The 9 Main Theories of Work Motivation

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


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

Work, when developed in what you love, is not only a mere means to subsist, but can also be a source of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction). But for this it is necessary that our occupation suppose a source of motivation, thanks to which we can get involved with our tasks, increase our performance and feel satisfied with what we do.

Throughout history, there have been many authors who have investigated this issue and the needs and elements that are associated with worker motivation. These investigations have 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 entering to evaluate the different existing theories regarding the labor motivation, it is necessary to comment in the first place the own concept on which they are based. Work motivation is understood as the internal force or impulse that moves us to perform and / or maintain a certain task, voluntarily and willingly occupying 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 will persist and persevere in the realization of a concrete effort with a certain intensity. The greater the motivation to carry it out, the greater the intensity and perseverance that we are willing to maintain.

The consequences of work motivation are very positive: it facilitates satisfaction with one’s task and abilities, promotes performance, productivity and competitiveness, improves the working environment and enhances autonomy and personal self-realization. It is therefore very favorable to both the worker and his employer.

However, this motivation does not arise from nothing: the task, its results or the effort made must be appetitive as long as it is born. And it is the search of how and what makes that the labor motivation increases what has generated a great diversity of theories, which traditionally have been divided in theories linked to what makes us motivate (or theories centered in the content) and in the process that we follow until we achieve motivation (or theories centered on the process).

Main theories of labor motivation according to the content

Below we will mention some of the main theories that work based on exploring what motivation generates, that is, elements of work allow us the appearance of impulse or desire to act. Mainly it is considered that is because it allows us to satisfy a series of needs, which have been worked by different authors.

1. Theory of the needs learned from McClelland

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

Specifically, he explained as the main sources of work motivation the need for achievement, which is understood as the desire to improve one’s performance and be efficient in it as an element of satisfaction and 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 belonging, 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, behaviors and levels of motivation at work.

2. Theory of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Probably one of the most well-known psychological theories in terms of needs, the theory of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs proposes that human behavior (initially his theory was not focused on the workplace) is explained by the presence of basic needs born from deprivation, and organized in a hierarchy (in the form of a pyramid) in which once the most basic ones are replaced, we focus on the most superior, going from biological to social needs and self-realization.

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

3. Theory of motivation and hygiene of Herzberg

This author considered important to assess what people want or consider satisfactory from their work, arriving at the conclusion that the fact of eliminating elements that generate dissatisfaction is not enough for the work to be considered satisfactory.

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

On the other hand, the factors of motivation would include, among others, responsibility, job progression, position and recognition, development or realization 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 the organizations that existed until then, McGregor made a contrast between classical models and a more humanistic vision: the X and Y theories.

The theory X assumes a mechanistic approach to work, seeing the worker as a passive element and tending to the evasion of their responsibilities that needs to be spurred by punishments or by rewarding their productivity with money in order to force them 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 it is indicated how.

On the other hand, the theory Y is a newer vision (we must bear in mind that this theory was proposed in the sixties, with what at that time and until a few years ago, the typical consideration of the theory X) and character humanist in which the worker is an active being and needs not only physiological but also social and self-realization.

The employee is considered as someone with their own objectives and with the capacity to take responsibility, being necessary to help them to stimulate their own potential, face challenges and allow their commitment. The motivation and recognition of their achievements and their role is fundamental.

5. ERD hierarchical model of Alderfer

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

According to the process

Another type of theories is what has to do not so much with the what but with how we motivate ourselves. That is to say, with the way or the process that we follow so that the labor motivation arises. In this sense, there are several relevant theories, among which the following stand out.

1. Theory of valences and expectations of Vroom (with a contribution of Porter and Lawler)

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

The first of these is the valence of the results, that is, the consideration that the results obtained with the task to be performed have a concrete value for the subject (being able to 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 these results, and is mediated by different factors such as the belief in self-efficacy.

Later this model would be retaken by other authors such as Porter and Lawler, who introduced the concept of instrumentality or degree in which the effort or performance will generate a certain prize or recognition as a variable, in addition to the two previous proposals by Vroom, as main elements that predict the motivation and the realization of an effort.

2. Locke’s goal setting theory

A second theory centered on the process is found in Locke’s goal-setting theory, for whom motivation depends on the intention to strive to achieve a concrete objective sought by it. This objective will mark the type of effort and the involvement of the subject, as well as the satisfaction that you get from your work depending on how close you are to your objectives.

3. Adams Theory of Equity

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

Depending on the result of such comparison the subject will carry out different actions and will be more or less motivated: if it is considered less valued or compensated and treated with inequity it will reduce their motivation and can choose to reduce their own effort, leave or change the implication and the perception of their task or compensation.

If the perception is that it is being compensated more than it should, on the contrary, it will tend to increase its involvement.

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

4. Skinner’s reinforcement theory

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


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