What makes people do what they do? What motivates them to make changes? Motivational theories try to explain why people make the decisions that they make, while providing some explanation for how they can motivate themselves and others to improve their behaviors. Each theory is unique. While there are many motivational theories, each having their pros and cons and their supporters and detractors, several are often named when the subject of motivational theories comes up.

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Fredrick Herzberg's theory suggests that two motivating factors govern behavior: those that increase an individual’s overall satisfaction, and hygiene factors that provide no satisfaction, but create severe dissatisfaction if absent. This theory differentiates between behavioral needs, describing the reasons why employees need specific things and allowing a manager to better direct their motivation.

The disadvantage of this theory is that factors that motivate can change during an individual's lifetime. A young employee, for example, sees job security as a hygiene factor, whereas an older employee who relies more on his job, sees it as a motivator.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that every individual has levels of need, requiring lower, more fundamental, needs to be met before higher needs. The advantage of this theory is that it motivates individuals to move from fundamental needs toward higher needs, providing a clear map for personal growth. Conversely, it fails to explain why some individuals prefer to ignore lesser needs in search of higher ones, such as when individuals choose to forgo paying bills in order to take a vacation.

Incentive Theory

Incentive theory sees the establishment of a reward system as the positive, reinforcing motivation to inspire improved behaviors. This theory concentrates on the positive results of people’s actions, creating an environment that is upbeat and focused on success.

Unfortunately, the incentive theory is so heavily reliant on rewards that it requires a consistent supply of incentives. Additionally, incentives must be universally desired by everyone under the system. For example, if you use incentive theory in your business and choose incentives attractive to only a few employees, the others have no reason to improve their behavior.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory focuses on the intrinsic motivation of individuals who desire personal growth and are independently pushed toward achieving self-defined goals. The benefit of this theory is that it is individually guided by the personal desires of those who seek personal improvement. Unfortunately, the theory fails to provide any intrinsic impetus for people to become personally motivated.