Motivation Theory in the Workplace:
Erasing the Line Between Psychology and the Office
G. Max Palmer
Salt Lake Community College
Motivation is the psychological feature that arouses an organism to act towards a
desired goal and elicits, controls, and sustains certain goal-directed behaviors. These are
driving forces that compel all organisms to engage in particular behaviors. (Schater p.
325) The psychological drive for hunger leads to eating, just as the psychological drive
for companionship leads to interpersonal engagement. The drives we experience are the
basis in numerous carefully crafted models, from Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, to
Herzberg’s two-factor theory. Simply put, motivation is the drive that urges us to behave
in a specific way.
Keywords: conscious motivation, unconscious motivation, rational motivation,
bound rationality, behavioral economics, intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation,
operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment,
incentive theory, Abraham Maslow, Hierarchy of Needs, Frederick Herzberg, two-factor
A distinction is to be made between the conscious and unconscious motivations.
A geneticist will likely presume the unconscious factors paramount, as they are bred
within our genes, formed through hundreds of millions of years of evolution. The
geneticist will regard the promiscuous behaviors of most male species to be built from the
instinctive urge to reproduce, and the female instinctive cautionary responses to be built
from the motherly behaviors warning her of the likelihood of raising an offspring without
a the presence of their father. Contrarily, to one who takes conscious motivation
paramount, emotional factors will be accounted for, be they means of rationalization, for
“I loved her at the time.” (Wright)
Rational motivation is the belief that organisms, humans in particular, behave in
accordance to their rational. However, concurring research deems this otherwise. It is
more evident that Homo Sapiens act through a form of bounded rationality, the theory
that people are nearly, but not fully, rational, so they cannot examine every possible
choice available to them, but rather utilize rules of thumb to guide their daily living. This
is where we see the field of behavioral economics enters. It is the study of how the
consumer behaves in the marketplace, inferring upon human limitations to account for a
lack of rational decision-making. (Miller)
Two core components exist within motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the motive
of pursuing and action in an attempt to receive gratification or pleasure from the action
itself, rather than with the expectation of a desire reward or result. Intrinsic motivation
manifests within the workplace when a laborer attributes production results to factors
under their own control, leading to a greater sense of autonomy, or if they “believe they
have the skills to be effective agents in reaching their desired goals, also known as selfefficacy beliefs.” It is the passion behind the action, the desire to learn a new skill, to
achieve a MBA. This contrast from the second component; extrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation references the work committed to achieve a desired outcome or
reward. Increasing productivity in hopes for a bonus, or better behavior in an attempt to
achieve preferred parking at the office. This rule doesn’t only apply to positive
reinforcement, but to punishment and negative reinforcement as well. The concerns of
disciplinary action such as suspensions or expulsions are means enough to regulate both
individual and group behavior. False tax record keeping can result in punishment ranging
from the loss of a job to incarceration. (Dewani) This field of study is operant
conditioning, a type of learning in which an individual’s behavior is modified by its
consequences. (Skinner)
Operant conditioning is the centerpiece in incentive theory. Incentive theory uses
a reward to create a motivation for future reoccurrence of a given behavior. These
rewards are what create to reinforcement behind the continuation, or the abolition, of the
behavior. Positive reinforcement is exhibited through the former ends, and negative
reinforcement by the latter.
The numbers of different motivational factors are limitless, and numerous
attempts have been made to organize these drives into formalized models. The American
motivations psychologist, Abraham H. Maslow, in his Hierarchy of Needs, created the
most widely accepted. Maslow created five classes of needs, each one based around a
central concept. The needs, from lowest and most essential on the hierarchy, to the
greatest and most essential are physiological (sleep, hunger, thirst, lust), safety and
security (personal health), belongingness (interpersonal relationships), self-esteem and
achievement, and self-actualization. The only way for one to build on the upper levels of
the hierarchy of needs is to satisfy their precursors.
Another theory that is correlated more directly to the workplace is Frederick
Herzberg’s two-factor theory. Herzberg’s theory is based upon the intrinsic/extrinsic
components of motivation. He correlates the intrinsic drives to motivators, and extrinsic
drives to hygiene factors. Motivators are our desires to pursue and engage in challenging
work, recognition, and to work with responsibility. Hygiene factors are our desires to
obtain a good salary, job security, and benefits. Herzberg clarifies that hygiene factors do
not act as motivators, however if absent, they result in demotivation, or negative
reinforcement. In contrast, the former criterion spawns job satisfaction. These two inverse
elements are what is the fount to the concept of the dual-factor theory. In example, an
employee may have a very stable job, earning a fair salary and working in good labor
conditions, however, these factors will not add any job satisfaction. If our laborer was
working in poor conditions will a low salary, they will only experience job
dissatisfaction. Note; these elements are all extrinsic, or external motives. Conversely, if
an individual is given great responsibility within a firm, accompanied by recognition for
their hard efforts to improve the company, he or she will experience a deal of job
satisfaction. If these were missing, they would only experience no satisfaction, rather
than dissatisfaction.
When we examine Herzberg’s and Maslow’s models side by side, we notice
marked similarities within their structures. Within Herzberg’s hygiene factors, we see the
fundamental needs at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy, the physiological and safety
factors. The need for proper safety of working conditions ensures the security of body,
and a stable job to ensure the safety of employment. We see Herzberg’s motivators in the
upper end of Maslow’s hierarchy or needs in the factors of esteem, belonging, and selfactualization. The need for self-esteem, achievement, respect, and recognition both are
the essence of the esteem category and the motivator category, while creativity, problem
solving, and responsibility are what make up our drive for self-actualization.
Motivation is the drive that dictates how every one of use behaves. When a founder,
CEO, or even supervisor achieves an understanding of the human drive, every employee
can be maximized to his or her greatest potential. We are to take the lessons given from
B.F. Skinner, Abraham Maslow, and Frederick Herzberg, and utilize them in the
workplace. Once we discover what makes us tick, what creates our passion for success,
for achievement, we are able to hand that motivation to each man and woman in whatever
field he or she may be. These are universal truths; they are the basis of evolution, the
basis of what makes us human beings. These are what will create our greatest leaders.
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