Theories of Motivation & A Critical Analysis

A common statement among managers in organizations is that a happy employee is productive one (Moorman 1993). A good amount of research activities on organizational behaviour studies have been carried out to figure out and comprehend different methods and ways for motivating people so as to capitalize on productivity, thus achieving organizational objectives. Motivation is a core concept, which helps to understand why people behave the way they do in an organization (Freedheim et al. 2003). Despite being difficult to define and describe this subjective concept, many academics have defined it based on their personal view, field, traditions and cultures, as mentioned by Murphy and Alexander (2000).

Motivation is stated as an inner desire to make an effort (Dowling and Sayles cited in Freedheim et al. 2003). Freedheim et al. (2003) indicated that it is also the capacity to generate behavior or performance. This psychological dynamic process is an outcome of the interaction between the individual and the context that surrounds him/ her and changes as his/her personal needs change (Latham and Pinder 2005; Freedheim et al. 2003). Murphy and Alexander (2000) mention the proliferation of motivation studies, most of which have discussed the subtle differences and diverse tagging motivation terminology. This concept can be divided into three main components: arousal, which is the need or desire; direction, which provides the direction for the personal goal; and intensity, where certain needs are prioritized over others (Freedheim et al. 2003).

Theories of motivation are important elements that shed lights on the stimulating factors that steers human behaviors, which is important to understand what motivates employees. Business organizations then can use them to plan how to motivate employees, which will in turn help the organizations to achieve their goals.

Theories of Motivation

Motivation theories can be divided into three categories: content, process, and reinforcement. Content theories are defined by Callahan et al. (1986:81) as insight such as need, drives and incentives that cause people to behave in a certain manner such as good working conditions, and focus on what stimulates individual behaviour. Theories that falls under this category are Maslow’s need hierarchy, McDelland’s achievement theory, Hertzberg’s two- factor theory and the Al-derfer ERG theory (Callahan et al. 1986:83).

Maslow’s Theory of Needs – is the most widely known motivational theory, proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1970. He devised a hierarchy of human needs divided into five levels. The first level is physical needs, which are basic human needs, such as sunlight, oxygen, and food. These can be attained at work by an attractive salary, and good working conditions, like a warm and dry workplace. If this need is attained, another need from the other levels will become important (Callahan et al. 1986:83). The second level is the need for safety and security i.e. to be free from physical threat or the deprivation of one’s basic physical needs, including security, comfort and freedom from fear. This can be attained at work by safe working conditions, health insurance and reducing the need for redundancy policies (Callahan et al. 1986:83). The third level is affiliation or social need, which dominates when the two basic levels are fulfilled. In this stage, the individual will look for meaningful relationship with others, through attraction, belonging, and affection, and this can be met in the workplace by sports, social clubs and team work (Buchanan and Huczynski 1991:72).The fourth level is the need for esteem; both self esteem and the recognition, respect and appreciation of others. This is done at work by regular positive feedback, promotions etc. The fifth level is self- actualization, where the development of individual capabilities and potentials are maximized. This can be met through activities such as challenging new job assignments (Buchanan and Huczynski 1991:73).

Maslow proposes four major arguments with his theory. Firstly, if a need is satisfied, it does not motivate, so having a well-paid job will not create a need to get another one, unless the individual seek something else besides money, like personal/career development (Callahan et al. 1986:83). Secondly, if a certain need is satisfied, another will take its place, not necessarily in the same order in the hierarchy, such as when the need for creativity replaces safety and survival (Buchanan and Huczynski 1991:74). Thirdly, as Buchanan and Huczynski (1991:74) note Individuals have an innate desire to work our way up in the hierarchy of needs pursuing the satisfaction of our higher order needs. Fourthly, the dissatisfaction of these needs affects our mental health, so that a poorly paid job can create frustration and stress (Buchanan and Huczynski 1991:74).

Maslow’s theory had an enormous influence on the field of psychology and the development of motivation theories that address human needs. However, it has some limitations, as identified by Buchanan and Huczynski (1991:77-78). Firstly, it is difficult to measure the amount of satisfaction required to move to the next level, as satisfaction differs between individuals; also, this subjective concept (satisfaction) is difficult to measure. Secondly, it is unclear whether the skills required to achieve physiological and safety are acquire or learned behaviours (Buchanan and Huczynski 1991:77). Thirdly, regarding the dissatisfaction of one’s needs affecting one’s mental health, each individual may cope with dissatisfaction differently, and if positive techniques are applied, it may not necessarily affect one’s mental health (Buchanan and Huczynski 1991:74). The fourth limitation of Maslow’s theory, along with all content theories, is that they are general and deal with a single behaviour, providing little information about handling groups of behaviours. Finally, no content theory discusses the reason why an individual chooses a particular behavior (Locks and Latham 2004).

The second category of motivational theories is process theories, which explain how people start, direct, maintain, and end a particular type of behaviour. Unlike content theories, they do not deal with needs only. Callahan et al. (1986:82) explain how these needs interact and influence one another to produce certain kinds of behaviors. They are composed of equity theory, expectancy theory and goal-setting theory.

Expectation Theory – was proposed by Victor Vroom in 1964, and relates to how people choose their actions. He argues that motivation is determined by individual belief about effort and performance. His first assumption is that behaviour is voluntary. Callahan et al (1986:84) describe how people are free to choose behaviors suggested by their own expectancy calculation. Secondly, he assumes that individuals choose behaviors in a rational manner in order to gain the best outcome (Callahan et al. 1986:84). Thirdly, Vroom’s theory relies on three different beliefs:

Expectancy – the belief that one’s effort will result in performance; Instrumentality – the belief that one’s effort will be rewarded; and Valance – the perceived value of the rewards to the recipient (Greenberg and Baron 1995: 142).

Vroom also used a mathematical equation to explain the relationship between these three beliefs, whereby E = Expectancy, M = Motivation, S =I Instrumentality and V=Valance; hence M= S (E * V) (Buchanan and Huczynski 1991:80). He assumes that motivation is the multiplicative result of all three components, reaching its highest level if the all three component are high. However, if one of them is zero, the overall result will be zero, meaning no motivation. This equation has been regarded as a limitation of the model, and the assumption created debate due to the misinterpretation of the equation’s components.

Vroom’s theory of expectation is considered one of the dominant motivational theories, although its weakness relates to his multiplicative assumption which created misinterpretations of the equation components (Greenberg and Baron 1995: 143).

The major weakness of content and process theories is that they deals with individuals’ internal motivation system, which is difficult to predict, and will create difficulties when designing training programmes. Nor do they consider other external factors that may influence the need or the decision-making process, such as the culture, organizational system and nature of the job (McKenna 2000:88).

The third category of motivational theories is reinforcement theories, which focus on individual behaviour. Reinforcement is achieved by means, for example, of recognition in the company newsletter or promotion, as a reward for behaviour. These theories work on reinforcement factors that are available in the outer environment, where managers work on changing and maintaining the environmental condition, unlike the content and process theories which worked on the individual internal motivation system to obtain the desired behaviour. The open system, schedules of reinforcement and behaviour modification theories are reinforcement theories (Callahan et al. 1986:99). Taking the latter as an example, it focuses on analyzing and measuring observed behaviour in order to bring about change. It recommends: firstly, identify the goals or the targeted behaviour. Secondly, measure these to provide baselines for future feedback. Thirdly, analyze the antecedents and consequences of the desired behaviour, which may reflect on other employees’ behaviour (Callahan et al. 1986:105). Fourthly, implement the change programme. Callahan et al (1986:105) explained this stage as positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment and extinction can be applied to change the targeted behavior. Positive reinforcement can be an intrinsic (such as a challenging job) or extrinsic (such as monetary reward) force. For the extinction strategy, the undesired behaviour should be eliminated (Callahan et al. 1986:106). Finally, evaluate the changed behaviour, including its impact on actual performance (Callahan et al. 1986:106).

A Critical Analysis of Motivational Theories

Most motivational theories relate to the internal and external motivation mechanism, which is triggered by needs, the decision-making process or environmental factors (Employee Benefits 2004). However, their major drawback is that they address individuals rather than groups, and do not offer suggestions about how to motivate a group of individuals to attain a goal. Also, they assume that everybody has the same needs and follows the same decision-making process (Employee Benefits 2004). Moreover, they fail to explain how the various needs and goals are chosen by individuals or organizations, or how they are prioritized to obtain the desired outcome (Locks and Latham 2004).

A further criticism of motivational theories is that it does not consider which factors may affect the success or failure of the motivation process, overlooking the different variables, such as culture, norms and social influence (Freedheim et al. 2003). Moreover, these theories do not discuss the resistance that may occur in practice when a planned changed is implemented for a group, especially since most change programmes are based on the managers’ perceptions about the employees’ needs. If this problem is not addressed appropriately, it may affect the change programme and lead to a waste of time, money, and effort (Locks and Latham 2004). Finally, the question remains about how the knowledge of different personality traits can fit into these theories (Locks and Latham 2004).

There are areas of contrast and tension in the existing motivation theories.

Firstly, some approaches are designed to work with the internal/cognitive aspect of the individual, like the content and process theories, while others concentrate on the individual’s external context, such as reinforcement theories (Freedheim et al. 2003). This may create confusion and provoke the question of which approach can maximize performance and when should it be used.

Secondly, a serious weakness with these theories is that they rely on the self report and self-perception of the individual, which changes according to circumstances. This may challenge the reliability of the approach and findings if these theories were tested (Freedheim et al. 2003).

Another problem with some motivation theories, especially those of Maslow and Herzberg, is that they believe that all individuals are motivated by the same things, such as money, while, in reality, each individual has different motivators, such as charity workers or those who do not mind receiving low wages (Employee Benefits 2004).

Furthermore, there is also a problem with expectancy theory. Vroom believes that all human behaviours are rational but Beck and Seligman (cited in Locks and Latham 2004) concluded that not all human thoughts and behaviours are logical. They discovered that there are certain dysfunctional thoughts that affect the decision-making process and people’s choices, such as perfectionism:

if I am good at all, I should be able to excel at every thing I try,

which may affect the person’s choices and decisions (Locks and Latham 2004).

Finally, to conceptualize, and measure this concept/mechanism in organizational research remains challenging. That is why understanding these theories are significant, as it provides fresh insight into improving performance (Buchner 2007). However, efforts should be made, firstly, to develop common ground among these theories, providing a universal interpretation of them that can be used in different disciplines and cultures. However, there have been several attempts to link these interpretations together (Steel and Koning 2006). Secondly, as recommended by Steel and Konig (2006); Locks and Latham (2004) and Carver and Sutton (2000), the different motivational theories should be integrated to develop a common language among social, psychological and other disciplines’ scientists to facilitate multi-disciplinary communication and collaboration and also enable managers to respond effectively to complex motivational problems. Thirdly, it is essential to have diagnostic models and theories as suggested by Freedheim et al. (2003) to facilitate identifying when and where a particular motivational intervention will work, to aid organizations in directing their resources and efforts.


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Posted by: Farid Ahmed

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