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4 Theories of Motivation Explained

I studied psychology as an undergraduate, and although I don’t work in a psychology-specific role now, I sincerely enjoy sharing knowledge from the field. The area of psychology is packed full of intriguing theories on human behavior, why we behave in specific ways, and why our brains engage in certain thoughts and patterns. Particularly fascinating are the various theories of motivation tied to what drives us to work towards specific goals and outcomes in our lives. 

In particular, our motivation is generally tied to our outputs in our work, whether it be a corporate job or an entrepreneurial venture. Let’s explore what motivation theories are and four popular theories of motivation, and how they show up in our lives today. 

4 Theories of Motivation Explained

4 Theories of Motivation Explained

What is motivation?

Simply stated, motivation theories suggest different proponents that drive human behavior. Our motivation allows us to pursue various goals and outcomes and often plays a role in our performance. No one theory of motivation drives all aspects of human behavior, and motivation varies within a person at different points in time. 

Motivation is what allows us to engage in, maintain, and pursue goal-oriented actions and behaviors.  Motivation psychology is the study of how different variables contribute to human motivation. These variables include biological, psychological, and environmental attributes. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is arguably the most popular or well-known theory of motivation. Proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943, this theory relies on a five-tier model of human needs depicted in a triangular hierarchy.

According to Maslow, we should meet our individual needs starting at the bottom of the pyramid and working our way to the top. The five tiers of the hierarchy from bottom to top are: 

1. Physiological: basic biological requirements for survival, including food, water, shelter, sleep, etc.

2. Safety: security and safety, financial security, emotional security, etc.

3. Belongingness and love: social needs involving friendships, relationships, intimacy, trust, etc.

4. Esteem needs: esteem for oneself such as in mastery or independence, and the desire to earn status or respect from others

5. Self-actualization: realization of one’s potential, self-fulfillment, and stage marked by personal growth

Maslow’s theory has been widely debated, but overall, his approach was influential because it focuses on developing as an individual, even if not in the order suggested in the hierarchy. His motivation theory suggests that there are many components to motivation that affect multiple facets of our lives. 

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Herzberg’s two-factor theory, also known as motivation-hygiene theory, was developed by Frederick Herzberg in 1959 and focuses on workplace motivations centered around job satisfaction and dissatisfaction. 

According to Herzberg, two factors cause work satisfaction and work dissatisfaction: motivators (or motivation factors) and hygiene factors. Motivators are factors that lead to feelings of positive satisfaction and personal growth (think the top tier of Maslow’s pyramid). Examples of motivators include recognition, advancement, and fulfillment from the type of work directly. 

In contrast, hygiene factors aren’t motivating and do not lead to positive satisfaction, though dissatisfaction results when hygiene factors are absent. In other words, having the proper hygiene factors in place ensures individuals are not dissatisfied with their work. Examples of hygiene factors include salary, status, benefits, and working conditions. 

A noteworthy point to address in Herzberg’s theory is that he proposed motivators and hygiene factors are independent of one another. This theory is particularly relevant to the business world and can impact worker productivity and employee engagement. Pay mind to how these different factors affect you as an individual and your career path and potential. 

4 Theories of Motivation Explained

Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect stems from a series of studies conducted by Elton Mayo at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne plant in Illinois in the 1920s and 1930s. Mayo set out to examine the effects of physical conditions on worker productivity. Researchers initially set out to investigate the impact of changing environmental conditions such as lighting, monetary incentives, and the implementation of rest breaks on productivity. 

The series of studies revealed that employees weren’t necessarily responsive to changing independent factors but rather responded to their superiors’ additional attention and the feeling that their bosses cared about them and their work. Ultimately, the Hawthorne Effect suggests that individuals perform better when they feel recognized or believe management is concerned about employee welfare. This theory suggests that higher productivity may result from social conditions, relationships, and being a part of something bigger than oneself. 

The Hawthorne Effect continues to impact organizational behaviors in the workplace today

McClelland’s Achievement Motivation Theory

Achievement Motivation Theory was developed by David McClelland in the 1960s and is related to Herzberg and Maslow’s theories. This theory is rooted in three motives: achievement, power, and affiliation. McClelland described each of the three needs and claimed that individuals are motivated by one of the key areas outlined.

A few noteworthy characteristics in each of the three categories are as follows: 

1. Achievement: desire to achieve and accomplish goals, likes to receive regular feedback, and generally enjoys working alone

2. Affiliation: desires to belong to a group, want to be liked, and favors collaboration with others 

3. Power: desires to influence and control others, enjoys competition, status, and recognition 

4 Theories of Motivation Explained

You likely resonate with one of these categories in your work. Do some introspection and determine what motivates you!

Which of these theories resonated with you the most? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author

Alyssa Towns (Swantkoski)

Alyssa graduated from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice. Early in her career, her interests shifted, and she works in communications and change management. She lives in Denver with her husband, and they love going on adventures together. She lives for summers in Colorado and enjoys hiking and stand up paddleboarding. She also enjoys collecting plants and stationery sets, reading self-help books, and is obsessed with the Yoga with Adriene YouTube channel. No matter where her career path leads her, writing, and sharing her experiences to help others will always be a part of her plans.