Motivation Theories

Over the years many psychologists have attempted to define and categorise what motivates people.  This became particularly important after the Second World War as the Western nations attempted to rebuild their drained industrial economies, and during the '50s and '60s much was researched and written about Human Relations.  It was recognised that people who worked in organisations were more than just numbers and, if properly managed, could not only produce more, but also contribute more.

This is not the place to cover the work of every motivational theorist: we've simply chosen a couple that have entered the mainstream management vocabulary:

In addition, Abraham Maslow has his own page here.



Douglas McGregor published "The Human Side of Enterprise" in 1960, in which he suggested that traditional management methods (which he called Theory X) might not be the only way to get people motivated.  Instead, you could take a different approach (based on Theory Y) and achieve the same if not more.

Theory X is the traditional view of direction and control, based on these assumptions:

  1. The average person inherently dislikes work and will avoid it if at all possible.

  2. As a result, most people have to be coerced, controlled and threatened if they are to put in enough effort to achieve the organisation's goals.

  3. In fact the average person prefers to be directed, avoids responsibility, isn't ambitious and simply seeks security.

Theory Y, based on the integration of individual and organisational goals, assumes:

  1. The physical and mental effort of work is as natural as play or rest, so the average person doesn't inherently dislike work.

  2. We are capable of self-direction and self-control, so those factors don't necessarily have to come from elsewhere.

  3. Our commitment to an objective is a function of the rewards for its achievement.

  4. The average person learns not only to accept but to seek responsibility.

  5. Most people have a capacity for imagination, ingenuity and creativity.

  6. The intellectual potential of most people is under-used in modern industrial life.

Theory Y is not a soft option.  In fact it can take as much management effort as Theory X, but the effects of a Theory Y approach will last longer.  The Theory X manager is a dying breed (although it has to be said he's not yet extinct), and Theory Y lies behind most modern approaches to motivation.  Nowadays the terminology is used as a polite way of referring to the old command-and-control approach to management: the trouble is the diehard Theory X manager won't pick up the subtle criticism!




Frederick Herzberg studied and practised clinical psychology in Pittsburgh, where he researched the work-related motivations of thousands of employees.  His findings were published in "The Motivation to Work" in 1959.  He concluded that there were two types of motivation:

Hygiene Factors that can demotivate if they are not present - such as supervision, interpersonal relations, physical working conditions, and salary.  Hygiene Factors affect the level of dissatisfaction, but are rarely quoted as creators of job satisfaction.

Motivation Factors that will motivate if they are present - such as achievement, advancement, recognition and responsibility.  Dissatisfaction isn't normally blamed on Motivation Factors, but they are cited as the cause of job satisfaction.

So, once you've satisfied the Hygiene factors, providing more of them won't generate much more motivation, but lack of the Motivation Factors won't of themselves demotivate.  There are clear relationships to Maslow here, but Herzberg's ideas really shaped modern thinking about reward and recognition in major companies.

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