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Top 7 Motivational Theories in the Workplace

Performance Management
January 30, 2023
Rad time: 10min
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The connection may not be as obvious as it actually is, but psychology is to the workplace as physical strength is to the gym. That’s why motivational theories in the workplace can make such a big difference in productivity, employee satisfaction, and employee mental wellbeing. 

In this article, we will answer, “What are the motivation theories?” and help to better understand the importance of motivation theories. 

What is Motivational Psychology?

Motivational psychology is the study of the variables that contribute to and impact motivation. The goal of motivational psychology is to figure out how a person’s brain and body affect their motivation. 

Essentially, every human behaviour (and thought) is driven by or hindered by motivation. Motivational psychology gets into the reasons why people do what they do and think what they think.

What are the Benefits of Motivational Theories in the Workplace?

Motivational theories in the workplace can help HR teams and management to better support and understand their employees. With the knowledge of motivational theories in management, teams can implement plans and practices that promote motivation and inspire employees. 

By putting the theories into practice, organisations can reap the benefits of more motivated staff (obviously), increased productivity levels, and more satisfied employees. 

Additionally, motivation levels are affected by and also affect one’s mental wellbeing, so management teams and HR professionals who take motivational psychology into account are better equipped to provide employees with complete support of their mental wellbeing.

What Tools do Employers Have to Motivate Staff?

Every individual is motivated differently. From extrinsic to intrinsic motivators, to a combination of the two, here are a few tools that employers have at hand to motivate their employees: 

1. Reward

Rewards are gifts or awards that employers give to employees who are doing a great job or putting in their top-notch effort. Rewards can be staff lunches, happy hours, perks, or monetary gifts, for example.

2. Trust

A culture that creates and supports trust can be motivating to employees as they can feel employers rely on them and trust them to do their job (without the need for micromanagement). 

3. Recognition

Recognition is like reward, but not tangible. Recognition is the acknowledgement of a job well done and can be as simple as saying “thank you.” 

4. Career Advancement

Many employees are intrinsically motivated by the prospect of career development and growth, so a company that offers a clear path for development can motivate employees to continue improving professionally while remaining within your organisation. 

5. Purpose

A large percentage of employees are seeking to feel fulfilled by their job (alongside collecting a paycheck). Engaging employees with your business’ purpose and mission can prompt stellar outcomes and promote retention. 

6. Office Environment

The setup and office environment impacts motivation levels because it has an effect on mental wellbeing and physical health. This includes indoor temperature, office design, colour, and noise, to name a few. 

7. Feedback

Regular feedback helps employees understand how they are performing and can serve as motivation to do better and improve.

8. Talk and Listen

Managers and HR personnel should make an effort to talk to team members to understand what motivates them on an individual and personalised level. 

9. Mental Wellbeing

At the end of the day, everything a person does, feels, and thinks stems from their mental wellbeing. Without mental wellbeing, few of the tools above will be effective. Mental wellbeing equips employees with the ongoing support they require, along with tools and techniques to reduce/manage stress and overcome work-related challenges. 

By being able to do so, employees can remain motivated, focused, and high-performing. Employers can holistically support employees by implementing employee wellbeing platforms so staff have resources to understand themselves better and the tools and techniques to improve their mental fitness. 

Additionally, employers gain insights in real-time as to which departments need extra support through anonymised data and patterns.

What are the Risks of Demotivated Staff?

Part of the reason why motivational theories in the workplace are so valuable is because of what happens in the absence of motivation. Demotivated staff adds to multiple forms of risk for any business, including: 

1. Operational Risks: 

Unhappy employees can result in poor work quality and/or a toxic work environment

2. Personnel Risks: 

Increase in staff turnover and employee absenteeism, which add to the time and money required to onboard and train new employees 

3. Reputational Risks: 

Word of mouth can spread negative work environments and damage the brand or company’s reputation

4. Environmental Risks: 

Customers may bear the brunt of dissatisfied and unmotivated employees who can become aggressive, bitter, and unhelpful to customers

5. Health Risks: 

Unhappy and unmotivated employees who suffer from high stress levels (and poor sleep) are more prone to accidents at work, as well as poor mental health outcomes

6. Financial Risks: 

Demotivated employees operate at lower productivity levels, which can impact the company’s bottom line

What is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?

Jumping right into our first of several motivational theories in the workplace, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is based on the idea that people want to be increasing their achievements in life and prioritise their ability to do so based on importance. The needs are categorised into physical, biological, and social and psychological needs within a five-stage theory. In order of decreasing priority, they are:

  • Physiological needs - food, shelter, clothing
  • Safety and security needs - physical protection 
  • Social needs - association with other people
  • Esteem needs - acknowledgement from others (i.e. rewards and recognition in the workplace) 
  • Self-actualisation - the desire to leave behind a legacy

What is McClelland's Three Needs Theory?

McCelland’s Three Needs theory is grounded in the idea that people are motivated by three basic needs, no matter their age, gender, race, culture, or any other variable. The needs are:

1. Need for achievement: 

These are the employees who strive for success intrinsically and regardless of what’s going on around them. They have a high work ethic and tend to seek recognition upon completion of a task. They also welcome feedback. 

2. Need for power: 

This need is sought by people who wish to be in a position of power or authority. For example, it is the employees who want to influence others, set tasks, and lead projects. They tend to possess strong leadership skills and can promote motivation on behalf of their peers. 

3. Need for affiliation: 

The idea here is that people want to be a part of a group. Managers who figure out who these types of employees are will benefit by placing them in group settings as opposed to working individually. 

What is Herzberg's Motivation Theory?

Also called the Two-Factor or Hygiene Theory, Herzberg’s Motivation Theory breaks down employees’ main needs into two categories, namely Motivators and Hygiene. 

Hygiene has to do with a person’s work environment, such as their working conditions and wages. 

Motivators are what motivates them to reach their potential and work harder, including achievement, job recognition, promotion, and the like. 

Herzberg stipulates that people who feel unhappy at work are lacking the right work environment. Those who are thriving at work are happy because they are motivated and feel fulfilled.

What is Pink's Theory of Motivation?

Pink’s Theory of Motivation can be found in author Daniel Pink’s bestseller, Drive. The gist is that  the old carrot and stick approach to promote motivation in the workplace is outdated and will not suffice in today’s workplaces. Instead, he lists three main factors of authentic motivation, which include:

1. Autonomy

An individual has the right and freedom to direct their own life and work - they are in control. 

2. Mastery

The environment supports development, and to do so, autonomy, feedback, clear goals, and “Goldilocks tasks” are required. Goldilocks tasks are those that are not too simple and not too complex (but rather, just right). 

3. Purpose

There’s equal consideration as to what brings the most profit as there is to what promotes the more purpose.

What is the Incentive Theory?

Incentive theory is all about the importance of incentives in support of motivation. Incentives can be recognition, rewards, or reinforcement. Examples of workplace incentives to drive motivation are:

  • Bonuses
  • Opportunities
  • Promotions
  • Wage increases 
  • Praise 
  • Paid time off (PTO) 

Keep in mind that while incentives are useful, they cannot be overdone and they must be timely. When overused, their effect may diminish. 

(This is yet another reason why a focus on mental wellbeing should be of utmost priority to every organisation because an employee’s mental wellbeing is what will affect motivation in the long-run, not just in the short-term).

What is the Competence Theory?

The competence theory is the idea that people will be the most motivated and engaged when they are taking part in activities that highlight their strengths and skills. 

For example, if an employee completes a complex task and their colleagues provide recognition, they may feel more competent in that area. Feelings of competence go along with feelings of confidence, which can promote higher productivity and increased motivation. 

What is Vroom’s Expectancy Theory?

The idea here is that individuals choose their behaviours according to what they believe will result in the most favourable outcomes. It combines intrinsic and extrinsic motivators simultaneously. 

The beliefs that drive this theory are that people believe they are likely to achieve their goals and people believe that they will be rewarded for doing so. 

As a manager, you can apply this theory by breaking down large business goals into digestible tasks and personalising (assigning) tasks to employees based on their strengths.

Employees having a meeting
Photo from Pexels

What are Tips for Using Motivational Theories at Work?

When applying motivation theories in the workplace, keep in mind the following best practices:

1. Provide feedback

Make sure to take time to talk to employees about how they are doing and feeling. Offer constructive feedback and be sure to balance out any negative feedback with positive comments. 

2. Rewards

Rewards don’t have to be expensive. But, the simple gesture of presenting a reward can go a long way to make sure an employee feels seen and valued. The same is of course true for recognition, as well. 

3. Align goals

Take the time to define the business’ goals and align them to personal employee goals. This way, when opportunities strike, employees are empowered and excited to take part in achieving their own goals (which will also help the company reach its goals). 

4. Focus on employee wellbeing

The foundation for an employee’s motivation comes from within themselves. Their mental wellbeing and state of mind will dictate their actions and behaviours, so it’s in everyone’s best interest for employers to support employees’ mental wellbeing. 

Check out how employee wellbeing platforms can help to put that into practice in detail. To give you an idea, employee wellbeing platforms enable employees to navigate change and be resilient in their own right. 

It provides tools and techniques for employees to learn how to deal with change, manage their thoughts and perception, and develop a positive mindset that allows for risk-taking and creative problem-solving, to name a few benefits. 

From an employer’s standpoint, the platform provides real-time data so that employers can understand which teams or departments may require extra support or attention to be able to proactively provide resources.

Closing Thoughts

There are many more motivational theories in the workplace to learn about, but this brief overview of some of the most popular theories can provide a great starting point for boosting employee motivation. No matter which theory you subscribe to, it’s vital to remember that every person is different, so it pays to get to know your employees on a personal level. 

Additionally, the most important ingredient to applying any motivational theory in the workplace is to retain a focus on employee mental wellbeing, as it is what drives employees’ sentiments, outputs, thoughts, and behaviours.

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