Theories on Employee Motivation

by Marcia Moore, MSSW; Updated September 26, 2017
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Motivation may be the desire within a person to do something. If the person is at work, employers may expect them to be motivated to have outstanding performance. Since being motivated could lead to high productivity at work, some professionals in the field of psychology (study of how people behave) have studied motivation and developed various theories to explain how employees are motivated. If such words as “want” and “desire” resemble motive to act, it may behoove employers to understand more about motivation and the relationship to high or low productivity.

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

According to Abraham Maslow, a behavioral scientist, there are five levels of needs that motivate people. They are the psychological needs that are basic and have to do with food and shelter; safety needs, which keeps them from physical and emotional harm; social needs, which stem from the desire for belonging; esteem needs, which come from recognition for achievements and self-actualization needs, which have to do with fulfillment and creativity. It may be said that the first two needs must be met prior to seeking the additional three. For example, if an employee is going through a home foreclosure, the focus may become on saving the home for the family rather than being recognized for outstanding performance at work.

B.F. Skinner's Operant Conditioning Theory

According to B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist, four intervention strategies can change a person’s behavior. The first strategy is positive reinforcement, which encourages the behavior when the person receives something good in return (for example, perfect attendance can lead to a day off). The second strategy is negative reinforcement, which also encourages good behavior through the elimination of an unpleasant response (for example, arriving at work on time eliminates verbal reprimand). The third strategy is punishment, which provides a very unpleasant response to the behavior (for example, refusing to improve performance leads to possible job loss). The fourth strategy is extinction, which discourages behavior by not providing a reinforcement (for example, the employee wants to brag about a new car, but no one acknowledges the bragging).

J. Stacy Adams' Equity Theory

Behavioral psychologist J. Stacy Adams' equity theory is one of employees measuring job inputs versus job outputs. For example, if an employee believes that the rate of compensation is equal to the amount of work that he completes, the perception is a fair trade. If the employee believes that she is putting in more work than the rate of pay received, there is a perception of imbalance. According to Adams, this can result in demotivating behavior (tardiness, increase in errors) and loss of interest in the work.

About the Author

Based in Dallas, Texas, Marcia Moore has been writing business-related materials since 1974. She has enjoyed a 30-year career in the field of human resources and works as a HR consultant to small and medium businesses. Moore holds a Master of Science in social work from the University of Texas in Arlington.

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