9 Popular Theories about Motivation

Motivation psychology tries to explain how human beings experience different levels of motivation, despite sharing the same environmental factors. There are various theories about motivation. Human motivation varies, and science seeks to understand what drives motivation in different people.

Motivation psychology examines psychological, environmental, and biological variables, and how they affect motivation. The science further looks into thought processes, incentives, goals, and mental representations of goals that play a role in motivation.

In this article, we look at theories about motivation and what they each mean.

An Overview of theories about motivation

Several theories of motivation, like Maslow’s theory and the expectancy theory, study human behavior and the factors behind motivation. Motivation is vital in the work environment. More formal reward systems, the relationships employees form, and leadership motive patterns heavily rely on motivational theories.

Motivating employees reduce the turnover rates. Also, such work environments can positively affect work behavior.

Various motivation theories attempt to explain why people behave the way they do. Some popular motivation theories include Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, and McClelland’s Theory of Needs.

Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation are factors within ourselves that can develop motivation.

Extrinsic motivation are outside powers that can trigger motivation such as the environment.

Major Theories About Motivation

Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs posits different needs motivate people at different times. For example, a person may be motivated by the need for food when they are hungry, but once that need is met, the need for shelter may motivate them.

According to the theory, there are five human needs. They are;

  • Physiological needs. They include basic needs like food, shelter, and hunger.
  • Safety needs. They include protection from deprivation, loss, and harm. Also, employees want job security at work.
  • Social/ belongingness. It is also known as love needs. Where people want love, friendship, acceptance, and affiliation.
  • Self-esteem needs. Humans need recognition and respect.
  • Self-actualization needs. The need is for personal growth. People achieve it by learning, being fun, and being creative. Personal development takes center stage. Self-actualization needs are the highest form of achievement.

Meeting the five human needs starts from the basic level of the pyramid. One must have a job and get income before they yearn for managerial and leadership positions.

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Herzberg’s dual factor theory posits that there are two types of factors motivation people motivation factors and hygiene factors.

According to Herzberg’s two-factor theory, motivation factors include things like salary and recognition, while hygiene factors include things like working conditions and company policies.

According to the theory, there are two factors to human motivation. Job satisfaction comes from internal factors like personal growth, recognition, the work itself, and achievement. Hygiene factors that motivate employees include company policy, supervision, salary, and working conditions.

McClelland’s Theory of needs

McClelland’s Theory of Needs posits that people are motivated by three different types of needs: the need for achievement, the need for power, and the need for affiliation. McClelland’s achievement motivation theory moves away from satisfaction.

In the theory, McClelland focuses on the three principles and their driving factors. For instance, the need for achievement is driven by a need for competence. The search for excellence is based on external factors and the factors within. A person will work towards excellence by competing against themselves, and others, and the desire to complete the task.

According to the McClelland theory, more achievements come from external factors like the environment and parents who may encourage excellence. The need for personal growth can also motivate someone.

The ERG theory

ERG theory was proposed by Clayton Alderfer. ERG stands for existence, relatedness, and growth.

According to this theory, motivation is a result of three types of needs which are existing, related, and growth.

The theory was developed to address the shortcomings of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory. The main criticism of Maslow’s theory is that it does not take into account the interrelation of needs.

Alderfer’s ERG theory overcomes this criticism by stating that motivation does not always move in a hierarchical order. It is possible for an individual to have more than one need at the same time and motivation can fluctuate between different needs.

Acquired needs theory

David McClelland proposed and developed the acquired needs theory. This theory is also known as achievement motivation theory.

The acquired needs theory argues that motivation is the result of three different types of needs: the need for achievement, the need for power, and the need for affiliation.

This theory was developed based on McClelland’s work with successful businessmen. He found that successful businessmen had a high need for achievement.

The need for achievement is the motivation to accomplish something difficult. The need for power is the motivation to influence others. The need for affiliation is the motivation to be liked by others.

The theory has been used in business to help managers identify employees’ needs and motivation.

Expectancy theory

It is a motivation theory developed by Victor Vroom. The expectancy theory states that motivation is the result of three things:

  • expectancy
  • instrumentality
  • and valence.

Expectancy is the belief that effort will lead to performance. Instrumentality is the belief that performance will lead to rewarding. Valence is the value of the reward.

This theory is helpful for businesses because it can help managers understand what employees expect from their work and what motivates them.

Reinforcement theory

The reinforcement theory is a motivation theory developed by B.F. Skinner.

The reinforcement theory states that motivation is the result of reinforcement or punishment. Reinforcement is something that increases the likelihood of someone repeating a behavior. Punishment is something that decreases the likelihood of repeating a behavior.

The theory is useful for businesses because it can help managers understand what employees are motivated by and how to use reinforcement and punishment to motivate employees.

Equity theory

J. Stacey Adams developed the Equity theory. It states that motivation is a perceived inequity between inputs and outputs. Inputs are things like effort and time. Outputs are things like pay and recognition.

 This theory helps managers understand what employees perceive as fair and how to motivate employees by reducing perceived inequities.

Self-determination theory

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed the self-determination theory. The self-determination theory states that motivation comes from three things: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Autonomy is the need to feel in control of one’s life, while relatedness is the need to feel connected to others. Additionally, competence is the need to feel competent and effective.

Self-determination theory is essential for businesses because it can help managers understand what employees need to feel motivated and how to create motivation programs that address those needs.

More human motivation theories

There are many more theories about motivation. They include,

  1. Goal theory by Latham Locke
  2. Brehm’s reactance theory
  3. Social learning theory by Bandura
  4. Attribution theory
  5. Role modeling theory

The theories of motivation are important because they can help businesses understand what motivates employees and how to use motivation to improve performance. Social psychology is vital in building and maintaining interpersonal relationships.

Different businesses will find different theories more useful depending on their goals and the needs of their employees. However, all businesses can benefit from understanding motivation and using it to improve performance.

In motivation theory, there are different explanations for why people behave as they do. Alderfer’s ERG Theory posits that motivation comes from three types of needs which are; existing, related, and growth. This theory addresses the shortcomings of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory.

 Major concepts of the theory of motivation

List and explain the central concepts of the theory of motivation 

– Need: A need is necessary to survive or thrive. 

– Motivation: Motivation is the driving force behind a person’s behavior. It is what causes a person to act in a certain way.

Thus, motivation can be viewed as a person’s internal drive to satisfy specific needs. Different motivation theories attempt to explain the different ways in which people can be motivated.

While no one motivation theory can explain all human behavior, these theories can provide insights into why people behave the way they do. Understanding motivation can help you better understand yourself and others and help you manage and motivate people more effectively.

Important theorists in the theory of motivation

Important theorists involved in the theory of motivation: 

– Abraham Maslow

– Frederick Herzberg

– David McClelland

– Stacey

– Edward Deci and Richard Ryan

Each of these theorists has contributed to our understanding of motivation. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is one of the most well-known motivation theories, and Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory is popular in business and industry. McClelland’s Theory of Needs has also influenced our understanding of motivation.

Criticism of the theory of motivation theory

One criticism of motivation theories is that they are too simplistic and do not account for all factors that can influence a person’s behavior.

Another criticism is that motivation theories often assume that people are rational beings who make decisions based on their self-interest. However, there is evidence that people are often irrational and that external factors influence their decisions.

Motivation theories also tend to focus on individual motivation rather than group motivation. That can be problematic because motivation is often a collective phenomenon.

Despite these criticisms, motivation theories are popular tools for understanding human behavior. They can provide insights into why people behave as they do and help us better understand ourselves and others. Motivation theories can also help manage and motivate people.

When applying motivation theories, it is crucial to consider their limitations. These theories are not perfect and should not be used to make predictions about human behavior. On the contrary, they are tools that can provide insights into why people behave as they do. Theories can help understand and manage motivation but cannot make definitive statements about human behavior.

Motivation and job satisfaction

Employers can create a working model that caters to their employee’s needs using the theories about motivation. Using the pillars of each theory, they can craft a working environment that serves everyone in the organization.

Employers can use motivation tools to increase motivation in the workplace. Some motivation tools include.

  • Reward. Employers should reward their employees who perform well. When a team performs exceptionally, they should get a reward for motivation.
  • Recognition. Employees deserve recognition for their work and efforts even when they did not win. If they did their best, recognizing their effort is vital for motivation.
  • Purpose. Most employees want more than a paycheck. Working to meet a set purpose can heighten motivation and increase drive within an organization.
  • Trust. Extending trust to employees makes them more responsible. Trusting others to handle your work makes them more accountable and increases motivation.
  • Provide a positive work environment. Workers need to feel comfortable in their work environment to perform. Your employees will feel comfortable in a good working environment, even on their worst days.
  • Feedback. Providing frequent and immediate feedback increases motivation at work. Feedback makes your employees feel heard and understood. Feedback is a form of approval from other human beings. Receiving praise for work well done is one of the best motivating factors.


What are the 3 major theories of motivation?

The most common theories of motivation are Maslow’s theory, Herzberg’s motivation theory, and McClelland’s three needs theory.

Motivation is a broad topic. Several theories about motivation try to understand the phenomenon. Each theory has powerful contributions to our society today.

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