some planning and processes to make sure your workplace stays as motivated as possible.