I’ve heard a version of this question asked in various ways, “If they know what they know, why do they do what they do?” In spite of what people know; oftentimes they do what they want. Regardless of how they are trained or mentored, some people can do something right out of left field. In managing and leading people this can be frustrating at the least and maddening at the most. By contrast, other people just get the job done, with little attention or direction. Why the difference? Human motivation has been an enigma to researchers and others for decades. It’s interesting to note that opinions on motivation are referred to as “theories,” rather than facts. Stated simply, human motivation is the reason for an action. It’s the motive behind behavior. It’s what moves a person to action. It’s an explanation for what happened, or didn’t. There may not be another psychological topic where so many people have so many diverse opinions as human motivation. Nonetheless, there are some aspects of human motivation that we can analyze and understand. First, let’s review my six most favorite motivational “theories.”
Needs and Wants
We all have a variety of needs and wants. There is almost always a significant difference between what we need and what we want. Needs are things that are required for us to exist. Without certain basic needs, we would not survive. The most common examples are: air, food, water, and safety.
Wants, on the other hand, are things that we would like, but are not necessary to our survival. Without something that we want, we are still able to continue a reasonably normal existence. While many needs seem to be common and fairly consistent among people, wants can vary considerably from person to person. Motivational theories attempt to explain and even predict how people will respond to both needs and wants.
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs categorizes the most basic human needs: (1) self-actualization, (2) esteem, (3) belonging, (4) safety, and (5) physiological. In his model; Maslow defines self-actualization as things like education, religion, hobbies; personal growth, advancement, and creativity. He sees esteem coming from approval, validation; or recognition from family, friends, or colleagues. To Maslow belonging is the relationships we experience with family, friends, team members, coworkers, supervisors, subordinates and customers. He says we need safety or freedom from violence and personal injury. He also includes in this category work safety, job security, and personal health. Maslow defines physiological needs as air, food, water, and sex. According to Maslow, lower needs take priority. Once they are fulfilled, the others can be activated. In other words there are some basic needs that take priority.
David C. McClelland
Psychologist David C. McClelland proposed his theory of acquired needs. He said that some human needs are acquired as a result of life experiences. Through experiences, he explained, some people acquire the need for achievement, such as accomplishing or completing something difficult. Other people develop a need for affiliation, such as forming close personal relationships with others. Yet even other people develop a need for power, such as controlling, commanding, or directing others.
Another psychologist, Fred Herzberg, proposed the Two Factor Theory. According to Herzberg, two factors affect motivation, and they do it in different ways. The first are hygiene factors, which are things whose absence motivates, but whose presence has little perceived effect. They are things that when taken away, people become dissatisfied and act to get them back.
He called the second factor motivators, which are things that move people to action. The absence of these motivators does not necessarily cause dissatisfaction; the absence just fails to motivate. An example of these motivators would be pride, respect and appreciation. So hygiene factors determine dissatisfaction, and motivators determine satisfaction through action. The two scales are independent, meaning an item can be high or low on either scale.
Equity theory proposes that it is not the actual reward that motivates, but a person’s perception of the reward. Perception is based not only on the reward itself, but also as compared to the work or effort that went into getting it. In other words, a person’s motivation results from a ratio of reward verses effort. It’s interesting to note that equity theory is based on three assumptions:
1. Perceptions can include inaccurate data, disinformation, rumors and inferences.
2. Some people place a higher value on equity than others. So perceptions are likely to vary from one person to the next.
3. Some people can ignore short-term inequities as long as they think things will balance out in the long run. Stated another way, “the long-term juice is worth the short-term squeeze.”
Extrinsic and Intrinsic:
Extrinsic motivators are things that originate outside the person, such as those imposed by another person or event. By contrast, intrinsic motivators originate within the person, although they may have been partially influenced by an outside source. Fear is an extrinsic motivator because it is usually imposed by an outside source; while respect is an intrinsic motivator because it is a feeling generated from within the person. The primary difference between the two types is the source: extrinsic from the outside, and intrinsic from within. Although there are numerous intrinsic motivators, extrinsic motivators tend to fall into three general categories: fear, incentive, and guilt.
Beyond their source, extrinsic and intrinsic motivators are very different. Fear (extrinsic), for example, is overly used in our society today, but it is a dirty motivator (leaves emotional baggage) and lasts for only a few hours or days. By contrast, intrinsic motivators such as respect, challenge and making a difference are clean motivators (leave no emotional baggage) and can last weeks, months, years, and in some cases a lifetime.
Even though there are different opinions concerning human motivation, there are, indeed, several common threads among the various theories. It’s those commonalities that enable managers and executives to create a workplace environment wherein workers can maximize their performance through increased motivation.