Four classic motivation theories

Professor Stuart-Kotze discusses four classic theories from:

  • Maslow
  • Herzberg
  • McClelland
  • Vroom

Each is discussed on a separate page of the site.


Joe Kelly presents a simple model that illustrates the process of motivation.

Needs - drives - behaviour - goals - reduction or release of tension

Behaviour is both directed to, and results from, unsatisfied needs. The word unsatisfied is most important. As Maslow says:

"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."

Kelly's model of motivation presents a sort of chicken-egg dilemma. Which comes first, the goal or the need? When we talk about behaviour being goal-oriented, we mean that individuals feel a need, want, desire or drive to do something that leads to the achievement of a goal. But is the goal, as part of the self, already there? Is it the factor that stimulates the need? Are goals and needs the same thing?

It is useful to separate the two concepts. We can define a goal as that outcome which we strive to attain in order to satisfy certain needs. The goal is the end result, the need the driving force that spurs us towards that result. A student might have a goal to get an A in a course, but this goal may reflect a number of different needs. He or she may feel a need to confirm his or her competence; friends may all be getting A's; he or she may wish to have the esteem of others; simply to do the best possible; to keep a scholarship. It is difficult to infer needs from goals.

We talk about money as a motivator. Money represents so many different things to different people that saying that individuals "work for money" is meaningless. What we have to know is what needs the money is satisfying. Is it survival, status, belonging, achievement, a convenient scorecard for performance? Remember, behaviour is both directed to, and results from, unsatisfied needs.

Every individual has a number of needs which vie for satisfaction. How do we choose between these competing forces? Do we try to satisfy them all? Much 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.

Although there is general agreement among psychologists that man experiences a variety of needs, 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 which list a specific number of motivating needs, with the implication that these lists are all-inclusive and represent the total picture of needs. Unfortunately, each of these models has weaknesses and gaps, and we are still without a general theory of motivation.


I will describe the four main theories of motivation. These are

  • Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
  • Herzberg's Dual-Factor Theory
  • The Need for Achievement and David McClelland's work
  • Vroom's Expectancy Theory of motivation.

Next page - "Hierarchy of Needs"


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Hierarchy of Needs - Abraham Maslow

One model of motivation that has gained a lot of attention, but not complete acceptance, has been put forward by Abraham Maslow.

Maslow's theory argues that individuals are motivated to satisfy a number of different kinds of needs, some of which are more powerful than others (or to use the psychological jargon, are more prepotent than others). The term prepotency refers to the idea that some needs are felt as being more pressing than others. Maslow argues that until these most pressing needs are satisfied, other needs have little effect on an individual's behaviour. In other words, 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 behaviour.

Maslow represents this prepotency of needs as a hierarchy. The most prepotent needs are shown at the bottom of the ladder, with prepotency decreasing as one progresses upwards.

The first needs that anyone must satisfy are physiological. As Maslow says:

"Undoubtedly these physiological needs are the most prepotent of all needs. What this means specifically is 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, Maslow maintains, the next level of needs emerges. Individuals become concerned with the need for safety and security - protection from physical harm, disaster, illness and security of income, life-style and relationships.

Similarly, once these safety needs have become largely satisfied, individuals become concerned with belonging - a sense of membership 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 or she is next motivated by a desire to be held in esteem. People need to be thought of as worthwhile by others, to be recognised as people with some value. They also have a strong need to see themselves as worthwhile people. Without this type of self-concept, one sees oneself as drifting, cut off, pointless. Much of this dissatisfaction with certain types of job centres around the fact that they are perceived, by the people performing them, as demeaning and therefore damaging to their self-concept.

Finally, Maslow says, when all these needs have been satisfied at least to some extent, people are motivated by a desire to self-actualise, to achieve whatever they define as their maximum potential, to do their thing to the best of their ability. Maslow describes self-actualisation as follows:

"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-actualisation ... It refers to the desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for one to become actualised 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.

The specific form these needs take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may be expressed maternally, as the desire to be an ideal mother, in another athletically, in still another aesthetically, the painting of pictures, and in another inventively in the creation of new contrivances. It is not necessarily a creative urge although in people who have any capabilities for creation it will take this form."

(You can gain an indea of your own position in this hierarchy by completing the exercise
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.)

Several points must be made concerning Maslow's model of motivation. First, it should be made clear that he does not mean that individuals experience only one type of need at a time. In fact, we probably experience all levels of needs all the time, only to varying degrees. In many parts of the world, hunger is a genuine reality but we have all experienced the phenomenon of not being able to concentrate upon a job because of a growling stomach. Productivity drops prior to lunch as people transfer their thoughts from their jobs to the upcoming meal. After lunch, food it not uppermost in people's minds but perhaps rest is, as a sense of drowsiness sets in.

Similarly, in almost all organisational settings, individuals juggle their needs for security ("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 issues are experienced.

If the individual does not produce to the level demanded by management, he or she may lose the job (security). But if he or she conforms to management's norms rather than those of the group, it may ostracise him or her (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.) We do not progress 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.

A second point that must be made about Maslow's hierarchy is that the order in which he has 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. The war hero springs to mind. There is little concern for safety or physical comfort as the seeker of glory rushes forward into the muzzle of destruction.

A third, and very important point to be made about Maslow's 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. The point in this is clear for management. Unfortunately, many organisations and individuals still fail to get the message. Most incentive schemes are based upon needs that have already been largely satisfied. 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 organisation. Human behaviour is primarily directed towards unsatisfied needs.

Finally, an important aspect of Maslow's model is that it provides for constant growth of the individual. There is no point at which everything has been achieved. Having satisfied the lower needs, one is always striving to do things to the best of one's ability, and best is always defined as being slightly better than before.

There has been a great deal of debate over Maslow's hierarchical concept of motivation. It has a basic attraction to most people because it seems to be logical, to make sense.

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Dual-Factor Theory - Frederick Herzberg

Frederick Herzberg and his associates began their research into motivation during the 1950's, examining the models and assumptions of Maslow and others. The result of this work was the formulation of what Herzberg termed the Motivation-Hygiene Theory (M-H). The basic hypotheses of this theory are that:

1. There are two types of motivators, one type which results in satisfaction with the job, and the other which merely prevents dissatisfaction. The two types are quite separate and distinct from one another. Herzberg called the factors which result in job satisfaction motivators and those that simply prevented dissatisfaction hygienes.

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



         work itself



3. The factors which may prevent dissatisfaction (the hygienes) are:

         company policy and administration

         working conditions


         interpersonal relations




Hygienes, if applied effectively, can at best prevent dissatisfaction: if applied poorly, they can result in negative feelings about the job.

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

Hygienes are simply factors that describe the conditions of work rather than the work itself. Herberg's point is that if you want to motivate people, you have to be concerned with the job itself and not simply with the surroundings.

In a medical sense, growth, healing and development occur as natural internal processes. They are the result of proper diet, exercise, sleep etc. Hygienic procedures simply prevent disease from occurring. They do not promote growth per se. 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.

Once again, this theory has a basic attraction. As Joe Kelly puts it, however:

"It is always as well to bear in mind that academics, who place considerable value on autonomy and inner direction, have an obsession about making work meaningful. The notion that it is possible to realise man's true nature through creative work which is its own reward is an exceedingly attractive proposition to the learned don which is rarely fully shared by his wife".

Herzberg goes further than Maslow, cutting the hierarchy off near the top and maintaining that motivation results only from some elements of esteem needs and self-actualisation.

(Next page - "The need for nchievement")

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The Need for Achievement - David McClelland

The one single motivating factor which has received the most attention in terms of research, is the need for achievement (n-ach). As a result, we know more about n-ach than any other motivational factor. Much of this knowledge is due the work of David McClelland of Harvard. To illustrate what he means by the need for achievement, McClelland cites the following example:

"Several years ago, a careful study was made of 450 workers who had been thrown out of work by a plant shutdown in Erie, Pennsylvania. Most of the unemployed workers stayed at home for a while and then checked with the employment service to see if their old jobs or similar ones were available. But a small minority among them behaved differently; the day they were laid off, they started job hunting. They checked both national and local employment offices; they studied the Help Wanted sections of the papers; they checked through their union, their church and various fraternal organisations; they looked into training courses to learn a new skill; they even left town to look for work, while the majority when questioned said they would not under any circumstances move away to obtain a job. Obviously the members of the active minority were differently motivated."

Individuals with a high n-ach have a number of distinctive characteristics which separate them from their peers. First of all, they respond well to situations where they can take personal responsibility for finding solutions to problems. This allows them to gain personal satisfaction from their achievements. They do not like situations where success or failure results from chance. The important thing is that the outcome be the result of their own skill and effort.

A second characteristic of high n-ach people is that they like to set moderately high goals for themselves. These goals are neither so low that they can be achieved with little challenge, nor so high that they are impossible. High n-ach individuals prefer goals that require all-out effort and the exercise of all their abilities. Once again, the achievement of this type of objective results in greater personal satisfaction. This phenomenon can be observed in very young children. A child may be given a game of ring toss, told that he or she scores whenever a ring lands over the peg and then left alone to play the game. McClelland comments:

"Obviously children who stand next to the peg can score a ringer every time; but if they stand a long distance away, they will hardly ever get a ringer. The curious fact is that children with a high concern for achievement quite consistently stand at moderate distances from the peg where they are apt to get achievement satisfaction ... The ones with low n-Achievement, on the other hand, distribute their choices of where to stand quite randomly over the entire distance. In other words, people with high n-Achievement prefer a situation where there is a challenge, where there is some real risk of not succeeding, but not so great a risk that they might not overcome it by their own efforts".

A third distinctive characteristic of high achievers is that they want concrete feedback on their performance. Only certain types of jobs provide this kind of feedback, however, and so some kinds of jobs are unattractive to high achievers. For instance, teachers receive only imprecise, hazy feedback as to the effectiveness of their efforts while production managers have a daily output chart to look at with either joy or disappointment.

There are some additional minor characteristics possessed by high achievers. They tend to enjoy travel, are willing to give up a bird in the hand for two in the bush and prefer experts to friends as working partners. The image is clear; the high achiever is a personality type suited admirably to certain jobs and not others. It would be wrong to treat all individuals as high achievers and attempt to motivate them by offering them challenging jobs, rapid and objective feedback on performance and personal responsibility for success or failure.

Other needs

McClelland has also identified two other types of need, the need for affiliation (n-affil) and the need for power (n-pow). His testing procedure is concerned with the application of what is known as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), a series of pictures which are presented to a subject, one at a time. The individual is asked to tell a story about each picture. The underlying assumption of the TAT procedure is that it will reveal the dominant thoughts and attitudes of subjects. For instance, an individual with high n-ach will formulate stories concerned with getting things done, challenging situations, feelings of satisfaction at having done a good job and so on. The individual with a high need for affiliation (n-affil) will reflect sensitivity to the feelings of others, a desire for friendly relationships and a reference to situations which involve human interactions. High n-power subjects will relate stories reflecting the process of influencing others, controlling and manipulating others.

The need for affiliation

The need for affiliation is similar to Maslow's need to belong. It can be a dominant motivating force affecting behaviour and may manifest itself in many different ways. The novelist John O'Hara was supposedly obsessed with the fact that, not having a college degree, he was excluded from membership of certain clubs and societies. At the other end of the spectrum, James Coyne, a former Governor of the Bank of Canada, was described as the most unclubbable man in the country, as he held an aversion to joining groups. In its most straightforward form, a need for affiliation manifests itself in a desire to be liked by others, to be part of a group, to enter into warm, personal relationships. High n-affil people value relationships over accomplishments, and friendship over power.

The need for power

In studying the motivational profiles of North American managers, McClelland noticed that many of those who reach the top of organisations and are rated as highly effective in their positions, demonstrate a concern for influencing people. This is, in McClelland's terms, a need for power. This need is not simply seen as the raw desire to control others or simply to exert authority. McClelland makes the point that:

"... this need must be disciplined and controlled so that it is directed toward the benefit of the institution as a whole and not toward the manager's personal aggrandisement. Moreover, the top manager's need for power ought to be greater than his or her need for being liked by people."

Power motivation refers not to autocratic, tyrannical behaviour but to a need to have some impact, to be influential and effective in achieving organisational goals.


McClelland examined the motivational needs of a large group of managers whose units demonstrated varying degrees of morale. The most important factor, in predicting whether a manager's subordinates would exhibit high morale, turned out to be how their need for power related to their need for affiliation. Teams which exhibited higher morale were those in which the manager's need or power exceeded their desire to be liked. McClelland puts forward the following explanation:

"Sociologists have long argued that, for a bureaucracy to function effectively, those who manage it must be universalistic in applying rules. That is, if they make exceptions for the particular needs of individuals, the whole system will break down. The manager with a high need to be liked is precisely the one who wants to stay on good terms with everybody and therefore is the one most likely to make exceptions in terms of in terms of particular needs. ... Sociological theory and our data both argue ... that the person whose need for affiliation is high does not make a good manager."

(Take a look at the exercise Discipline and Grievance.) 

Organisation man?

Power-motivated managers, like achievement orientated managers and the affiliators, demonstrate distinct characteristics:

The picture of McClelland's power-motivated manager is reminiscent of the organisation man caricatured by William Whyte. The message seems to be that if one is dedicated to the institution, committed to the work ethic and unflagging in energy and devotion, success will follow. However, the increasing popularity of switching jobs as a method of rapid advancement and the rapidity of change in organisations somewhat contradicts this type of thinking.

(Next page - "Expectancy theory")

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Expectancy Theory of motivation - Victor Vroom

Victor Vroom, of Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, has challenged the assertion of the human relationists that job satisfaction leads to increased productivity. (This theory has been called the contented cow approach to management.) The assumption is that if management keeps employees happy, they will respond by increasing productivity. Herzberg, in a delightful film of motivation, highlights the fallacy of this assumption with an interview between a manager and a secretary. The secretary is complaining about the job, and the manager lists all the things that have been done for the secretary - increases salary, new typewriter, better hours, status and so on - at the end of which she looks straight at him and asks, "So what have to done for me lately?"

The point may be made that satisfied needs do not motivate people Hygienes simply keep employees quiet for a time. For an individual to be motivated to perform a certain task, he or she must expect that completion of the task will lead to achievement of his or her goals. The task is not necessarily the goal itself but is often the means of goal attainment. Vroom defines motivation as:

"A process governing choices, made by persons or lower organisms, among alternative forms of voluntary behaviour."

In organisational terms, this concept of motivation pictures an individual, occupying a role, faced with a set of alternative voluntary behaviours, all of which have some associated outcomes attached to them. If the individual chooses behaviour 1, outcome A results; if 2 then B results and so on.

Knowing that individuals choose behaviours in order to obtain certain outcomes is nothing new. The question is why they choose one outcome over another. The answer provided by the motivational theories I have discussed (Maslow, Herzberg, McClelland) is that the choice reflects the strength of the individual's desire or need for a specific outcome at a certain time.

However, Vroom makes the point that task goals (productivity, quality standards or similar goals attached to jobs) are often means to an end, rather than the end in itself. There is a second level of outcomes which reflect the real goals of individuals and these may be attained, in varying degrees, through task behaviour. An individual is motivated to behave in a certain manner because:

(a) he or she has a strong desire for a certain task outcome and a reasonable expectation of achieving that outcome


(b) because he or she also expects that the achievement of the task outcome will result in reward in terms of pay, promotion, job security, or satisfaction of individual needs - physiological, safety, esteem and so on.

expectancy diagram

 Imagine a manager has as a task goal, receive good ratings for internal customer service. The choice of this task goal reflects three things:

1.       The strength of the need for good ratings versus some other goal.

2.       The expectation that this goal can be achieved.

3.       The expectation that the achievement of this task goal will lead to desired rewards - promotion, increased security and so on.

Vroom would maintain that we do things in our jobs in order to achieve second level rewards:

"If a worker sees high productivity as a path leading to the attainment of one or more of his or her personal goals, he or she will tend to be a high producer. Conversely, if he or she sees low productivity as path to the achievement of his or her goals, he or she will tend to be a low producer".

Certainly Vroom has hit on an important aspect of motivation. We do not attempt simply to satisfy a need or even a set of needs in a straightforward, "If I do this, then I will achieve that" manner. We work with a chain of goals and rewards, where goals in one area are only a means of achieving goals in another.

You might enjoy two articles on the hierarchy of needs and men and women. They are:

         The Hierarchy of Women

         The Hierarchy of Men

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