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

Business people celebrating in boardroom

We all have our days where motivation is lacking and tasks feel like an uphill battle. Here, we 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 things have been flagging lately.

Quick navigation

Why motivating employees is important

How to motivate employees

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 A withdrawn, indifferent employee will spend less time on their duties, look for distractions elsewhere, and feel less satisfied during their time at work.

elated team in meeting room

A low level of motivation in one employee could well have a domino effect on others too. And when an entire team becomes less enthusiastic about their work, you can expect to see the company falter as a result.

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.

Acknowledge your team’s achievements

Giving credit where credit is due plays a big part in keeping employees motivated. Whether it was for work or a personal achievement, recognition for their efforts creates meaning and fulfilment for employees. Be sure to let them know when they’ve gone above and beyond.

team holding hands

Reward good work

Encouragement in the form of rewards and incentives goes a long way. When employees know they can get something in return for their hard work, they’re more likely to go above and beyond.

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, you shouldn’t expect your team to always deliver to 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.

brainstorming ideas

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.

Motivational theories in the workplace explained


Developed by? Frederick Herzberg

When? 1959

What? 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? 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.

group discussion

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.


Developed by? Abraham Maslow

When? 1943

What? 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.

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? 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.

colleagues discussing plans on tablet

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.


Developed by? Bernard Weiner

When? 1972

What? 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.

How? 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.

colleagues talking in conference room


Developed by? Victor Vroom

When? 1964

What? 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? 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.

Click here for the latest news and features from SEFE Marketing & Trading or visit our homepage to find out about our latest career opportunities.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within this article are those of our third-party content providers alone and do not represent those of SEFE Marketing & Trading. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. SEFE Marketing & Trading accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.