Motivation seeks to understand how to maximise employee productivity in the work environment. Various definitions of the term exist and many are problematic due to the limited academic consensus that exists. This complexity arises from the challenges associated with capturing and defining individual behaviour, with diverse viewpoints being taken (e.g.  physiological hedonistic perspectives and goal-orientated behaviours).

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, 2014). There is some cognitive element (resulting in either strong or weak motivation) which varies with each individual. Motivation is ultimately a set of forces which boost performance and which increase an individual’s ability to accomplish a particular goal or target. However, motivation does not always result in superior work performance as broader factors must also be considered.


Behavioural theories around motivation such as classical conditioning consider the psychological dimensions of reward and punishment. Essentially, there is a stimulus which triggers a response based upon natural reactions to an event. Motivation is viewed from an extrinsic perspective, such as reward and punishment through pay mechanisms. However, such actions/approaches introduce a key question - is this motivation or coercion?

The basic concepts of classical conditioning are rooted in the animal research work of Pavlov, Skinner and Watson who suggested that learning is the formation of new connections between stimulus and response on the basis of experience, which they called conditioning (Clegg, Kornberger & Pitsis, 2011). The theory argues that we modify our responses to key inputs (stimuli) depending on how previous feedback when faced with a similar situation was presented (i.e. ‘good’ or ‘bad’). In the workplace this translates into the application of positive reinforcement through incentives to encourage repeat behaviour and/or negative reinforcement (through deterrent and sanctions) to prevent similar behaviour (Beardwell & Thompson, 2014).

Classical conditioning is a relatively simplistic interpretation of human behaviour, whilst the concept of operant conditioning is felt to deliver greater workplace utility. This theory argues that behaviour can be modified when it produces a negative consequence, forming a theoretical basis for the introduction of workplace reward/punishment systems. The actions taken to trigger behavioural outcomes include:

  • Productivity being linked directly to rewards such as praise and financial incentives to maintain high levels of morale and increased outputs.
  • Customer Service concepts built on the premise that a happy employee results in a happy customer. Rewards are linked to mechanisms such as sales targets/achievements.

In adopting such practices, both negative (warning sounds on a production line) and positive (line management praise) ‘reinforcers’ can be used to increase the likelihood that of behaviours being repeated. ‘Punishers’ (such as a pay cut or disciplinary meeting) can also be adopted.



Maslow (1943) built a motivational theory based upon a hierarchy of needs Individuals are motivated differently depending on their position on the hierarchy - for example at the start of their career a person may be motivated by financial rewards and security before starting to consider more intrinsic factors such as status. Pay is therefore just one influential motivating factor which becomes less important as an individual develops. Motivation is therefore fluid and changes over time. At the very top of the hierarchy is the concept of self-actualisation which realises the potential of the individual and their personal drive for achievement.

Maslow’s work is criticised for its lack of practical application and perceived research bias (white males). The theory is empirically unproven although there is value in this basic overview of motivation.


Herzberg developed a theory that considered motivating factors (those providing satisfaction) and hygiene factors (those causing dissatisfaction) (Herzberg, Mausner & Synderman, 1959).  Examples of hygiene factors include workplace policies, security, personal life, working conditions and workplace relationships. Motivating factors could include personal achievement, the nature of the work, levels of responsibility, opportunities for advancement and recognition. Herzberg argued that pay was an area that could sit within both categories i.e. a hygiene factor when providing basic security and a motivational factor when considering promotion and advancement.

Herzberg argued that there were four basic states an individual could experience: perfect happiness when motivational and hygiene factors are both high, motivated but dissatisfied employees (low hygiene factors/high motivation factors), bored employees working for financial reward (high hygiene factors/low motivational factors) and unhappy/unproductive works (hygiene and motivational factors both low). 

This theory allows for managers to upon workplace issues which shape performance and motivation in context. Consequently, tailored solutions can be put in place but often the motivating factors are interpreted without an in-depth consideration of context. For example; simply giving autonomy to a worker may not actually motivate them if they are given responsibility they don’t really want and if limited guidance and support is provided.


Process theories argue that individuals are all distinctive and different and thus place emphasis on the individual nature of motivation. Process theories offer a more dynamic appraisal of motivation considering the importance of experience. Adam’s Equity Theory (1963) argues that individuals are motivated by fairness and that if equality is not seen within the workplace then individuals will compare themselves to each other and adjust their outputs to move closer to a position of equity. A position of fairness is achieved when a balance between employee inputs and outputs is reached. Perceptions of fairness and justice are important as these can lead to feelings of anger (if feeling under-rewarded or under-appreciated) or guilt (if feeling favoured in comparison to other workers). This theory recognises the social dynamics of a workplace and how people interact. However, there are significant management challenges in attempting to understand, shape and control employee perceptions.

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory (1964) also considers outputs/productivity, arguing that people will be motivated to perform when they know (or expect) the outcomes of their actions. Essentially, people will be more highly motivated when reward expectation (and the value perception of that reward) is high. Once this reward has been received, it is argued that people will be motivated in the future as they can expect/anticipate a similar reward again.

Goal setting theory argues that in order to motivate an individual there is a need to put specific, challenging goals in place. For this to be effective, these must be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bounded) - also, if such goals are too simple or too challenging then they will not motivate staff. Managers therefore need to understand their staff and the context if they are to put in place appropriate and stretching/motivational goals.

Such process theories approach motivation from a psychological perspective where individual differences and individual thought processes are considered. However, such approaches lack empirical evidence given the complexities associated with measuring individual behaviour. Whilst there is value in exploring individual motivation, it can promote a reductionist, simplistic interpretation which could be too narrow to have broader organisational relevance. These theories provide a limited appraisal of a complex arena and more holistic, social approaches considering the wider/broader operating environment may deliver greater utility. Examining issues such as the work-life balance and class/group and cultural identities are likely to provide greater insight into the complexities surrounding individual, team and organisational motivation.


Employees work for a financial payment and money has long being established as a factor affecting motivation. Basic concepts reflect the idea that the more money you pay the more you motivate. However, attention has been directed towards other factors with reward being considered from extrinsic, intrinsic and social perspective.

Research suggests that financial rewards influence employee satisfaction and mechanisms such as pay, promotion and bonuses support motivation. The can include salaries, commissions, performance related pay/bonuses and associated financial benefits such as staff discounts. Financial rewards are considered an important motivational incentive mainly because low pay acts as a de-motivator.

Non-financial incentives are those which are more intrinsic or social in nature. People may be motivated because they care about the work that they do or an appreciation that they are helping others. At a social level, individuals may be motivated by team spirit and a sense of belonging. Social rewards may therefore help motivate individuals in otherwise monotonous workplaces. Such social forces demonstrate that motivation is not just shaped by financial rewards. Non-financial rewards can take various forms including praise, attention, development opportunities and progression.


Job design is the process of deciding on the contents of a job (duties and responsibilities), on the methods to be used to carrying it out (techniques, systems and procedures) and on the relationships between the job holder, their superiors, subordinates and colleagues (CIPD, 2016). Job design allows companies to offer a challenging workplace that enhances job enrichment and commitment by considering issues such as skill variety, task identity, autonomy, performance feedback mechanisms and job/role rotation.

One of the most contemporary ways to motivate an individual through job design is through empowerment i.e. removing conditions that make a person powerless. Managers may move away from a focus on close supervision towards greater autonomy to demonstrate how workers are valued and appreciated.


The very study of job satisfaction has long been linked to job performance and life satisfaction. Interplay emerges between job and life satisfaction where there is spill over (job experiences shaping working life which can be positive or negative), segmentation (no overlap between work and life experiences) and compensation (overcoming dissatisfaction in a job by seeking fulfilment in other aspects of their personal life e.g. through leisure or voluntary community activities).

Work/life balance is an important area of study particularly given the emergence of more flexible working hours and practices and the influence of technology (e.g. the extent to which a worker is now really able to separate work and home life with the advent of emails and smartphone connectivity).  Any workplace dissatisfaction could result in detrimental outcomes such as high turnover or low employee morale. People who are dissatisfied in their work are more likely to quit their job and leave the organisation, which ultimately increase operating costs and undermine efficiency.

Job satisfaction can be influenced by cultural dynamics and to promote job satisfaction there is a need to understand these drivers in order to ensure that employees are focused upon the vision and mission of the organisation in question.


Motivation is a complex topic due to it being centred upon individuals who are all different and psychologically orientated. Where there is difference comes complexity and this has resulted in a variety of studies being directed towards how employees can be motivated. Content theories (Maslow and Herzberg) provide a functional approach to motivation and whilst such theories have value in their identification of motivating forces, they are limited in the extent to which they can be aligned to a dynamic, modern organisation. In contrast, process theories offer a more individualistic approach to motivation. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach considered resulting in more holistic approaches to motivation which seek to reflect the importance of context, environment and associated social factors.

In summary; the following factors are important when examining the complex area of employee motivation:

  • The employee themselves and their intrinsic drive for motivation e.g. career aspirations, desired and current economic status, general levels of personal satisfaction.
  • The environment i.e. job design, working conditions and associated hygiene factors which if not addressed have the power to fuel dissatisfaction.
  • Responsibilities/autonomy. Those factors which offer a more intrinsic approach to motivation to stimulate success.
  • Fairness and Equity. Equality in the workplace in terms of rewards, which need to be matched to effort and consistently applied.
  • Goals. Building challenging SMART objectives that trigger motivational responses which support productivity.
  • Rewards and reinforcement. Behaviourist interpretations of motivation, building positive associations to reinforce/established the desired behavioural outcomes.


Adams, J. S. (1963). Towards an understanding of inequity. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, pp. 422-436.

Beardwell, J., Thompson, A. (2014). Human Resource Management: A Contemporary Approach, 7th Edition, Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

CIPD. (2016). Job Design [Online], Available:

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Clegg, S., Kornberger, M., Pitsis, M. (2011). Managing & Organizations: An Introduction To Theory & Practice, 3rd Edition, London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), pp. 370-396.

Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., Synderman, B.B. (1959). The Motivation to Work, 2nd Edition, London: Chapman and Hall.

Pinder, C. C. (2014). Work motivation in organizational behavior. Psychology Press.

Vroom, V. R. (1964). Work and motivation, New York: Wiley.

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