Understanding what motivates us

Every individual has a number of needs, which vie for satisfaction. How do we choose between these competing needs? Do we try to satisfy them all? Like a small child in a candy store, faced with the dilemma of spending his or her allowance, we are forced to decide what we want the most; that is, we satisfy the strongest need first.

Joe Kelly in (How Managers Manage) presented a simple model that illustrates the process of motivation - Needs - drives - behavior - goals - reduction or release of tension

Behavior is both directed to, and results from, unsatisfied needs. The key word is 'unsatisfied'.


Psychologists agree that man experiences a variety of needs, but there is considerable disagreement as to what these needs are and their relative importance. There have been a number of attempts to present models of motivation that list a specific number of motivating needs and claim to present the total picture of needs.


There have been several models of motivation though none can claim to be a general theory of motivation. Two most popular theories are the Theory of Hierarchy of Needs by Maslow and the Dual Factor Theory by Frederick Hertzberg.


Theory of Hierarchy of Needs


"If we are interested in what actually motivates us and not what has or will, or might motivate us, then a satisfied need is not a motivator." - Abraham Maslow


Abraham Maslow proposed a model of motivation that gained a lot of attention, but not complete acceptance. His theory of human personality has become arguably the most influential conceptual basis for employee motivation to be found in modern industry.


He argues that individuals are motivated to satisfy a number of different kinds of needs, some of which are more powerful than others i.e. more prepotent than others. (The term prepotency refers to the idea that some needs are felt as being more pressing than others.) Until these most pressing needs are satisfied, other needs have little effect on an individual's behavior. We satisfy the most prepotent needs first and then progress to the less pressing ones. As one need becomes satisfied, and therefore less important to us, other needs loom up and become motivators of our behavior.


Maslow represents this prepotency of needs as a hierarchy. The most prepotent needs are at the bottom. Prepotency decreases as one moves upwards.


Self-actualization - reaching your maximum potential, doing you own best thing 

Esteem - respect from others, self-respect, recognition 

Belonging - affiliation, acceptance, being part of something 

Safety - physical safety, psychological security 

Physiological - hunger, thirst, sex, rest


According to Maslow these physiological needs are the most prepotent of all needs. This means that in the human being who is missing everything in life in an extreme fashion, it is most likely that the major motivation would be the physiological needs rather than any others. A person who is lacking food, safety, love and esteem would probably hunger for food more strongly than anything else". 


Once the first level needs are largely satisfied, the next level of needs would be for safety and security - protection from physical harm, disaster, illness and security of income, life-style and relationships. Once this set of needs have become largely satisfied, individuals become concerned with belonging - a sense of being a member in some group or groups, a need for affiliation and a feeling of acceptance by others.


When there is a feeling that the individual belongs somewhere, he is motivated by a desire to be held in esteem. Individuals have a strong need to see themselves as worthwhile people. Without this type of self-concept, one sees oneself as drifting, cut off, pointless. In simpler terms, until one level of need is fairly well satisfied, the next higher need does not even emerge - Maslow's theory postulates that the most basic needs must be satisfied before higher needs can be addressed.


Self-actualization according to Maslow -


"A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can do, he must do. This need we may call self-actualization... It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for one to become actualized in what one is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.

Much of the dissatisfaction with certain types of job activities might arise from the fact they are perceived, by the people performing them, as demeaning and therefore damaging to their self-concept.


When all these needs have been satisfied at least to some extent, people are motivated by a desire to self-actualize, to achieve whatever they define as their maximum potential, to do their thing to the best of their ability.


The specific form these needs take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In his model of motivation, Maslow does not mean that individuals experience only one type of need at a time. An individual probably experiences all levels of needs all the time, only to varying degrees. For example, productivity drops prior to lunch as people transfer their thoughts from their jobs to the upcoming meal. After lunch, food is not uppermost in people's minds but perhaps rest is, as a sense of drowsiness sets in.


In most organizational settings, individuals juggle their needs for security - They seek answers to questions like - Can I keep this job? With needs for esteem - If I do what is demanded by the job, how will my peers see me, and how will I see myself? Given a situation where management is demanding a certain level of performance, but where group norms are to produce below these levels, all these questions arise. If the individual does not produce to the level demanded by management, he may lose the job (security). But if he conforms to management's norms rather than those of the group, it may ostracize him (belonging) while the individual may see him or herself as a turncoat (esteem) and may have a feeling of having let the side down (self-esteem.) The point is that individuals do not move simply from one level in the hierarchy to another in a straightforward, orderly manner; there is a constant, but ever-changing pull from all levels and types of needs.


The order in which Maslow set up the needs does not necessarily reflect their prepotence for every individual. Some people may have such a high need for esteem that they are able to subordinate their needs for safety, or their physiological or belonging needs to these. A war hero has little concern for safety or physical comfort as he seeks glory mindless of the prospect of destruction.


Most importantly, the hierarchical model is the assertion that once a need is satisfied it is no longer a motivator - until it re-emerges. Food is a poor motivator after a meal. If management placed emphasis on needs that have not been satisfied, employees would be more likely to be motivated towards achieving the goals of the organization. Reiterating Joe Kelly's point, Human behavior is primarily directed towards unsatisfied needs.


The model also provides for constant growth of the individual. There is no point at which everything has been achieved. Having satisfied the lower needs, he is always striving to do things to the best of his ability, and best is always defined as being slightly better than before.


Motivational and Hygiene Theory - by Frederick Hertzberg


Satisfaction and dissatisfaction at work were earlier believed to be opposing reactions to basically a common set of factors. This view changed when Frederick Herzberg first showed that satisfaction and dissatisfaction nearly always arose from different factors. Explore more on the theory and its implications...


Any good manager realizes that happy, satisfied workers will generally perform better than those who don't feel as satisfied. However, managers have always had differing opinions about what it takes to satisfy workers. The general belief is that motivating employees requires giving rewards.


It was during the late 1950's that Fredrick Herzberg decided to carefully study and research the key factors affecting a worker's performance. He found that certain factors tended to cause a worker to feel unsatisfied with his or her job. These factors seemed to directly relate to the employee's environment such as the physical surroundings, supervisors and even the company itself. He developed a theory based on this observation, naming it the "Hygiene Theory." According to his theory, for a worker to be happy and therefore productive, these environmental factors must not cause discomfort. Although the elimination of the environmental problems may make a worker productive, it will not necessarily motivate him.


Herzberg believed that the workers get motivated through feeling responsible for and connected to their work. In this case, the work itself is rewarding. Managers can help the employees connect to their work by giving them more authority over the job, as well as offering direct and individual feedback.


In his book 'The Motivation to Work' written with research colleagues B Mausner and B Snyderman in 1959, Herzberg introduced his theories about motivation in the workplace. His work, originally on 200 Pittsburgh engineers and accountants, has become one of the most replicated studies in the field of workplace psychology. He showed that certain factors truly motivate (motivators) whereas others tended to lead to dissatisfaction (hygiene factors).


Motivator vs hygiene factor


The factors that lead to job satisfaction (the motivators) are:

  • Achievement
  • Recognition
  • Work itself
  • Responsibility
  • Advancement


The factors that may prevent Dissatisfaction (the hygienes) are:

  • Company policy and administration
  • Working conditions
  • Supervision
  • Interpersonal relations;
  • Money 
  • Status
  • Security


Herzberg pointed out that man has two sets of needs; one as an animal to avoid pain, and two as a human being to grow psychologically. Taking the Biblical association - Adam after his expulsion from Eden needed food, warmth, shelter, safety, etc - these are the 'hygiene' needs; while Abraham, capable and achieving great things through self-development - formed the 'motivational' needs.


Herzberg and his associates began their research into motivation during the 1950's, examining the models and assumptions of Maslow and others. The results are termed as the Motivation-Hygiene Theory (M-H). The basic hypothesis is that there are two types of motivators - one type results in satisfaction with the job, and the other merely prevents dissatisfaction.


The two types are quite separate and distinct from one another. The first are known as job satisfaction motivators and the second are dissatisfaction hygienes. Hygienes, if applied effectively, can at best prevent dissatisfaction: if applied poorly, they can result in negative feelings about the job. Hygienes are simply factors that describe the conditions of work rather than the work itself.


Motivators allow for psychological growth and development on the job. They are closely related to the concept of self-actualization, involving a challenge, an opportunity to extend oneself to the fullest, to taste the pleasure of accomplishment, and to be recognized as having done something worthwhile.


The Herzberg hygiene factors and motivators graph diagram


Herzberg's research proved that people will strive to achieve hygiene needs because they are unhappy without them, but once satisfied the effect soon wears off. In this case the satisfaction is temporary. Herberg drove home the point that to motivate people, you need to be concerned with the job itself and not just with the surroundings.


To further clarify the point, a medical allusion can be used - growth, healing and development are natural internal processes that occur due to proper diet, exercise, sleep etc. Hygienic procedures simply prevent disease from occurring. They do not promote growth. Herzberg says that we should focus our attention on the individuals in jobs, not on the things that we surround them with. He maintains that we tend to think that growth and development will occur if we provide good working conditions, status, security and administration, whereas in fact what stimulates growth (and motivation to grow and develop) are opportunities for achievement, recognition, responsibility and advancement.


For a comparison of the theories of motivation, read:


Hertzberg, Maslow, Adams & Extrinsic Motivators


There are four basic approaches to motivation - traditional approach, human relations approach, human resource approach, and contemporary approach.


The traditional approach begins with the work of Frederick W. Taylor. His ideas on scientific management translate directly into motivation because of his system to base employee pay on quality and quantity of work. In his system employees who produce the best quality and the highest quantities receive the most pay.


In the human relations approach the concept of work place becoming a social environment took shape. The Hawthorn Studies ate Western Electric plant showed that non-economic rewards such as congenial work groups that meet social needs seemed more important than money in motivating efficiency. The study finally concluded that simply paying attention to employees leads to greater effectiveness in the workplace. This is now 

known as the Hawthorn Effect.


The human resource approach attempts to identify the employees as a whole person. In this study it is determined that a human is complex and many factors must be considered to determine effective motivation. This led to the work by McGregor on thseory X and theory Y. He concluded that people are motivated to do their best because it comes natural. Proponents of the human resource approach believe that all workers are competent and it is their basic desire to work toward organizational goals. These concepts eventually lead to the contemporary approach.


The contemporary approach deals with three types of theories. First content theories that emphasize the needs of the individual. Second are process theories that concern the thought processes that influence behavior. Lastly, reinforcement theories that focus on the employees learning of desired work behavior.