Three Major Theories of Motivation

by Walter Johnson; Updated September 26, 2017

Just as people are different from one another, so their motivational traits also differ. The big question is what makes some employees work very hard at minor tasks while others yawn at important, rewarding and significant ones? The difference is in the nature and structure of personal motivation. Many of these theories overlap, and none is truly exclusive.

Acquired Needs Theory

Likely the most common of all theories of motivation is the drive to achieve certain tangible, external goals. Acquired Needs are three: Achievement, Affiliation and Power. Achievement refers to the desire to show one's competence. This is manifested through praise and an internal sense of well-being for a job well done. This is primarily a selfish approach to motivation. Affiliation is closer to team building. People are motivated by those around them. They love the idea of the espirit d'corps that arises from working together. People draw closer to one another when they go through difficult ordeals. Lastly, Power is another selfish drive; the individual completes tasks for the authority that such work may produce.

Control Theory

More subtle than Acquired Needs is Control. Several issues are at work here. First, those motivated by control differ from those motivated by power. Control is the internal drive to try and dominate one's surroundings. But since reasonable people know they cannot control everything, they choose what they can control. Therefore, certain tasks, regardless of their intrinsic worth, might be entered into with gusto for the sake of placing one's mark on the external environment. At their best, control types are those who are intelligent and goal-driven, seeking to reduce all around them to order and predictability.

Expectancy Theory

Like many theories of motivation, the nature of the goal is often ignored. Motivation theory has the tendency to see what is going on within the actor, rather than focusing on the goal itself. In this case, the goal seeker is one who wants to show competence and, therefore, will choose those goals that seem relatively safe, with a high degree of expectancy that they can be done. There are three variables intrinsic to expectancy. First, something is in it for the actor when the goal is finished. There is a “perceived outcome” in the goal itself, usually focused around showing competence and a feeling of accomplishment. Second, the job itself can be done with a minimum of frustrations. This remains one of the most common and important basic theories of motivation. Finally, one's ego will find some rest in the task. In other words, the task at hand will manifest one's capabilities and show everyone how competent he is.

About the Author

Walter Johnson has more than 20 years experience as a professional writer. After serving in the United Stated Marine Corps for several years, he received his doctorate in history from the University of Nebraska. Focused on economic topics, Johnson reads Russian and has published in journals such as “The Salisbury Review,” "The Constantian" and “The Social Justice Review."