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Theories for Employee Motivation

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At the dawn of this millennium, Milner (2003) concluded that motivation continues to hold a significant position in eyes of scholars. It is a known fact that various organizations have resorted to different strategies to boost staff motivation, create a comfortable work environment and consequently, increase output.

Motivation can be analyzed from various perspectives but for the purpose of this essay, it would be examined from a work related point of view. Work motivation is a set of energetic forces that originate both within as well as beyond an individual's being, to initiate work-related behaviour and to determine its form, direction, intensity, and duration (Pinder, 2005). We can therefore rightfully infer that motivation is a psychological process developing from contact between an individual and his environment. To understand motivation, one must understand the aspirations of a living being. Several motivation theories have been proposed to explain these human aspirations at different times and by diverse people.

Motivation theories are broadly divided into two but for this essay, two theories, one from each broad group has selected for analysis. They are;

Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory (content theory) and

Expectancy theory (process theory)

They will be reviewed, evaluated and compared, highlighting individual strengths and limitations. They also would be used to determine the extent to which they influence individual motivation of people in the work place. Furthermore information collated from completed questionnaires by employees on what motivates them will be summarized and compared with the theory propositions to ascertain practical relevance.


An appropriate starting note would be answering the question, 'what is motivation'? A suitable definition would be 'the cognitive decision-making process, through which goal-directed behaviour is initiated, energized, directed and maintained' (Buchanan & Huczynski 2010, p. 267). The need to study motivation, its stimulators and extinguishers remain very vital. Its importance to managers cannot be over emphasized. Understanding the concept of motivation would equip managers with the right skills to encourage subordinates, accomplish organizational goals, increase output and also improve their quality of life. Motivation is a combination of choice and intention. It has come to a conclusion that individuals dissent to their motivational state and the elements that influence it.


Motivation theories are generally categorized under two broad groups - content theory and process theory. Although there is no universally accepted theory that applies to everyone, each can help in different work scenarios. An attempt has been made to explain the variability noticed in the decisions people make about what they do at work, their commitment and the strength they utilize in achieving goals using motivational theories.

Content theories of motivation question the perspective that views motivation in terms of individuals' goals. Examples of content theories include Herzberg's Two-factor theory and Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory. While process theories view motivation in terms of the decision making process influencing an individual's choice of goals. Examples are Equity Theory, Expectancy Theory and Goal Setting Theory.

Different content and process theories have been formulated having specific application to motivation with reference to work context.

2.1.1 Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Theory (Content theory)

According to R. Dailey (2008), Maslow proposed that people are motivated by the longing to gratify particular needs. He went on to arrange this needs in a given order starting with the most basic needs which he called lower level needs and rising to the higher level needs. He maintained that the lower level needs must be majorly satisfied before higher level needs and that a satisfied need seizes to be a motivator.

Below are briefly described the different needs starting with the lower level needs.

Physiological Needs - these refer to basic needs required for survival and they include food, water, shelter, air. Some researchers have added money to this group arguing that it has the capacity to provide some of the needs.

Security Needs - these reefers to the general concern of an individual to feel safe, stable and the absence of pain in his environment both physically and psychologically.

Social & Belongingness Needs - these refer to the desire for affiliation, friendship, love and being accepted by others as a result of interaction and association. Theoretically, people who reach this level have primarily satisfied physiological and safety needs and are now concerned with establishing satisfying relationships. (Hitt, Miller, and Colella, 2009).

Esteem Needs - these refer to perceptions of personal value as a result of admiration from fellow individuals. When employees have attained a certain level in the organizational hierarchy, they yearn for recognition, fame and power owing to previous achievements.

Self-actualization Needs - the need for self-actualization sits at the top of Maslow's hierarchy and few people are deemed to have attained this level. They are generally driven by the desire to utilize their skill and maximize their potential. They always seek new ground breaking opportunities to bring into play their skills which greatly motivate them.

Some other factors were originally included in Maslow's needs but have been omitted by subsequent researchers. They are

To know and to understand



Freedom of enquiry and expression

They come in this order respectively between esteem needs and self-actualization needs. According to Maslow, the most potent way of motivating individuals is by provision of their primary needs which is the lowest unsatisfied need (Gordon, 1996).

2.2 Expectancy Theory (Process theory)

People are motivated to work or involve in a process only when they are assured of or perceive personal benefit. The process through which outcomes become desirable is explained by the expectancy theory (Buchanan & Huczynski, 2010).

This theory thus goes along to prove that we act in manners that facilitate the accomplishment of appreciated goals. It helps in explaining employee behaviours' relating to issues such as career choice, performance, joining a new organization, absenteeism, turnover and leadership effectiveness (Dailey, 2008).

Expectancy theory was stated as a function of three concepts: valence, instrumentality and expectancy.

Mathematically, it can be expressed as

Motivation = V x I x E ( Valence x Instrumentality x Expectancy)

If any of the values has zero value, then consequently, motivation is zero.

Valence can be said to be personal value placed on a reward or the perceived value of an outcome. Since it is subjective, that means valence comes across to various people in different ways. Employees ascribe valences to specific outcomes and they can be either negative or positive. A negative valence can be linked to undesirable outcomes and consequently makes employee exhibit avoidance behaviours.

Instrumentality is the personal belief that good performance would produce valued rewards. It can also be positive or negative. While positive instrumentality refers to the employee belief that good performance would lead to desired rewards, negative instrumentality means the opposite.

Expectancy is the personal belief that effort would lead to good performance. When employees decide to dedicate time and energy to a job, they expect positive outcomes. Contrastingly, there would be no perceived effort if the employee believes that it would not bring about positive performance. It is also noteworthy that performance feedback would boost effort.

Diagrammatically, expectancy theory can be summarized by the figure below.

Motivational Force = Effort Performance Outcome 1 V1

Outcome 2 V2

Outcome 3 V3

E = Expectancy I = Instrumentality V = Valence

1 = Not valued at all 2 = Not strongly valued 3 = Strongly valued

Fig 1.0: Expectancy Theory Model


The strengths and weaknesses of Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory and the Expectancy theory have been summarized in the tables below.




Shows the essence of consulting with employees and giving them a sense of belonging within the company.

Strong empirical support.

Shows a simple, reasonable description of human behaviour.

Reflects importance of consistent rewards.

It still remains very influential

Recognizes individual differences.

Encourages employee career development.

Provides explicit ways to increase employee motivation.




Lacks empirical validity.

Using the components individually cannot strongly predict motivation.

Focused only on positive growth without reflecting the possibility of a relapse in individuals.

Assumes behaviour is rational.

Does not hold universally

Predictive power low for uncertain environments.

Does not take individual differences into consideration.

Questionable view of humans.


Those selected for the survey cut across multicultural backgrounds, different kinds of jobs ranging from white collar jobs to ordinary jobs and different organizational levels - managers and subordinates. The questions were carefully selected to prove or disprove the validity of the theories. (See attached questionnaire in Appendix 1).

Beginning with Maslow's theory, the effect of physiological needs was undoubtedly reflected in the survey. 80% strongly agreed that the absence of physiological needs would adversely affect their motivation. Another issue is the contention over social needs. While 40% strongly accept the need to be socially accepted, a close 30% argue that the need to be accepted would not have any adverse on their output not because they lack emotions but owing to the nature of their work e.g. scientific research. Some others strongly underplayed the effect of social needs claiming that they boosted their self confidence by themselves and did not need to be accepted to be motivated which contradicts Maslow's theory. The result also shows a very strong point that cut across the entire respondents which is the effect of pay.

The survey results are summarized in the figure below.


For the expectancy theory, the components - instrumentality, valence and expectancy were generally accepted though the percentage for those that strongly agreed was not overwhelming. 30% strongly agreed to the influence of instrumentality, 30% for valence and 40% for expectancy. Worthy of note is the feedback factor whose importance is overwhelmingly obvious from the figure below (80%). But most interestingly is the fact that even though 80% strongly subscribed to motivation from a good pay check, a stunning 60% agreed that they would accept a more interesting job for a pay cut (question 1). A general summary of the survey relating to the expectancy theory is shown in the figure below.



The answers to the questionnaire would seem to indicate that workers were not remarkably convinced that good performance would lead to valuable rewards which raise a strong concern about the motivation of workers in today's organizations. The argument is that if the employees do not see a clear pathway from excellent performance to valued rewards, motivation would be on the decline with the effects clearly obvious.

Moreover, 60% of the respondents opted for a more interesting work with less pay. This shows a path to self-actualization and that more value placed on it. When the job is more interesting, that provides the employee with an atmosphere to exploit his potentials hoping for a valued reward. This further explains the concept of instrumentality because respondents placed more value on job satisfaction.

The last two questions were intended to get firsthand the kind of rewards that truly appeal to individuals and to give them an opportunity to say what really motivates them. 70% of the respondents had financial rewards as their first choice and it was followed by recognition with a close score of 60%.

This reflects Maslow's social and belonging's need and also his esteem needs on one hand and the valence component of the expectancy theory. This shows a relationship in both theories when compared.

Also very prominent was the feedback factor equally portrayed by the two theories. Equally significant was the choice of promotion and self-actualization as valuable rewards. Promotion as an example of instrumentality can also boost esteem needs.

The survey results highlighted show very close similarities between Maslow's hierarchy of needs and the Expectancy theory. Even though they were proposed by various people and ages ago, they have stood the test of time and are still very valuable today. The results also prove that motivation is dependent on the individual and the environment.


Most work places meet the first two basic needs going by Maslow's hierarchy needs theory. Employers meet physiological needs by paying wages and salaries which can provide food and shelter. In most countries, they are also obligated by law to meet the next level of needs by providing safe and secure work places. To meet the next level of needs, managers need to encourage team work. The work environment is a social place and at that team spirit should be developed. Managers should go a long way to foster socialization and a sense of belonging through effective internal communication, social gatherings, etc. If this is done, a better working environment would be created, social needs provided and motivation heading north.

An appropriate reward system is very essential and would go a long way to meet esteem needs.

Clear links should be made between efforts and goals and an appraisal system which recognizes achievement using valued rewards like pay rises, executive official cars and promotions should be put in place. These things also attach a status symbol to their office which promotes esteem. Evidently, the esteem of people in diverse jobs is boosted in different ways. If managers possess the ability to assess and channel instrumentality rightly, motivation would be surely achieved.

All management policies that crack, resist, alter or bend instrumentalities should be looked into to avoid lowering employee effort and performance.

Self-actualization, sitting on the top of Maslow's hierarchy can be likened to valued reward - instrumentality in the expectancy theory and this would not immediately come to everybody as achievable through work but it actually is. Managers should ensure quality training and support so as to achieve clear performance goals and provide an avenue to inspire innovation.

When employees are faced with challenging goals and can see a clear path to positive instrumentality through expectancy then this objective is feasible and personal growth achieved. On the contrary, self-actualization has been found to play a marginal role in some cultures. Japanese cultures offer jobs for life which seem to meet only physiological needs and promotions based on seniority which diminishes the longing for self-actualization in the work place. Also in some highly collectivist cultures, attempts to be personally innovative may be deemed as aberrant (Hofstede, 1991).


The present study attempts to crystallize certain factors which influence motivation by analyzing the relationship between employees, employers and the work environment. Both Maslow's theory and Expectancy theory can explain motivation only to a certain magnitude from various view points. Maslow's theory proposes that individuals are motivated based on drives and needs while expectancy theory postulates that choices are made based on how we make choices with respect to goals. The response from the questionnaires corroborated aspects of both theories but highlighted the great importance of pay and feedback in influencing motivation. It is recommended that managers and employers pay great attention to these factors amongst the rest.

As hinted previously, no theory can conclusively explain the concept of motivation. The relevance of these theories cannot be over emphasized or neglected. They have had a substantial impact on managers directly and employers as a whole in helping to find out how and what to do to boost employee motivation. In addition, they have generated further interests in the area of specialization.

The most significant limitation to this survey was the restriction to the number of people surveyed and the difficulty in convincing unskilled workers to partake in the survey.

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