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Content and process theories of Motivation

Motivation theories

We can distinguish between contentand processmotivation theories. Content theories focus on WHAT, while process theories focus on HOW human behaviour is motivated. Content theories are the earliest theories of motivation. Within the work environment they have had the greatest impact on management practice and policy, whilst within academic circles they are the least accepted. Content theories are also called needs theories: they try to identify what our needs are and relate motivation to the fulfilling of these needs. The content theories cannot entirely explain what motivate or demotivate us. Process theories are concerned with “how” motivation occurs, and what kind of process can influence our motivation.

The main content theories are: Maslow’s needs hierarchy, Alderfer’s ERG theory, McClelland’s achievement motivation and Herzberg’s two-factor theory.

The main process theories are: Skinner’s reinforcement theory, Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory, Adam’s equity theory and Locke’s goal setting theory (Figure 1).

No single motivation theory explains all aspects of people’s motives or lack of motives. Each theoretical explanation can serve as the basis for the development of techniques for motivating.

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Figure 1. Motivation theories (Source: Author’s own figure)

Maslow – hierarchy of needs

This is the earliest and most widely known theory of motivation, developed by Abraham Maslow (1943) in the 1940s and 1950s.

This theory condenses needs into five basic categories. Maslow ordered these needs in his hierarchy, beginning with the basic psychological needs and continuing through safety, belonging and love, esteem and self-actualization (Figure 2). In his theory, the lowest unsatisfied need becomes the dominant, or the most powerful and significant need. The most dominant need activates an individual to act to fulfil it. Satisfied needs do not motivate. Individual pursues to seek a higher need when lower needs are fulfilled.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often shown in the shape of a pyramid: basic needs at the bottom and the most complex need (need for self-actualization) at the top. Maslow himself has never drawn a pyramid to describe these levels of our needs; but the pyramid has become the most known way to represent his hierarchy.

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Figure 2. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Source: Author’s own figure)

1. Physiological needs (e.g. food, water, shelter, sleep)

It includes the most basic needs for humans to survive, such as air, water and food. Maslow emphasized, our body and mind cannot function well if these requirements are not fulfilled.

These physiological needs are the most dominant of all needs. So if someone is missing everything in his/her life, probably the major motivation would be to fulfil his/her physiological needs rather than any others. A person who is lacking food, safety, love (also sex) and esteem, would most probably hunger for food (and also for money, salary to buy food) than for anything else.

If all the needs are unsatisfied, and the organism is then overruled by the physiological needs, all other needs may turn into the background. All capacities are put into the attendance of satisfying hunger. Any other things are forgotten or got secondary importance.

2. Safety and security (secure source of income, a place to live, health and well-being)

If the physiological needs are relatively well contented, new needs will appear, the so called safety needs. Safety needs refer to a person’s desire for security or protection. Basically everything looks less important than safety and protection (the physiological needs even sometimes). The healthy and fortunate adults in our culture are largely satisfied in their safety needs. The peaceful, sure, safety and unwavering society makes us feel in safety enough from criminal assaults, murder, unbelievable natural catastrophes, and so on. In that case people no longer have any safety needs as first-line motivators.

Meeting with safety needs demonstrated as a preference for insurance policies, saving accounts or job security, etc., we think about the lack of economic safety. Children have a greater need to feel safe. That is the reason why this level is more important for children.

Safety and security needs include: Personal security; Financial security; Health and well-being; Safety mesh against accidents, illnesses and their adverse impacts.

To tell the truth, in real dangers and traumas – like war, murder, natural catastrophes, criminal assault, etc. -, the needs for safety become an active, first-line and dominant mobilizer of human beings.

3. Belongingness and love (integration into social groups, feel part of a community or a group; affectionate relationships)

If both the physiological and the safety needs are fulfilled, the affection, love and belongingness needs come into prominence. Maslow claimed people need to belong and accepted among their social groups. Group size does not mean anything: social groups can be large or small. People need to love and be loved – both sexually and non-sexually – by others. Depending on the power and pressure of the peer group, this need for belonging may overbear the physiological and security needs.

Love needs involve giving and receiving affections (love is not synonymous with sex – sex is a physiological need). When they are unsatisfied, a person will immediately eliminate the lack of friends, peers and partner. Many people suffer from social nervousness, loneliness, social isolation and also clinical depression because of the lack of this love or belongingness factor.

4. Esteem (respect for a person as a useful, honourable human being)

In our society most people long for a stable and high valuation of themselves, for the esteem of others and for self-respect or self-esteem.

Esteem means being valued, respected and appreciated by others. Humans need to feel to be valued, such as being useful and necessary in the world. People with low self-esteem often need respect from others. Maslow divided two types of esteem needs: a ‘lower’ version and a ‘higher’ version. The ‘lower’ version of esteem is the need for respect from others: for example attention, prestige, status and loving their opinion. The ‘higher’ version is the need for self-respect: for example, the person may need independence, and freedom or self-confidence.

The most stable and therefore the healthiest self-esteem is based on respect from others. External fame or celebrity and unwarranted adulation won’t cause self-esteem, although you feel better for a while.

5. Self-actualization (individual’s desire to grow and develop to his or her fullest potential)

‘What humans can be, they must be.’ (Maslow, 1954)

Self-actualization reflects an individual’s desire to grow and develop to his/her fullest potential. People like opportunities, choosing his/her own versions, challenging positions or creative tasks. Maslow described this level as the ‘need to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be’. Maslow believed that people must overcome their other needs – described above -, not only achieve them. At this level, individual differences are the largest.

As each level is adequately satisfied, we are then motivated to satisfy the next level in the hierarchy, always new and higher needs are coming. This is what we mean, when the basic human needs are drawn like a pyramid, a hierarchy. Life experiences, including divorce and loss of job, may cause an individual to fluctuate between levels of the hierarchy. These five different levels were further sub-categorised into two main groups: deficiency and growth needs.

Deficiency needs – The very basic needs for survival and security.

These needs include:

• physiological needs

• safety and security needs

• social needs – belongingness and love

• esteem needs

It may not cause a physical indication if these ‘deficiency needs’ are not fulfilled, but the individual will feel anxious and tense. So the most basic level of needs must be fulfilled before a person wants to focus on the secondary or higher level needs.

Growth needs – Personal growth and fulfilment of personal potential.

These needs include:

• self-actualisation needs

This hierarchy is not as rigid as we may have implied. For example, there are some humans for whom self-esteem or self-actualization seems to be more important than love or belonging. The popularity of this theory of motivation rooted in its simplicity and logic.

Alderfer – ERG theory: Existence needs, relatedness needs and growth needs

Alderfer (Furnham, 2008) distinguished three steps or classes of needs: existence, relatedness and growth. Maslow’s physiological and safety needs belong together to existence needs. Relatedness can be harmonised to belongingness and esteem of others. Growth is the same as Maslow’s self-esteem plus self-actualization. Both Maslow and Alderfer tried to describe how these needs, these stages of needs become more or less important to individuals.

• Existence needs: These include needs for basic material necessities. In short, it includes an individual’s physiological and physical safety needs.

• Relatedness needs: Individuals need significant relationships (be with family, peers or superiors), love and belongingness, they strive toward reaching public fame and recognition. This class of needs contain Maslow’s social needs and external component of esteem needs.

• Growth needs: Need for self-development, personal growth and advancement form together this class of need. This class of needs contain Maslow’s self-actualization needs and intrinsic component of esteem needs.

Alderfer agreed with Maslow that unsatisfied needs motivate individuals. Alderfer also agreed that individuals generally move up the hierarchy in satisfying their needs; that is, they satisfy lower-order before higher-order needs. As lower-order needs are satisfied, they become less important, but Alderfer also said: as higher-order needs are satisfied they become more important. And it is also said that under some circumstances individuals might return to a lower need. Alderfer thought that individuals multiply the efforts invested in a lower category need when higher categorized needs are not consequent.

For example there is a student, who has excellent grades, friends, and high standard of living, maybe also work at the university. What happens if this individual finds that he or she is frustrated in attempts to get more autonomy and responsibility at the university, maybe also more scholarship that generally encourage individuals’ growth? Frustration in satisfying a higher (growth) need has resulted in a regression to a lower level of (relatedness) needs (‘I need just my friends, some good wine, I do not want to go to the university anymore.’).

This event is known and called as the frustration-regression process. This is a more realistic approach as it recognises that, because when a need is met, it does not mean it will always remain met. ERG theory of motivation is very flexible: it explains needs as a range rather than as a hierarchy. Implication of this theory: Managers must understand that an employee has various needs that must be satisfied at the same time. ERG theory says, if the manager concentrates only on one need at a time, he or she won’t be able to motivate the employee effectively and efficiently. Prioritization and sequence of these three categories, classes can be different for each individual.

McClelland – Need for achievement, affiliation and power

In the early 1960s McClelland – built on Maslow’s work – described three human motivators. McClelland (Arnold et al., 2005) claimed that humans acquire, learn their motivators over time that is the reason why this theory is sometimes called the ‘Learned Needs Theory’. He affirms that we all have three motivating drivers, and it does not depend on our gender or age. One of these drives or needs will be dominant in our behaviour.

McClelland’s theory differs from Maslow’s and Alderfer’s, which focus on satisfying existing needs rather than creating or developing needs. This dominant motivator depends on our culture and life experiences, of course (but the three motivators are permanent). The three motivators are:

• achievement: a need to accomplish and demonstrate competence or mastery

• affiliation: a need for love, belonging and relatedness

• power: a need for control over one’s own work or the work of others

These learned needs could lead to diversity and variety between employees. More precisely, prioritization and importance of these motivational needs characterises a person’s behaviour. As we wrote, although each person has all of these needs to some extent, only one of them tends to motivate an individual at any given time.

Achievement motivation – a need to accomplish and demonstrate competence or mastery. It pertains to a person’s need for significant success, mastering of skills, control or high standards. It is associated with a range of actions. Individual seek achievement, attainment of challenging (and also realistic) goals, and advancement in the school or job.

This need is influenced by internal drivers for action (intrinsic motivation), and the pressure used by the prospects of others (extrinsic motivation). Low need for achievement could mean that individuals want to minimise risk of failure, and for this reason people may choose very easy or too difficult tasks, when they cannot avoid failure. In contrast, high need for achievement means that humans try to choose optimal, sufficiently difficult tasks, because they want to get the chance to reach their goals, but they have to work for it, they need to develop themselves.

Individuals with high need for achievement like to receive regular feedback on their progress and achievements; and often like to work alone; seek challenges and like high degree of independence.

Sources of high need for achievement can be: praise for success, goal setting skills, one’s own competence and effort to achieve something, and it does not depend only on luck; of course positive feelings and also independence in childhood. McClelland said that training, teaching can increase an individual’s need for achievement. For this reason, some have argued that need for achievement is not a need but a value.

Affiliation motivation – a need for love, belonging and relatedness

These people have a strong need for friendships and want to belong within a social group, need to be liked and held in popular regard. They are team players, and they may be less effective in leadership positions. High-need-for-affiliation persons have support from those with whom they have regular contact and mostly are involved in warm interpersonal relationships. After or during stressful situation individuals need much more affiliation. In these situations people come together and find security in one another. There are times when individuals want to be with others and at other times to be alone – affiliation motivation can become increased or decreased. Individuals do not like high risk or uncertainty.

Authority/power motivation – a need to control over one’s own work or the work of others. These persons are authority motivated. There is a strong need to lead and to succeed in their ideas. It is also needed to increase personal status and prestige. This person would like to control and influence others. McClelland studied male managers with high need for power and high need for affiliation and found that managers with a high need for power tended to run more productive departments in a sales organization than did managers with a high need for affiliation.

It is important to speak about gender differences in need for power. It is said that men with high need for power mostly have higher aggression, drink more, act in sexually exploitative manner, and participate in competitive sports, and also political unrests. At the same time women with higher need for power show more socially acceptable and responsible manner, are more concerned and caring. These types of people prefer to work in big, multinational organisations, businesses and other influential professions.

McClelland argues that strong need for achievement people can become the best leaders – as we wrote it above. But at the same time there can be a tendency to request too much of their employees, because they think that these people are also highly achievement-focused and results-driven, as they are. Think about your teachers and professors! I am sure they all want the best for you, they would like to develop you, but I do not think you feel the same every time. McClelland said that most people have and show a combination of these characteristics.

Herzberg – Two factor theory

It is also called motivation-hygiene theory.

This theory says that there are some factors (motivating factors) that cause job satisfaction, and motivation and some other also separated factors (hygiene factors) cause dissatisfaction (Figure 3). That means that these feelings are not opposite of each other, as it has always previously been believed.

Opposite of satisfaction is not dissatisfaction, but rather, no satisfaction. According to Herzberg (1987) the job satisfiers deal with the factors involved in doing the job, whereas the job dissatisfiers deal with the factors which define the job context.

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Figure 3. Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory (Source: Author’s own figure)

If the hygiene factors, for example salary, working conditions, work environment, safety and security are unsuitable (low level) at the workplace, this can make individuals unhappy, dissatisfied with their job. Motivating factors, on the other hand, can increase job satisfaction, and motivation is based on an individual’s need for personal growth. If these elements are effective, then they can motivate an individual to achieve above-average performance and effort. For example, having responsibility or achievement can cause satisfaction (human characteristics) (Dartey-Baah, 2011).

Hygiene factors are needed to ensure that an employee is not dissatisfied. Motivation factors are needed to ensure employee’s satisfaction and to motivate an employee to higher performance.

Table 1. Herzberg’s Two Factory Theory (Source: Author’s own table)

Dissatisfaction – Low level Hygiene factors
No dissatisfaction-High level
No satisfaction – Low level Motivating factors
Satisfaction – High level

Herzberg’s five factors of job satisfaction (motivating factors):

• achievement

• recognition

• work itself

• responsibility

• advancement

Only these factors can motivate us. But at the same time we need the lack of dissatisfactions (we need hygiene factors, “workpeace”) to achieve more efficient work.

Herzberg’s five factors of job dissatisfaction (hygiene factors – deficiency needs):

• company policy and administration

• supervision

• salary

• interpersonal relationships

• working conditions

Can we motivate with money, with higher salary? What did Herzberg and Maslow say? Is it just the same or something different?

Herzberg addressed salary not a motivator in the way that the primary motivators are, just like achievement and recognition. Salary can be a motivator, if you get always higher and higher salary, but we cannot say that it is an incentive. Maslow said, money or salary is needed to buy food to eat, to have some place to live and sleep, etc. It can be a physiological need. Some differences between Herzberg and Maslow theory are described in Table 2.

Table 2. Differences between Maslow’s and Herzberg’s theory (Source: Author’s own table)

Points of view Maslow’s theory Herzberg’s theory
Date of the theory in 1940’s in 1960’s
Study group ordinary American people well-situated American people
About needs Every level of needs give us satisfaction and give the opportunity to move on to the next level of needs. Not every type of needs can give us satisfaction, just motivating factors.

Limitations of this theory:

• This theory oversees situational variables.

• Herzberg supposed a correlation, linear between productivity, performance and satisfaction.

• The theory’s reliability is uncertain.

• No comprehensive measure of satisfaction was used.

• The theory ignores blue-collar workers, only white-collar men’s opinion was discussed.

However, Herzberg tried to bring more humanity and caring into companies’ life. His intention was not to develop a theory that is used as a ‘motivational tool’, but to provide a guidance to improve organisational performance.

Table 3. Summary of Content Theories of Motivation (Source: Author’s own table)

Maslow Alderfer McClelland Herzberg
Physiological Existence Hygiene
Safety and security
Belongingness and love Relatedness Need for Affiliation
Self-esteem Growth Need for power Motivators
Self-actualization Need for achievement

There are some critics for all need theories. Although, there is a consensus for the general concept: human behaviour is motivated by the strong wish for fulfilling a human need. Critics are:

• Universality: they do not care about gender, age, culture, religious or other factor differences.

• Research support and methodology problems: these theories were not based on reliable and creditable research results.

• Work focus: individuals have needs only at their workplaces, but not at any other places of their life.

• Individual differences and stability over time.

• Process simplicity.

Skinner’s reinforcement theory

The Reinforcement theory, based on Skinner’s operant conditioning theory, says that behaviour can be formed by its consequences (Gordon, 1987).

Positive reinforcements, for example praise, appreciation, a good mark/grade, trophy, money, promotion or any other reward can increase the possibility of the rewarded behaviours’ repetition.

If a student gets positive verbal feedback and a good grade for his test, this reinforcement encourages the performance of the behaviour to recur. If the teacher doesn’t tell precisely what he expects, then the positive reinforcements can drive the behaviour closer to the preferred. For example, when a student who is usually late to class gets positive feedback when he arrives on time, the student becomes more and more punctual. Positive reinforcement motivates to get the anticipated reinforcement of required behaviour.

We usenegative reinforcement when we give a meal to a hungry person if he behaves in a certain manner/way.

In this case the meal is a negative reinforcement because it eliminates the unpleasant state (hunger).

Contrary to positive and negative reinforcement,punishment can be undesired reinforcement, or reinforce undesired behaviour.

For example, if a student is always late to class and thus he gets negative verbal feedback and also always has to tidy up the classroom at the end of the day, in this case the undesirable behaviour is reinforced with an undesirable reinforcer. The punishment declines the tendency to be late.

According to the theory, positive reinforcement is a much better motivational technique than punishment because punishment:

• tries to stop undesirable behaviour and does not offer an alternative behaviour

• creates bad feelings, negative attitudes toward the activity, and the person who gives the punishment

• suppresses behaviour, but does not permanently eliminate it.

Once certain behaviour has been conditioned through repetitive reinforcement, elimination of the reinforcement will decline the motivation to perform that behaviour. Therefore it is better not to give a reward every time. Reinforcement in the workplace usually takes place on a partial or irregular reinforcement schedule, when reward is not given for every response.

The reinforcement theory is included in many other motivation theories. Reward must meet someone’s needs, expectations, must be applied equitably, and must be consistent. The desired behaviour must be clear and realistic, but the issue remains: which reinforcements are suitable and for which person?

Vroom’s expectancy theory

The expectancy theory places an emphasis on the process and on the content of motivation as well, and it integrates needs, equity and reinforcement theories.

Victor Vroom’s (1964) expectancy theory aims to explain how people choose from the available actions. Vroom defines motivation as a process that governs our choices among alternative forms of voluntary behaviour. The basic rationale of this theory is that motivation stems from the belief that decisions will have their desired outcomes.

The motivation to engage in an activity is determined by appraising three factors. These three factors are the following (Figure 4):

• Expectancy – a person’s belief that more effort will result in success. If you work harder, it will result in better performance.

In this case the question is: “Am I capable of making a good grade on a math test if I learn more?” Appraisal of this factor is based on the effort to learn math, on knowledge of math, on the previous experience of math test results, on self-efficacy and specific self-rated abilities.

• Instrumentality – the person’s belief that there is a connection between activity and goal. If you perform well, you will get reward.

In this case the question is that: “Will I get the promised reward (a good mark) for performing well on a math test?” Appraisal of this factor is based on the accuracy and consistency of marking. If one day I get a good grade and another day I get a bad grade for the same performance, then the motivation will decrease.

• Valence – the degree to which a person values the reward, the results of success.

In this case the question is that: “Do I value the reward that I get?” Appraisal of this factor is based on the importance of its subject (math), the good mark, and the good performance in general.

Vroom supposes that expectancy, instrumentality and valence are multiplied together to determine motivation. This means that if any of these is zero, then the motivation to do something will be zero as well.

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Figure 4. Vroom’s expectancy theory (Source: Author’s own figure)

A person who doesn’t see the connection between effort and performance will have zero expectancy. A person who can’t perceive the link between performance and reward will have zero instrumentality. For a person who doesn’t value the anticipated outcome, reward will have zero valence.

For example if I think:

– that no matter how hard I’m studying I can’t learn math due to lack of necessary skills or

– that no matter how good I perform on the test I don’t always get good mark so the reward is unpredictable, not dependent on my success or

– the good mark from math is not important for me, and I’m not interested in math, so the reward is not attractive, then I won’t be motivated to learn for the exam.

The expectancy theory highlights individual differences in motivation and contains three useful factors for understanding and increasing motivation. This theory implies equity and importance of consistent rewards as well (Konig & Steel 2006).

Adams’ equity theory

The equity theory states that people are motivated if they are treated equitably, and receive what they consider fair for their effort and costs.

The theory was suggested by Adams (1965) and is based on Social Exchange theory.

According to this theory, people compare their contribution to work, costs of their actions and the benefits that will result to the contribution and benefits of the reference person. If people perceive that the ratio of their inputs-outputs to the ratio of referent other’s input-output is inequitable, then they will be motivated to reduce the inequity (Figure 5).

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Figure 5. Adams’ equity theory (Source: Author’s own figure)

At the workplace the workers put inputs into the job, such as education, experience, effort, energy, and expect to get some outcomes such as salary, reward, promotion, verbal recognition, and interesting and challenging work each in equal amounts (Figure 6).

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Figure 6. Examples for the inputs and outcomes in the equity theory (Source: Author’s own figure)

The equity theory works not just in the workplace, but at school as well. For example, when for the same oral exam performance two students get different marks, then inequity exists. In this case, the student who gets the worse mark may lose his/her motivation to learn (reduce his/her efforts), or persuade the teacher to give him/her a better mark, or change the perception of the reference person’s performance (“I did not know everything, but my classmate could answer all the questions“). At the school it can demotivate students if someone who never studies or who never performs better than the others always gets good mark. The greater the inequity the greater the distress an individual feels, which will motivate the endeavour to make the outcomes and the inputs equal compared to the reference person.

When inequity exists, a person might

• reduce his/her inputs, efforts, quantity or quality of his/her work

• try to increase his/her outputs (ask for better mark, or pay raising)

• adjust his/her perception of reference person or his/her outcomes or inputs (re-evaluate his/her or the reference person’s effort or outcome)

• change the reference person

• quit the situation.

The problem with equity theory is that it does not take into account differences in individual needs, values, and personalities. For example, one person may perceive a certain situation as inequitable while another does not. Nevertheless ensuring equity is essential to motivation.

Locke’s goal-setting theory

Locke’s (1990) goal setting theory is an integrative model of motivation just like the expectancy theory.

It emphasizes that setting specific, challenging performance goals and the commitment to these goals are key determinants of motivation. Goals describe a desired future, and these established goals can drive the behaviour. Achieving the goals, the goal accomplishment further motivates individuals to perform.

We can distinguish goals according to specificity, difficulty and acceptance. A specific goal can be measured and lead to higher performance than a very general goal like “Try to do your best!” A difficult, but realistic goal can be more motivational than easy or extremely difficult ones. The acceptance of the goal is very important as well, therefore involvement in the goal setting is recommended.

For example, if I decide to pass a medium level language exam in German in six months – this goal is specific and difficult enough – because I want to work in Germany – this goal is very important for me, therefore the goal commitment is high – then I will be motivated to learn, and to pass the exam.

The following guidelines have been useful in the goal-setting (Figure 7):

• Set challenging but attainable goals. Too easy or too difficult/unrealistic goals don’t motivate us.

• Set specific and measurable goals. These can focus toward what you want, and can measure the progress toward the goal.

• Goal commitment should be obtained. If people don’t commit to the goals, then they will not put effort toward reaching the goals, even specific, or challenging ones. Strategies to achieve this could include participation in the goal setting process, use of extrinsic rewards (bonuses), and encouraging intrinsic motivation through providing workers with feedback about goal attainment. Pressure to achieve goals is not useful because it can result in dishonesty and superficial performance.

• Support elements should be provided. For example, encouragement, needed materials, resources, and moral support.

• Knowledge of results is essential – so goals need to be quantifiable and there needs to be feedback.

Goal-setting is a useful theory which can be applied in several fields, from sport to a wide range of work settings. Sports psychology in particular has adopted its recommendations. The concept of goal-setting has been incorporated into a number of incentive programmes and management by objectives (MBO) techniques in a number of work areas. Feedback accompanying goal attainment may also enhance a worker’s job performance and ability to become more innovative and creative on the job through a trial-and-error learning process. Since goal-setting is a relatively simple motivational strategy, it has become increasingly popular.

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Figure 7. Process of motivation according to goal-setting theory (Source: Author’s own figure)

Public Administration by G.Rajput

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