Theories of Human Motivation Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Theories of Human Motivation

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For years, managers, psychologists and academics have been interested in theories about motivation - why we get out of bed and go to work every morning; why some people are willing to do a great job despite being faced with huge challenges on a daily basis; why others can't do even the simplest thing without making mistakes; and why seemingly small things such as the removal of a water-cooler in the canteen can have hugely detrimental effects on work performance. A large body of research has been written attempting to tackle these issues - some of which have gained considerable currency inside businesses as they try to get the most from their workforce. This article introduces a few of the more established and popular theories.

Money as a Motivator

This theory states that all workers are motivated primarily by the need for money; so if you want to get the most out of your workforce, you pay them more. This has particular effectiveness in areas where payment is directly linked to the accomplishment of objectives. This theory is prevalent in many businesses in the form of performance-related pay, incentives, bonuses and promotion schemes. While few would argue that it does not have some validity (indeed it is the driver behind most sales forces the world over), it is not an all-encompassing theory. It doesn't really address the sometimes complex reasons why people are motivated by money. It excludes people who are not driven primarily for money. It does not, for example, apply to voluntary organisations. In addition, it may not work if meeting the financial objectives might threaten other entitlements, creature-comforts or rights, such as an employee's location, network of friends, employment conditions or current level of job satisfaction.

The Hierarchy of Needs

This theory is probably the best-known motivation theory. It was coined by Abraham Maslow during the 1940s and 1950s. In essence, it states that our motivations are dictated primarily by the circumstances we find ourselves in, and that certain 'lower' needs need to be satisfied before we are motivated towards 'higher' accomplishments. Let's take an extreme case: if we were stranded in a high mountain range after a plane crash, all our energies would initially go into finding food, shelter, defence and possibly, medical assistance. Only after these needs were satisfied would we seek other objectives such as respect, friendship, care of others and sexual fulfilment. If all these goals were answered then we would be free to seek purer goals such as enlightenment, wisdom, great works and perpetual remembrance. Maslow divided these objectives into five distinct stages, starting at physiological needs and ending at self-actualisation needs. In practice, the theory has its application in ensuring that the workforce have sufficiently comfortable surroundings and working conditions in order for them to be free to do their best for their company. If your technical writers are stuffed four people per desk into a Portakabin with no windows which fluctuates between -10 degrees in the Winter and +50 degrees in summer, you should not expect them to write Shakespeare1.

Theory X and Theory Y

In 1960, Douglas McGregor advanced the idea that managers had a major part in motivating staff. He essentially divided managers into two categories – Theory X managers who believe that their staff are lazy and will do as little as they can get away with; and Theory Y managers who believe that their people really want to do their best in their work. Theory X managers believe that staff will do things if they are given explicit instructions with no wiggle room, and plenty of stick if they don't do what they are supposed to do. Theory Y managers believe their people work their best when empowered to make appropriate decisions. Theory Y2 has begun to replace Theory X as the dominant management philosophy in many organisations (except your workplace, of course).

AAP Theory

This theory was developed by DC McClelland and DG Winteer in 1969. Essentially it groups people's needs into three different categories – the need for achievement, the need for affiliation and the need for power. Taking a less hierarchical approach than Maslow, it acknowledges that different strokes are required for different folks. Some people will have strong motivations in some or all of the categories, while others will have little or none. So, in order to get the most out of people you must make the goals and objectives fit with each individual's needs. Don’t expect someone with high affiliation needs to be a great parking warden or sports referee!

Dual Factor Theory

Another theory to gain prominence at this time was Frederick Hertzberg's Dual Factor theory. He identified two separate groups of factors that had a strong bearing on motivation. He called the first group 'hygiene factors,' because they strongly influenced feelings of dissatisfaction amongst employees. Hygiene factors include working conditions, pay, and job security. According to Hertzberg, they don't motivate employees as such, but if they are not there, they can adversely affect job performance. He referred to the other group as 'motivation factors' because they had a role in positively influencing performance - such as achievement, career progression and learning. Hertzberg went on to state that you can forget about workforce motivation if you don't get the hygiene factors right first of all. Fixing the downstairs toilets is not normally a recipe for a 50% productivity improvement.

Equity Theory

John Stacy Adams posited another theory in 1965, looking at how motivation was affected by the degree of fairness within an organisation, particularly within a group of peers. Consider the situation where nine sales representatives are given a company Mercedes, but one of them is given a Toyota, even though that person believes he did just as good a job as his colleagues. How would that last sales representative feel? Now there’s nothing wrong with a Toyota, but by comparing one's own circumstances to the treatment of others in a similar situation, very intense feelings can be experienced. These feelings could lead to intense positive or negative motivations. It's completely relative, and could apply to a peer group of millionaires should they compare one another's yachts, or hair transplants. In practice, managers need to be careful in singling out an individual for special treatment within a group of peers because of the emotions this can engender.

Expectancy Theory

Victor Vroom in 1964 put forward the notion that people are driven by the likelihood of genuine success in achieving particular objectives. Three barriers need to be jumped by managers if they want to motivate their people to succeed. First of all, they need to connect the task to be performed to the likelihood of better results. Secondly they need to set expectations that there are positive benefits to the employee in achieving those results, and thirdly they need to ensure that these benefits are of value to the employee. For instance, there is no point asking your engineers to be happy about coming in a half-hour early in future if you can't properly explain how this will lead to eventual real benefits for the engineers themselves. Telling them that it will increase senior management's bonuses doesn't tend to work so well.

To sum up

All the popular motivation theories have their flaws and detractors, but they do give us an insight into some of the mechanisms at work in day-to-day organisational life. A number of key messages ring true: firstly, people are not automatons and their reasons for behaving in a certain way are more complex than just money or laziness. Secondly, different people are motivated differently – there is no such thing as a simple, all-encompassing solution. Thirdly, it's important to get the work environment right if you want to get the most from people; and finally, managing perceptions and expectations is very important if you want to help people get the most from their work.

1On the other hand, the 17th Century conditions in which Shakespeare wrote his plays may have been even worse than this; and if your technical writers are writing plays and sonnets when they are meant to be working on something else, then you might advise them to change careers before your boss finds out.2Since McGregor, Theory Z has been advanced by William Ouchi. This is Theory Y on steroids, and states that employees crave responsibility and opportunities for growth all the time. It is strongly influenced by Japanese management styles. There is also a Theory W (Boehm and Ross), which encourages managers to focus on win-win outcomes for all stakeholders

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