Throughout psychology and organisational science’s literature there are dozens of theories, sub-theories and researches regarding the nature of motivation. Below are presented the most influential views.
Based on the evident relationship between the human needs and motivation, Abraham Maslow (1943), grounded his motivation-need theory on the concept of the hierarchy of the needs. Maslow’s Need theory suggests that humans have 5 sets of needs: 1. Physiological needs, such as need for food, sleep, or need for oxygen, 2. Security needs, such as need for residence, 3. Love and social needs, such as need for friends and social life, 4.Esteem needs, such as need for praise or achieving self-imposed goals, and 5. Self-actualisation needs, like need for being fulfilled through self discovery, ideals, values and self-perfection. Maslow claims people move from a lower level of needs to a higher, only if they have satisfied the needs of that lower level. Thus, someone placed on the lowest level of the need hierarchy i.e the physiological needs level, would never be strongly motivated with a higher need level stimulus. In work for example, a poor man that is striving to fulfill his basic needs, would be more responsive to money (that is food, primarily) and thus, would be less motivated by a praise that addresses his esteem needs.
The generic nature and the suggested universality of the theory, as well as the many obvious exceptions to the rule of Maslow’s concept, raised considerable scepticism. Vroom maintained that humans are more complicated and sophisticated beings, who associate their actions with possible outcomes. a) If the expected outcome is worthy and luring, b) if there is a connection between their performance and the outcome and c) if there is a connection between their effort and the performance, then a person is motivated and performs better. This theory is known as VIE (valence, instrumentality, expectancy) theory, or simplest as Vroom’s Expectancy theory. This theory presupposes an external reward, and it is the most prominent supporter of extrinsic motivation effectiveness.
The idea that people are logical and they decide based on personal planning, inspired amongst others, Adams (1965), who presented a theory that assumes that people, uninterruptedly, compare themselves with others. Based on this comparison, they constantly rearrange their priorities and plans. When the outcome of a comparison is satisfying for them, there is equilibrium; when they notice that there is an inequity, they initiate an action that will restore equilibrium. This theory is known as Equity theory. In social life for example, when someone considers that is not rewarded or appreciated equally to the other members of the social group, he/she moves to action or certain kind of behaviour. That behaviour can be either putting less effort, which is the case of withdrawal or de-motivation , but it can also be an increased effort to achieve a better status.
Locke and Latham (1996), propose a modern theory of motivation called Goal-Setting theory. This theory argues that if someone sets difficult goals, the more probable is that he/she will try harder. However simplistic the rationale may look, Goal-Setting theory is probably the most criticism-resistant concept. The theory also argues that self-administrated goals are better than externally imposed ones. Besides, the theory works better if there is a “feedback loop”, that reinforces the commitment and therefore, the effort of the certain person.
Finally, the Self-efficacy theory of Bandura (1986) suggests that an individual is more likely to a) undertake a task and b) perform better when he/she has a realistic and confident perception about his/her own abilities and skills. The existence of confidence alone is not adequate, because it can lead to incorrect estimations of the situation. This quality, called efficacy, can be further developed by support from the social environment and expressions of belief to ones’ abilities, by experiences of adequacy in similar past situations and by projecting other people’s (that are of equal ability) achievements on themselves.
For more on the contemporary theories on work motivation check this: The “almighty” of money, money, money…