Theories of Motivation

Perhaps, one of the most difficult aspects of managing human resources is understanding the motivational factors present that promote or inhibit work product. I believe it is also difficult for managers to take inventory of their own motivational factors. I will discuss some of the major motivational theories and apply them to a hypothetical scenario. The scenario portends to be a synopsis of Susan Smith’s typical day. Susan is a Human Resource Manager at a health care provider and must manage both the employees’ and her own priorities.

One of the founding theories of motivation is Maslow’s heirarchy of needs (Banerjee, 1995; Maslow, 1943; Robbins & Judge, 2010). In it, Maslow describes how people prioritize needs based on the weighted fulfillment of those needs; ergo, a starving man may kill for food, yet may not if he is also acutely dehydrated. This example demonstrates that although the starving man might not kill normally, he may in order to combat the physiologic need of hunger to survive. This hunger can be shadowed, however, by a lower-order physiologic need of thirst which will mute the desire to fulfill the food craving while in search or water. Maslow’s heirarchy includes (from lowest-order to highest-order): 1) physiologic, 2) safety, 3) social, 4) esteem, and 5) self-actualization needs.

In this scenario, Susan is confronted with the stress of fulfilling her job and meeting her deadlines. This could trigger a want of fulfilling safety needs if she feels that her livelihood is threatened. These needs are motivating Susan to stay late in order to meet deadlines; however, the lack of fulfillment is creating stress that is manifesting within her family and impacting her negatively at work. A further demonstration of Maslow’s hierarchy is Susan’s desire to increase the pay for the workers. This may help Susan to fulfill a social need of helping those in her charge, but with the lack of lower-order fulfillment, it has a lower priority. Instead, Susan acknowledges that she must offer pay that is commensurate with the work being performed by her employees. This is Susan’s attempt to fulfill the workers’ safety, esteem, and self-actualization needs. In general, according to Banerjee (1995), Maslow’s theory has merit, but it remains too generalized for practical purposes as people vary greatly in the priorities placed on the higher-order needs.

Herzberg’s hygiene-motivation theory (Banerjee, 1995; Robbins & Judge, 2010), on the other hand, attempts to validate measures to prevent dissatisfaction (hygiene) while promoting a different set of measures designed to increase satisfaction (motivation). Hygiene measures, according to Fred Luthans (as cited in Banerjee, 1995), are “a necessary floor to prevent dissatisfaction and a take-off point for motivation” (p. 80). Herzberg’s theory can be applied to this scenario, also (Laureate Education, n.d.). Susan attempts to mitigate employee dissatisfaction by using hygienic control measures increasing pay. Unfortunately, Susan feels that this might have an adverse effect on current employee morale as there is only enough money to increase the starting pay for new employees. While Susan thinks additional pay would seem to positively impact motivation by increasing job satisfaction, providing raises only to new employees seems contradictory and may only serve to negatively effect hygiene causing dissatisfaction among the ranks of employees. Susan should find other ways to mitigate hygiene factors and promote novel motivational factors. Susan shows low need for power, an elevated need for achievement, and a questionably neutral need for affiliation, in this case (Robbins & Judge, 2010).

People are motivated by a number of factors, both intrinsic and extrinsic, according to Deci’s self-determination theory of motivation (Robbins & Judge, 2010; Ryan & Deci, 2000), and later, Vroom’s expectancy theory (Banerjee, 1995; Robbins & Judge, 2010). In the scenario, there is limited information with which to draw definitive conclusions as to the sincere motivations of Susan. However, based solely on the information provided, Susan appears to be driven mostly by intrinsic factors of self-efficacy. Though it would be difficult to consider that Susan might perform her job without extrinsic reward, it seems that the self-recognition of her ability to earn money for her household is a more satisfying reward than the pay, itself. This might explain why Susan is willing to stay late often and complete her tasks in a timely manner. Also, this might explain her frustration with her administrative assistant: a perceived lack of internal motivation on Grace’s part (Heath, 1999). Further, Susan’s boss is setting a deadline that, although difficult, is obtainable, thereby also demonstrating an effective example of goal-setting theory (Robbins & Judge, 2010).

More important, though, to many people is their sense of justice and equity. Equity theory tells that work put in should equal reward output. In this sense, I worry that Susan will soon suffer fatigue, a lower-order need will avail itself for fulfillment, and Susan will no longer perceive the output as great as the effort. If this occurs, Susan will feel slighted and will lose motivation. Ironically, this is the exact fear she has about her employees who will not receive a raise.

Overall, the scenario plays out just as any day in any office might. Susan is performing the common tasks of a manager, ensuring a smooth and efficient business operation, while trying to remain fair and just to the employees. If Susan has a concrete understanding of the motivational forces within and without her workforce, she would do well to harnessing those.


Banerjee, M. (1995). Theories of motivation. Organization behaviour (3rd ed.; pp. 72-108). Retrieved from

Heath, C. (1999). On the social psychology of agency relationships: Lay theories of motivation overemphasize extrinsic incentives. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 78(1), 25–62. doi:10.1006/obhd.1999.2826

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396. doi:10.1037/h0054346

Robbins, S. P. & Judge, T. A. (2010). Motivation concepts. Essentials of organizational behavior (pp. 62-79). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.68