Motivational Theories

Motivational theories came about during the modern age. Prior to today's information-and service-type jobs and yesterday's factory work, the majority of people worked the land and barely kept enough food on the table to feed their family. No one was concerned about motivation at work. You worked because you wouldn't have anything to eat if you didn't. Fortunately, that isn't the only reason most people work today.

Today we have a new set of problems in the workplace. Workers in the service- and knowledge-based industries aren't concerned with starvation—that need has been replaced with other needs such as job satisfaction, a sense of belonging and commitment to the project, good working conditions, and so on. Motivational theories present ideas on why people act the way they do and how you can influence them to act in certain ways to get the results you want. Again, there are libraries full of books on this topic. I'll cover four of them here.


You have probably seen this classic example of motivational theory. Abraham Maslow theorized that humans have five basic needs arranged in hierarchical order. The first needs are physical needs, such as the need for food, clothing, and shelter. The idea is that these needs must be met before the person can move to the next level of needs in the hierarchy, which includes safety and security needs. Here, the concern is for the person's physical welfare and the security of their belongings. Once that need is met, they progress to the next level, and so on.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory suggests that once a lower-level need has been met, it no longer serves as a motivator and the next higher level becomes the driving motivator in a person's life. Maslow conjectures that humans are always in one state of need or another. Here is a recap of each of the needs, starting with the highest level and ending with the lowest:

Self-actualization Performing at your peak potential

Self-esteem needs Accomplishment, respect for self, capability

Social needs A sense of belonging, love, acceptance, friendship

Safety and security needs Your physical welfare and the security of your belongings Basic physical needs Food, clothing, shelter

The highest level of motivation in this theory is the state of self-actualization. The United States Army had a slogan a few years ago that I think encapsulates self-actualization very well: "Be all that you can be." When all the physical, safety, social, and self-esteem needs have been met, a person reaches a state of independence where they're able to express themselves and perform at their peak. They'll do good work just for the sake of doing good work. Recognition and self-esteem are the motivators at lower levels; now the need for being the best they can be is reached.

In Maslow's later work, he discussed three additional aspects of motivation: cognitive, aesthetic, and transcendence. The five key needs are the ones you'll most likely need to know for the exam, but it wouldn't hurt to be familiar with the names of the three additional motivational levels.

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