Four Main Theories of Motivation

by Emily Anderson; Updated September 26, 2017
Portrait of smiling businesspeople

Motivation is the reason why human beings complete tasks. Motivation is a difficult quality to define as people seem to have many different reasons for doing the things they do. For hundreds of years, scientists have offered many theories from different perspectives (scientific, psychological, physiological, anthropological and sociological) to offer explanations for where motivation comes for and how to increase it. Motivation theory can be especially useful in a workplace setting.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs proposes that human beings are motivated to do things in a specific order required for survival. According to this theory, human beings cannot fulfill their needs in a higher category if they are not fulfilled in the lower categories first. The needs, in order, are: physiological, safety, love and affection, esteem and self-actualization (achievement of personal goals).

Dual-Factor Theory

Frederick Herzberg's dual-factor theory, or two-factor theory, states that two consistent factors play into motivation, specifically in the workplace: hygiene and motivators. Hygiene factors are those which, if absent from a workplace, cause dissatisfaction. These factors include the environment, level of supervision, pay, etc. Motivators are factors that cause added satisfaction if present in a workplace but do not lower satisfaction levels among employees if not present. These factors include sense of achievement, recognition of abilities, nature of the job, etc.

Need for Achievement

David McClelland's need for achievement theory is similar to Maslow's but states that people's needs are shaped by their life experiences over time. McClelland's theory cites three different types of people based on their motivation style: high achievers, people with affiliation needs and those with a need for power. People who are high achievers strive to be the best at everything and do best in high-risk situations. High achievers should be given difficult projects with clear goals in mind and provided with constant feedback. Those who need affiliation simply require harmonious and pleasant relationships with their coworkers and clients, and do best in more group-based, cooperative situations. Those with a need for power actively desire to organize and direct others for the personal goals or the institution they work for and work best in management positions.

Expectancy Theory

Victor Vrom's expectancy theory uses the dual-factor theory to clarify that hygiene factors in the workplace do not necessarily lead to employee satisfaction and increased productivity. Instead, employees will only increase productivity if they believe their work is in direct relation to the achievement of their personal goals. In this theory, motivators are absolutely essential to increased productivity in the workplace.

About the Author

Emily Anderson began writing in 2006 and editing in 2008. She is published in Linda Rief's "101 Quickwrites," and was regularly published in George Washington University's literary magazine, "Wooden Teeth." Anderson gradated with a Bachelors of Arts in English from George Washington University.

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