Motivation and the Meaning of Work - Page 2


The ability to ‘motivate people’ is considered to be a prime task of management. Managers, increasingly, have to act as coaches and guides in order to align the strategic goals of the organisation with the demands and needs of individual employees. At the core of this aligning process is the manager’s skill to understand what does ‘motivate’ an individual to reliably and consistently commit their energy and talent to the organisational goal. Motivation theories are routinely drawn on to understand what makes people ‘tick’ and to then be able to successfully manage and control individual behaviour.

The next section provides a brief outline over two content and two process theories of motivation. It is followed by a consideration of the ‘work orientation’ approach, which it is argued is a necessary supplement to the understanding of motivational processes.


Content theories of motivation place the emphasis on what motivates. They have become part and parcel of every training programme, of every syllabus and every leadership seminar devised and conducted for the improvement of management practice. Mainly, when talking to participants afterwards, what they seem to remember is a particular set of theories, which can be summarised under the heading of ‘content theories of motivation’, which reveal the motives, i.e. the content, in our mental make-up. Perhaps most famously is the theory of Abraham Harold Maslow (1908- 1970), an American psychologist, who developed a theory called ‘the hierarchy of needs’. Briefly, it assumes that there are nine human needs (ranging from biological requirements at the bottom to self-actualization needs at the top). Each of the lower needs has to be fully satisfied, before the next need becomes a motivating force. Thus, for example, we need to satisfy our biological requirements, before we care for affiliation needs or become interested in improving our knowledge and understanding. We need to feel appreciated and loved - (affiliation needs – before we endeavour to satisfy our sense of ‘beauty’ and truth – need for aesthetics).

A similarly famous theory of motivation was developed by Herzberg (1974) and is called the two-factor theory of motivation. There are a set of factors which, if absent, cause dissatisfaction. They are related to job context, job environment and extrinsic to the job itself (Hygiene or maintenance factors). The other set of factors serve, if present, to stimulate the individual to superior effort and performance (motivators or growth factors). The two-factor theory does not deny the importance of the hygiene factors, but stresses their importance to maintain a healthy work environment. If absent, even strong growth factors would not compensate for their lack.

However, these content theories of motivation have been criticised as being more of a social philosophy, reflecting white American middle-class values; and as being too vague to explain - let alone predict - all human behaviour. How, for example, could one explain within the parameters of this theory the actions of people who risk their lives in the pursuit of their aims, thus ‘violating’ any needs for safety and security? How could one explain that people forgo esteem needs for the sake of transcendence needs? I do not wish to claim that these theories or other theories of motivation for that matter are redundant for understanding workplace behaviour. Indeed, they continue to exert influence over management practice in areas such as job enrichment, TQM, rewards policies, self-managing teams and so on. However, I do wish to make a case for considering other approaches that have been developed to understand workplace behaviour and how to ‘manage it’.


A different set of theories of motivation can be summed up under the heading of ‘process theories’, such as expectancy, equity or goal-setting theories. They attempt to capture the dynamic of making choices with respect to desired goals. Unlike content theories of motivation, they see the individual not as predetermined and blindly struggling its way upward the hierarchy of needs or being satisfied with or motivated by a different set of factors, but as an active decision-maker. They emphasis the actual process (or method) of motivation.

Expectancy theory (cf. Vroom, 1964), for example, shows how work behaviour is influenced by the particular wants and expectations with particular employees, in particular circumstances bring to the organisation and how and to what extent the employer meets them. For example, if a (female) employee was promised and therefore expects particular childcare facilities to be available to her, but due to over-demand they turn out not to be, her expectations might be violated to such an extent that she leaves the organisation, if she can, or alternatively she might withhold effort or withdraw her commitment. This individual might not be looking for her next higher need to be satisfied, but for the opportunity to maintain her career while bringing up her children. It is also likely that the meaning she attaches to work has changed. But, of course, this state of affairs may again change: once the children are older, her expectations might be to be offered more challenging work and to take on more responsibility. In other words, this employee is not ‘motivated’ by inborn drives, but as her priorities and orientation to work change, so do her expectancies and behaviour.

Equity Theory of motivation (Adams, 1965) is related to the potential rewards that are promised to an individual. Adams gave the name ‘equity theory’ to the simple assertion that members of any workforce wish to be treated fairly that is to say equitably in relation to others and to avoid inequality. Thus individual employees are in a constant process of ‘comparing’ themselves, i.e. their pay package, their terms and conditions –to those of colleagues or even similar groups outside the organisation. Should they feel themselves to be treated unfairly, effort and contribution will be affected negatively.

Thus, process theories of motivation offer an opportunity to understand and reflect on the dynamic contextual and individual factors, which constitute the ‘bundle of expectations’, which in turn influences workplace behaviour.

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