The different motivational theories — and how to apply them in your job

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We all have our days where our lack of motivation makes tasks feel like an uphill battle. Here, we’ll explore a range of prominent motivational theories to help power you through the day.

In an ideal world, every professional would carry out their duties to the fullest, with not a single mistake or missed deadline in sight. But unfortunately, we all have our days when we’re performing at half our potential – days where low motivation can make completing tasks feel like pushing a boulder up a hill.

Luckily, there are a whole host of motivational theories that can help you get the most out of your day. Here, we’ll go into some of the most popular theories and look at how you can apply them to your job if you’ve been flagging over the course of the working day lately.

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Why motivating employees is important

How to motivate employees

What is a motivation theory?

Motivational theories in the workplace explained

Why motivating employees is important

Unmotivated employees can affect things on both a business and individual level. A withdrawn, indifferent employee will spend less time on their duties, look for distractions elsewhere, and feel less satisfied during their time at work.

And this low level of motivation in just one employee could well have a domino effect on others. When an entire team becomes less enthusiastic about their work, the company could falter as a result.

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Employees who are supported, appreciated, and motivated, on the other hand, take pride in their work. They’re driven to take on their duties with enthusiasm, be more productive and are happy to work with others for the good of the team and the company.

What’s more, a workforce populated by driven individuals leads to lower levels of absenteeism and staff turnover, improving the company’s reputation in the process.

How to motivate employees

If you want your employees to engage with their work and become more motivated, there are all sorts of things you can do to boost their energy levels. Some of these methods share common ground with the theories later in this piece, but generally, you’d do well to incorporate the below into your management style, if you haven’t already.

Acknowledge your team’s achievements

Giving credit where it’s due plays a big part in keeping employees motivated. Whether it was for completing a lengthy task or a personal achievement, recognising their efforts creates meaning and fulfilment for employees. Be sure to let them know when they’ve gone above and beyond whenever you can.

Reward good work

Encouragement in the form of rewards and incentives goes a long way too. When employees know they can get something in return for their hard work, they’re more likely to go the extra mile and perform at a higher level.

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Keep communication lines open

When employees feel like they’re shut off from their manager, it’s easy for them to disengage. Make it a point to check in with your team, share concerns and ideas with them, and listen to any objections they might have. They’ll appreciate the time you’ve set aside.

Establish a shared goal

A team that understands what they’re working towards is a team that’s more inclined to work hard. Your company should have a vision and plan at both a corporate and individual level.

Once this has been established, be sure to emphasise these company goals to your team. When a company and team know what they are doing, it can be a natural motivator.

Create a sense of growth

Training, collaboration, and the opportunity for promotions let employees know that they’re able to grow and develop in their role. Without these incentives, it’d be difficult to expect your team to always give you their fullest.

Put aside the time to invest in the growth of your team’s skills so they’re ready to advance in their careers and motivate themselves further.

Set a strong example

Remember: you’re the manager for a reason. You can inspire and empower those under your charge, so make sure you’re leading by example. When a manager walks the walk, their team is more likely to follow in their tracks.

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What is a motivation theory?

Although there are many different motivational theories, they’re all concerned with the same thing: discovering what drives a person to work towards a particular goal or outcome. And it’s no secret that motivated employees are more productive – or that productive employees are more profitable.

As you’ll soon see, motivational theories differ in their approach, but they can be distilled into two factors:

– Extrinsic factors: people are motivated by external factors, such as a bonus for hard work or reproach should they fail to meet targets

– Intrinsic factors: people are motivated by a desire to satisfy human needs, such as a desire to please their boss, be respected among their peers or to achieve professional or personal goals

The majority of people are rarely motivated by one factor or the other, but rather a combination of the two. As their manager, it’s up to you to discover what this combination is. Below, we’ll take a look at the most popular theories in the workplace, their pros and cons and how you can apply them to your own environment in the future.

Motivational theories in the workplace explained


Who developed it?

Frederick Herzberg.



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What is the two-factor theory?

After collating the responses of 200 accountants and engineers, Herzberg found two factors that tended to influence how motivated and satisfied these employees were…

Motivator factors: Recognising achievements, the opportunity to advance and enjoying work – factors that lead to satisfaction and increase motivation

Hygiene factors: Poor working conditions, low salary, employee conflict – factors that cause job dissatisfaction

Herzberg’s findings suggest that supervisors must be able to effectively manage factors that lead to satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

How to apply the two-factor theory

Employees love to feel like their efforts are appreciated and supported as people. But they also want to know that they’ll be able to grow and progress through the company too. Let them know that they’re on a path to progressing in this role so they have something to drive towards when completing their tasks.

When it comes to mitigating the hygiene factors, you may need to form a stronger relationship with your team. An aloof, unsympathetic approach can have very negative effects on morale. Consider workloads to see if they can be eased off; an overworked, underpaid team is a sure-fire combination for low motivation.

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Two-factor theory advantages

– It emphasises motivation from within. Rather than solely focusing on external factors, employees can more readily motivate themselves. This makes it easy for companies and managers to pursue it as a model

– It highlights problems experienced by employees. Managers can benefit because it allows them to identify and then minimise the issues that stand in the way of job satisfaction and motivation

– It gives managers control over performance. By treating them properly and creating the ideal working conditions, managers can easily increase employee productivity

Two-factor theory disadvantages

– It doesn’t use a comprehensive measure to assess what motivation means. An employee could find their job satisfying despite the fact they don’t enjoy certain aspects of it, for example

– It’s a highly subjective theory. What might satisfy one person, may not satisfy another. For instance, some people may be motivated by a higher salary, while some people might prefer learning new skills


Who developed it?

Abraham Maslow


What is the Hierarchy of Needs?

Possibly the most well-known theory of motivation, Maslow’s theory takes human needs and classifies them from lowest to highest order. Once the need has been met, it no longer provides motivation. At this point, they move on to the next level of need so they can once again motivate themselves.

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From top to bottom, these are:

Self-actualisation: The need to achieve everything you possibly can

Esteem needs: The need to feel confident and be respected by others

Social needs: The need for friendships, relationships, and family

Safety needs: The need for personal and financial security, as well as health and wellbeing

Physiological needs: Needs to be met in order to survive, such as food, water and shelter

How to apply the Hierarchy of Needs

Employees in offices with a strong work/life balance stand a better chance of adhering to this theory. Things like flexible working hours, industry-standard salaries, and a friendly working environment help to meet esteem, social and safety needs.

Self-actualisation is a little bit more abstract by comparison. Things like progression, accomplishment, recognition, growth and autonomy lead to employee engagement and satisfaction.

These are qualities or attributes in line with the concept of self-actualisation.

A workplace where there’s competition for bonuses between employees, for example, is less likely to lead to self-actualisation because these individuals are no longer working from a standpoint of achieving what they care for. Instead, they’re aiming for an achievement relative to others, as opposed to themselves.

An environment where employees can shape their goals and develop their career creates a degree of control – a large part of self-actualisation that gives a sense of progress to their duties.

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Hierarchy of Needs advantages

– It’s simple, easily understandable and can help managers understand how to motivate their employees, offering perceptive insight into their behaviour.

– As a result, managers can benefit from understanding their employees’ basic human needs, including social needs, job security and recognition. By creating an environment which meets these needs, managers can create self-actualised team members who carry out duties to their fullest.

Hierarchy of Needs disadvantages

– There is no way to properly measure accurately how satisfied one level of need has to be before the need above that comes into focus.

– A widely noted disadvantage of this hierarchy is that Maslow studied only a narrow segment of the human population. Certain terms, like “self-esteem” and “security” don’t hold the same importance to certain cultures around the globe. This makes it hard for researchers to generalise these needs across all human populations.

– It also fails to take into account individual differences. There is little to suggest that every human in the world experiences these needs in the order that Maslow suggests they do.


Who developed it?

Bernard Weiner



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What is attribution theory?

Attribution Theory attempts to explain how we attach meaning to the behaviour of ourselves and others. Weiner suggested that the reasons we attribute to our behaviour can influence how we behave in the future. He came up with three main characteristics of attributions that can affect our motivation:

– Stability: How stable is the attribution? For example, if a student taking an exam believes they failed because they weren’t smart enough, that would be a stable factor.

The attributions we assign to actions have a two-fold effect. Attributing something stable to a successful achievement can lead to positive expectations and higher motivation in the future. We should watch out for the opposite however: negative situations and their attributions have the opposite effect.

– Locus of control: Was the event caused by an internal or an external factor? Consider the exam scenario: was the failure caused by an internal cause, i.e. if the student believes they are innately not smart enough, they may be less motivated in the future. An external factor such as poor teaching, may not lead to a decrease in motivation.

– Controllability: How controllable was the situation? If an individual believes they could have performed better, they may be less motivated to try again in the future than someone who believes they failed due to outside factors.

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How to apply attribution theory?

The theory relates most readily to the feedback you give to employees. When giving them feedback, it’s important to be constructive. Let them know that they can improve and how they can go about it. In theory, this stops employees from attributing their failures to what they believe is their own lack of skill. Their successes are controllable if they use different strategies.

Even if the desired outcomes haven’t been achieved, it’s still important to give them praise. In doing so, you’re encouraging employees to attribute the failure to controllable factors, which can be improved upon down the line.

Advantages of attribution theory

– Explains the difference in motivation between high and low achievers. High achievers will attempt, rather than evade, responsibilities that will allow them to prosper. High achievers also believe that failure is considered to be caused by bad luck, rather than any fault of their own.

Disadvantages of attribution theory

– The theory can be used for people to blame others and avoid personal convictions. It can also lead to low achievers avoid opportunities that could lead to success, since they skew towards doubting their own abilities. This means they’re apt to presuming that accomplishments relate to luck or factors beyond their control, rather than their own abilities.

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Who developed it?

Victor Vroom



What is expectancy theory?

People will work to a high level when they believe there is a relationship between the effort they put in, the performance they achieve, and the outcomes or rewards they receive. In other words, we decide what to do based on what we expect the outcome to be.

The key constructs that are part of this theory are as follows:

Valence: The value placed on the reward

Expectancy: The belief that your effort will result in the desired goal

Instrumentality: The belief that you will receive a reward if performance expectations are met

How to apply expectancy theory

Setting achievable goals, and providing rewards that employees would want and use, is a good way of creating motivation through this theory. They don’t have to be huge, extravagant rewards either. Things like praise, an opportunity for progression, and employee-of-the-month-style rewards can help to keep a realistic level of expectation and motivate employees to better accomplish their duties.

It may take a little trial and error to find the motivational technique which works best for your team, but once you land upon the right method, the rewards can be endless.

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Advantages of expectancy theory 

– When proper goals are set, it may motivate employees to improve their performance – even if the outcome doesn’t meet expectations

– With a proper grasp of the theory, management can assemble more effective teams in order to accomplish business goals. By knowing exactly what they need to offer in order to motivate employees, identifying skills gaps and commit to delivering the right reward, managers can achieve far more as a result

Disadvantages of expectancy theory

– Often assumes that effort and performance will directly lead to the desire outcome

– If the chosen rewards lack value in employees’ eyes, then the team may lose the motivation to perform.


Who developed it?

David McClelland



What is McClelland’s Need Theory?

McClelland’s theory posits that each person is motivated by power, affiliation or achievement. Although one trait tends to dominate, the others are present in an individual as well.

McClelland broke down each of these needs as follows:


Typical behaviours of those highly motivated by power: Demands blind loyalty and harmony, does not tolerate disagreement

Typical behaviours not motivated by power: Remains aloof, maintains social distance


Typical behaviours of those highly motivated by affiliation: Desires control of everyone and everything, exaggerates own position and resources

Typical behaviours of those not motivated by affiliation: Dependent/subordinate, minimises own position and resources

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Typical behaviours of those highly motivated by achievement: Must win at any cost, and receive credit

Typical behaviours of those not motivated by achievement: Fears failure, avoids responsibility

How to apply McClelland’s Need Theory

In applying the theory, you should identify which of the motivators is dominant for each team member. Looking to their personality and past actions can help in this regards.

For instance, you may recognise that one of your team members assumes leadership duties whenever they work on a team project. They speak up in meetings, delegate to others and like to be in control of the project’s deliverables. This person is most probably motivated by power above all else.

Once you’ve identified the driving motivators of your team, you should structure your leadership style and project assignments around the attributes of each team member. Doing so will help to keep everyone engaged, motivated and happy to perform to their fullest.

Advantages of McClelland’s Need Theory

– It helps to assign the best people for particular tasks based on their needs. Not only does this ensure that tasks are completed properly, but managers can avoid alienating or de-motivating certain team members by assigning them tasks they’ve actively shown a dislike towards in the past

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– This also helps with job satisfaction. When they’re aware that a manager has taken an interest in and has understood their needs, team members feel more motivated to perform to a higher level

Disadvantages of McClelland’s Need Theory

– By keeping employees in their comfort zone and only assigning them tasks they’re comfortable with, pursuing this theory gives team members little chance of developing and learning new skills


Who developed it?

Edwin Locke



What is Goal-Setting Motivation Theory?

Locke proposed that the main source of job motivation is working towards the attainment of a goal. Naturally, clear, specific and tough-to-achieve goals are greater motivating factors than simple, vague goals.

By setting realistic, but challenging goals with a clear deadline and the opportunity of feedback upon completion, a manager can provide employees with a sense of triumph, recognition and job satisfaction.

How to apply Goal-Setting Motivation Theory

When using Locke’s theory, there are five goal-setting principles which you can use to create relevant goals, and thus improve your employees’ motivation:

Clarity: Vague goals are tough to measure and are difficult to when they’ve been achieved. By setting an outcome and identifying the metrics they’ll use to achieve them, employees know what their working towards

Challenge: Goals that are going to stretch your team’s abilities are more motivating than those which won’t

Commitment: If they’ve been involved with the setting of the goal, your team are more likely to commit to achieving it

Feedback: Provide feedback that’s objective, and deliver it in a positive way you know your team will be receptive towards

– Task complexity: Much like the Challenge principle, your team may shy way from tasks that are that challenging they’re impossible to achieve. Employees who push themselves to hard may end up withdrawing and detaching, which is the opposite of what you want to happen

Advantages of Goal-Setting Motivation Theory

– It provides clear guidelines as to how set and achieve goals effectively

– Leads to better performance by increasing motivation, as well as increasing and improve the quality of feedback

– Provides employees with a sense of accomplishment, which helps to boost morale and workplace satisfaction

Disadvantages of Goal-Setting Motivation Theory

– Discord between the goal and the employee’s skills can lead to undermining of performance, which can harm worker morale

– Very little in the way of evidence that proves goal setting improves job satisfaction

– Difficult, complex goals can lead to riskier, inefficient processes

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Who developed it?

Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan


1970s and 80s

What is Intrinsic Motivation Theory?

Intrinsic motivation concerns behaviour driven by internal or intrinsic desire. It is the act of completing or doing something for its inherent satisfaction, rather than external rewards.

Factors that such motivation include:

– Curiosity: When their attention is piqued, a person’s motivation may naturally increase, encouraging employees to explore new skills and duties

– Challenge: As goal-setting theory makes clear, challenges help to keep employees engaged, spurring them on to perform at their best

– Recognition: Likewise, feedback plays a large part in making employees’ efforts worthwhile, and pushes them to aim for new accomplishments

– Belonging: Collaboration creates a sense of community amongst team members. The satisfaction of helping others can increase an individual’s intrinsic motivation

– Problem-solving: The change in behaviour that comes with solving problems can further stimulate motivation

How to apply Intrinsic Motivation Theory

Unlike other theories, there isn’t a set process with which to apply this theory. That means there are myriad possibilities you can use to help intrinsically motivate them.

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For instance, you could empower team members by giving them autonomy to solve issues by themselves. Regularly recognising their achievements as often as possible, especially in a a shared collaboration space like Slack or during team meetings also proves useful. You can also start delegating more effectively, giving team members the chance to discover new skills which they can then apply elsewhere.

Advantages of Intrinsic Motivation Theory

– By tapping into something they’re intrinsically interested in, it’s possible to motivate them to complete larger tasks

– When they’re intrinsically motivated, employees have a deeper understanding of the purpose of their tasks, knowing how it weaves into the project or the company’s bigger picture

– Likewise, the intrinsically motivated want to deepen their skills and knowledge. This means they’re more willing to hear and take on feedback since they want to better what they do.

Disadvantages of Intrinsic Motivation Theory

– If they have no innate passion for the subject, it can be difficult to get a team member to learn about something new

– Without an extrinsic motivator in place (i.e. a reward of some kind), letting someone work on a task that’s intrinsically motivating might have the opposite effect. Intrinsic motivation is often not enough to get them to achieve what you want from them.

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