Our life is made up of a large number of areas, all of which are of great importance to our development and adjustment to society. One of them is work, through which we develop an occupation and a set of activities that help us organize our lives and generate or carry out some kind of service to society.

Work, when done as desired, is not only a mere means of survival but can also be a source of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction). But for this to happen, our occupation must be a source of motivation, thanks to which we can become involved in our tasks, increase our performance and feel satisfied with what we do.

Throughout history, many authors have researched this topic and the needs and elements associated with worker motivation. This research has resulted in a large number of theories of work motivation , of which we will cite some of the main ones throughout this article.

Work motivation: what is it?

Before starting to evaluate the different existing theories regarding work motivation, it is worth commenting first on the very concept on which they are based. Work motivation is understood as the internal force or impulse that moves us to carry out and/or maintain a certain task , voluntarily and willingly using our physical or mental resources to undertake it.

This impulse has a certain direction, that of applying our resources to reach the desired goal, and implies the fact that we are going to persist and persevere in making a concrete effort with a certain intensity. The greater the motivation to carry it out, the greater the intensity and perseverance we are willing to maintain.

And the consequences of work motivation are very positive: facilitates satisfaction with one’s task and abilities, promotes performance , productivity and competitiveness, improves the work climate and enhances autonomy and personal self-fulfilment. It is therefore very beneficial for both the worker and the employer.

However, this motivation does not come out of nowhere: the task, its results or one’s own efforts must be appetizing if it is to be born. And it is the search for how and what makes work motivation increase that has generated a great diversity of theories , which have traditionally been divided into theories linked to what makes us motivated (or content-centred theories) and the process we follow until we manage to motivate ourselves (or process-centred theories).

Main theories of work motivation according to content

Next we are going to cite some of the main theories that work on the basis of exploring what generates motivation, that is to say, which elements of the work allow the appearance of the impulse or desire to act. This is mainly considered because it allows us to satisfy a series of needs, which have been worked on by different authors.

McClelland’s theory of learned needs

One of the first and most relevant theories regarding work motivation was that carried out by McClelland, who, based on previous studies on human needs carried out by other authors (especially Murray) and by comparing different executives from different types of companies, reached the conclusion that there are three major needs that stand out when it comes to motivating us at work .

Specifically, he presented as the main sources of work motivation the need to achieve, which is understood as the desire to improve one’s performance and be efficient in it as an element of satisfaction and which is based on a good balance between probability of success and challenge, the need for power or desire for influence and recognition and the need for affiliation or membership, association and close contact with others.

All these needs have a balance that can vary depending on the personality and the work environment, something that can generate different profiles, behaviours and levels of motivation at work.

2. Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs

Probably one of the best known psychological theories as far as needs are concerned, Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs proposes that human behaviour (initially his theory was not centred on the labour field) is explained by the presence of basic needs born from deprivation , and that they are organised in a hierarchy (in the shape of a pyramid) in which once the most basic needs have been supplied we move on to focus on the higher ones, going from biological needs to social and self-realisation needs.

In this sense the author proposes the existence, from the most basic to the most complex, of the following: physiological needs (food, water, shelter), security needs, social needs, need for estimation and finally need for self-realization.

3. Motivation and hygiene theory of Herzberg

In part similar to the previous one but much more focused on the purely occupational, Herzberg carried out the two-factor theory or the hygiene and motivation factor theory. This author considered it relevant to assess what people want or consider satisfactory in their work, reaching the conclusion that eliminating elements that generate dissatisfaction is not sufficient for the work to be considered satisfactory .

Based on this, the author generated two main types of factors, which give name to his theory: hygiene factors and motivation factors. Hygiene factors are all those whose existence prevents work from being unsatisfactory (but does not make work motivating) and which include elements such as personal relationships, supervision, stability or salary.

On the other hand, motivation factors would include, among others , responsibility, job progression, position and recognition, development or fulfilment and would refer to the elements that do imply the appearance of motivation and job satisfaction.

4. McGregor’s X and Y theories

Partly based on Maslow’s theory and analyzing the characteristics of the theories and models of the psychology of organizations existing until then, McGregor made a contrast between the classical models and a more humanistic vision: the X and Y theories .

Theory X supposes a mechanistic approach to work, seeing the worker as a passive element tending to evade his responsibilities that needs to be spurred on with punishments or rewarding his productivity with money in order to force him to work. This implies that the management must show great control and assume all the responsibilities, not being the worker capable of managing changes or conflicts but being told how.

On the contrary, the theory Y is a more novel vision (it must be taken into account that this theory was proposed in the sixties, so at that time and until a few years ago, the typical consideration of the theory X predominated) and of humanist character in which the worker is an active being with needs not only physiological but also social and of self-realization .

The employee is seen as someone with his own goals and with the ability to take responsibility, and it is necessary to help him stimulate his own potential, face challenges and allow him to be committed. Motivation and recognition of their achievements and role is fundamental.

5. Alderfer ERC hierarchical model

Another relevant model based on Maslow’s is Alderfer’s hierarchical model, which generates a total of three types of needs, in which the less satisfaction there is, the greater the desire to supply it . Specifically, it values the existence of needs for existence (the basic ones), needs for interpersonal relations and needs for personal growth or development, which generate motivation in order to achieve their satisfaction.

Depending on the process

Another type of theory has to do not so much with what but with how we are motivated . That is, with the way or the process we follow for work motivation to emerge. In this sense, there are several relevant theories, among which the following stand out

1. Vroom’s theory of valences and expectations (and contribution of Porter and Lawler)

This theory starts from the assessment that the employee’s level of effort depends on two main elements, which may be mediated by the presence of needs.

The first of these is the validity of the results, i.e. the consideration that the results obtained with the task to be performed have a specific value for the subject (it can be positive if it is considered valuable or negative if it is considered harmful, or even neutral when it is indifferent). The second is the expectation that the effort made will generate such results, and is mediated by different factors such as the belief in one’s own self-efficacy.

This model was later taken up by other authors such as Porter and Lawler, who introduced the concept of instrumentality or degree to which effort or performance will generate a certain prize or recognition as a variable, in addition to the two previous ones proposed by Vroom, as the main elements that predict motivation and the making of an effort.

2. Locke’s goal-setting theory

A second process-focused theory is found in Locke’s goal-setting theory, for whom motivation depends on the intention to strive for a specific goal sought by the goal. That goal will determine the type of effort and involvement of the subject, as well as the satisfaction he gets from his work depending on how close he is to his objectives.

3. Adams’ Theory of Equity

Another theory of great relevance is Adams’ so-called equity theory, which starts from the idea that work motivation is based on how the employee values his task and the compensation he receives in return, which will be compared with that received by other workers .

Depending on the outcome of such a comparison the subject will take different actions and will be more or less motivated: if he considers himself less valued or compensated and treated with inequity he will reduce his motivation and may choose to reduce his own effort, leave or change the involvement and perception of his task or compensation. If the perception is that you are being compensated more than you should, on the contrary, you will tend to increase your involvement .

Thus, it is the fact of feeling fairly treated that generates satisfaction and can therefore influence work motivation.

4. Skinner’s theory of reinforcement

Based on behaviorism and operant conditioning, there are also theories that propose that motivation can be increased by using positive reinforcement , granting rewards in order to encourage an increase in performance and that reinforcement is the source of motivation. However, this theory neglects the importance of intrinsic motivation within the work, focusing only on the search for rewards.

Bibliographic references

  • Huilcapi-Masacon, M.R., Castro-López, G.A. and Jácome-Lara, G.A. (2017). Motivation: theories and their relationship in the business field. Revista Científica Dominio de las Ciencias, 3 (2): pp. 311 – 333.
  • Rivas, M.E. and López, M. (2012). Social and Organizational Psychology. Manual CEDE de Preparación PIR, 11.