Motivation Theory

Motivation theory is the generic label applied to the ongoing study of why we do what we do. During the middle years of the 20th century, a succession of US-based academics advanced theoretical models that could help managers and executives to optimise the output of their rapidly expanding industrial workforces. One of the common themes of these theories was the stress on the emotional aspects of the work situation (e.g. group relationships and the need to be challenged and appreciated) as opposed to the literal and functional aspects of an individual's job specification.

One of the earliest contributions came from Mary Parker Follett who argued for a more human approach to management and advocated consultation and bottom-up communication.

George Elton Mayo noted that the interest and commitment of supervisors and other observers had a motivating effect on workers. This phenomenon which seemed to be able to overcome a range of negative workplace factors, has come to be referred to as the Hawthorne Effect. Mayo concluded that workers have a psychological need to belong to a group and also to believe their organization cares about them. He felt that these needs were more important to them than financial incentives and good working conditions.

Abraham Maslow translated Mayo's 'social needs' into a five level 'hierarchy of needs'. This hierarchy is now often represented as a pyramid, but Maslow preferred to see it as a ladder. The first level (or rung) was formed by the physiological needs (e.g. food, water, air, and sleep). The second level were the needs for safety and security (e.g. structure, order and predictability). The third level is the need for love and belonging (including family, friends and sexual intimacy). The fourth level are the esteem needs (e.g. recognition, respect and encouragement). The fifth and final level was what Maslow referred to as self-actualization (e.g. morality, creativity and problem solving). He eventually added a sixth cognitive need level (acquiring knowledge) and a seventh aesthetic needs level (the creation and experience of beauty).

Douglas McGregor formulated two theoretical models for the behaviour of people at work. McGregor called these Theory X (traditional approach based on the idea that employees need to be motivated by material rewards) and Theory Y (a more innovative approach in which all employees are seen as having creative potential).

Fred Herzberg developed a contrasting twin factor theory which distinguished between: Motivational factors (which had the capacity to satisfy people) and Hygiene factors (which only had the capacity to remove dissatisfactions). Herzberg argued that motivation-seekers are driven by job content, recognition and responsibility, while hygiene-seekers are more concerned by job context (e.g. relationships, salary and working conditions). He stereotyped the latter as talented, but cynical individuals who often derided the companies they worked for. By contrast, he saw motivation-seekers as over-achievers with a positive attitude to life and work. Herzberg also coined the terms 'job enrichment' (including staff in the design of jobs) and KITA. The latter acronym stands for Kick In The Ass and covers traditional personnel practices such as wage increases and improvements in fringe benefits, which he saw as only offering short-term motivational value.

Victor Harold Vroom sees motivation as an essentially selfish force that follows from strong positive scores for three belief factors: Expectancy (E); Instrumentality (I); and Valence (V). These three factors relate respectively to the individual's assessment of: a task's likely achievability; the likelihood that completion of a task will lead to a particular outcome; and how much the individual would be likely to benefit from that outcome.

It is important to recognise the value, context and limitations of motivational theory. While offering some useful vocabulary for the design and implementation of HR systems and internal communications in large organisations, none of these theories can directly guarantee organisational success. They all pre-suppose that the individuals are already involved in a potentially successful and sustainable enterprise. However there are many examples of technological, marketing and other realities undermining an organisation with highly motivated staff.

More comprehensive management templates developed by other academics and executives (such as Henri Fayol, F.W. Taylor and Peter Drucker) also touch on motivational factors as do the philosophies of leading companies (such as the Ford Motor Company, Toyota Corporation and the John Lewis Partnership) (see Organisational Formulas). In addition all these templates and theories need to be set against the various belief systems and motivational realities that have directed our activities throughout history (see Motivational Foundations). See also the sections on Management Style and Personal Success.

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