A Review of Current Motivational Theories (Andreia Moore)


In today’s workplace teams have become one of the most popular organizational methods in developing projects. There is a vital and enduring aspect of teams that makes it powerful. But one should not forget to incorporate motivational strategies, in order to enhance the process. Motivation is the gist of any strategic plan and teams are no different in this respect. We will discuss more about the current motivational theories and how they can be implemented in the next paragraphs.

Motivational Processes – Definitions and Terminology

A very common definition of motivation is: force that energizes, directs and sustains behavior. This force is studied using the scientific method because of its behaviorally specific characteristics. When studying motivation as it relates to the work place, the goal is to define what is more appropriate in terms of motivation to excel in a particular job requirement. One’s overall motivation is too broad of a concept to be dealt with scientifically. It is necessary to break things down to specific behaviors that can be easily observed in order to increase the likelihood that an effective theory will be developed. And to assist with this process of breaking things down, specific concepts and terminology have been developed. Among many other terms a very commonly used term in this field is Expectancy Theory. This term relates to how individuals make decisions regarding various behavioral alternatives once behavior has already been triggered. The following theories have been proposed:

Motivation Forces (MF) play the most important role in deciding among behavioral options. In other words, the motivational force for a behavior is a function of three distinct perceptions. The perceptions are as follows:

Expectancy-Probability (EP)-- Belief that effort (E) will lead to attainment of performance (P). This type of perception is based on past experiences, self-confidence and perceived difficulty. For instance, if I stay up all night studying, will I get a better grade on tomorrow’s test?

Instrumentality- Probability (PR)--Belief that greater reward is a function of meeting performance expectations. This reward may come in financial form or it may just be the simple sense of accomplishment. For instance, if I’m more productive than anyone else in the company, will I get the reserved, covered parking?
Valance- V(R)--Refers to the value one places on the rewards. For instance, how much do I really want to get covered parking? Is it worth working harder than most?
Motivating Workers – Popular Theories
Frederick W. Taylor, a management pioneer, stated that existing reward systems were not designed to reward a person for high production (Ames & Ames, 1989). He observed a very interesting phenomena. It seemed that once a worker realized someone producing less was receiving the same kind of rewards, he would also decrease his own level of production. So, in order to solve this problem, Taylor worked on developing a system that would financially compensate each worker accordingly. This work evolved into existing theories of motivation. Nowadays, money remains a major player in the game of motivation but in further developing these theories, other variables have been added.

According to Rue and Byars (1983), "motive is a stimulus that leads to an action that satisfies a need". In other words, motive produces action, and these actions will ultimately enable one to achieve his/her goals. With these operational definitions in mind, let’s examine in more detail some of the most popular theories of motivational processes.

Need Hierarchy Theory

In 1954, Maslow suggested that a person's needs could be diagramed as a five-level hierarchy (Ames & Ames, 1989). At the bottom are basic physiological needs (food, shelter, and clothing). Following is safety. For instance, employees need to be assured that the company cares about their safety. A more broad definition of safety goes beyond the physical aspect of it. It includes variables such as discrimination, favoritism, stereotyping, etc.). The next level of needs would be the social level. At this level the human need for love and a sense of belonging would be addressed. When designing Teams, this level should be carefully considered. The fourth level is self-esteem. This need is met when respect among co-workers, management, team members and all different levels of the company structure exist. The last but not least important level of need is self-actualization. According to Maslow, this is the highest and most complex level. It relates to people's need to reach their full potential. One very common mistake in implementing motivational strategies is forgetting to meet the self-actualization level and concentrating too much on meeting only the basic levels of need. Financial rewards are necessary, but they often disregard the highest level in this hierarchy of needs.

Motivational Maintenance Theory

The Motivational Maintenance Theory was developed by Herzberg (Keller, 1983). The process of development of this theory consisted of interviews with more than 200 engineers and accountants. The interviewees were asked to recall incidents at work that they associated with experiencing high or low self-esteem. Results of these interviews indicated that positive feelings were often associated with achievement, recognition, etc., and negative feelings with the work environment such as company policies, relationships with co-workers and supervisors, job security, working conditions, etc. This theory proposes that adding achievement, recognition and variables of that kind to the work environment, increases motivation.

Reinforcement Theory

This theory is based on the work of Skinner. Skinner believed that reinforcing behavior would lead to its repetition (Keller, 1983). Consequently, behavior not reinforced was less likely to be repeated. In order for companies to apply this theory with success, the effective reinforcers need to identified.

Hull’s Drive Reduction Theory

In his drive reduction theory he states that the stimulus (S) affects the organism (O) and the resulting response (R) depends upon characteristics of both O and S (Hull, 1943). This concept identifies reinforcement as a very important factor determining learning, however it emphasizes that drive reduction plays an even more important role in behavior when compared to other theoretical frameworks. Lets look at Hull's theoretical framework: (1) organisms possess a hierarchy of needs which are aroused under conditions of stimulation and drive,(2)habit strength increases with activities that are associated with primary or secondary reinforcement, (3)habit strength aroused by a stimulus other than the one originally conditioned depends upon the closeness of the second stimulus in terms of discrimination thresholds, (4) stimuli associated with the cessation of a response become conditioned inhibitors, (5)the more the effective reaction potential exceeds the reaction threshold, the shorter the latency of response.

Hull’s theoretical framework indicates that many types of variables can influence motivation and learning. And the concept of habit strength hierarchy needs to be given special attention. It stresses that the likelihood of a specific response changes according to not only the reward but also the efficiency of other variables.

Sign Learning (E. Tolman)

This theory, also referred to as purposive behaviorism, is often given credit for creating a connection between behaviorism and cognitive theory (Tolman,1932). According to Tolman an organism learns by pursuing signs to a goal. Tolman emphasized the organized aspect of learning: "The stimuli which are allowed in are not connected by just simple one-to-one switches to the outgoing responses. Rather the incoming impulses are usually worked over and elaborated in the central control room into a tentative cognitive-like map of the environment. And it is this tentative map, indicating routes and paths and environmental relationships, which finally determines what responses, if any, the animal will finally make." (Tolman, 1948, p. 192)

According to his theory there are five types of learning: (1) approach learning, (2) escape learning, (3) avoidance learning, (4) choice-point learning, and (5) latent learning. All of which depend upon a certain structured process. Many variables such as goal-oriented behavior, mediated by expectations, perceptions, representations etc. play an equally important role in the motivational process. Thus, the emphasis of Tolmans theoretical approach is the relationship between stimuli rather than that between stimulus and response.

Principles of Tolmans Theory

  1. Learning is always purposive and goal-directed. Learning often involves the use of environmental factors to achieve a goal (e.g., means-ends-analysis)
  2. Organisms will select the shortest or easiest path to achieve a goal.

In other words, motivation serves to create intentions and goal-seeking acts that are relevant to an individual's desire for success, the expectancy of success, and the incentives provided (Ames & Ames, 1989).

Reward and Punishment Systems

According to Schneider and Bowen there are four ways organizations failed to use reward effectively.

  1. They fail to use the full range of available rewards. Incidentally, pay fails the test of an effective reward.
  2. They fail to use the intrinsic reward of goal accomplishment. If a customer leaves with a big smile, it can be highly rewarding to the employee.
  3. They fail to use reward systems to facilitate service quality.

The reward system may inhibit rather than facilitate. People do the things that are more likely to lead to rewards or less likely to lead to punishment. Behavior that yields rewards will persist. Behavior that fails to yield results will be extinguished.

  1. They fail to manage reward systems effectively.

Sometimes rewards are uneven or inequitable. And in order to ameliorate these problems, an strategic combination of different types of rewards can be used. Some of the different types are discussed in the following paragraphs. One thing to keep in mind is that even though money is the most commonly used type of reward, there are many others and regardless of what reward is under discussion, the following test should be applied to define its effectiveness under the circumstances.

  1. A reward has to be given in an amount that is meaningful to the receiver.
  2. The company needs to be able to distribute the reward to whom and when it sees appropriate without restrictions.
  3. If it becomes clear that the receiver no longer deserves the rewards, the company should be able to reverse the process.
  4. In order to get more of the reward, the receiver should feel the need to improve performance.
  5. It should be clear why one is being rewarded.
  6. Right timing is one of the most important characteristics of an effective reward system. Rewards should be given immediately following performance in order to reinforce that behavior.
  7. Durability is also a very important characteristic. The reward should endure and there should be evidence of it for a long time after its implementation.

Jobs as a Source of Reward
As discussed in the theoretical part of this report, many times the actual work seems to be a great source of reward. But in order for a job to be effective as a source of reward it needs to posses the following characteristics: (1)Skill variety, (2) task identity (identifiable pieces of work with an also identifiable outcome), (3) task significance, autonomy (a certain freedom in schedule in order to make work more enjoyable, and (4) job feedback (one should be able to evaluate his/her performance based upon the immediate outcome of the job (Malone, 1981).

Understanding Factors That Influence Behavior

Much has been written about motivation, and, as leaders, it is important to understand what motivates employees. The theories discussed give us some insight on how certain techniques need be applied. The need to recognize individual contributions is very much on the top of the list of motivational strategies. Why do people do what they do? Three factors have been identified as playing a very important role in those decisions. They are (1) feelings, (2) values, and (3) needs.

  • Feelings-- Feelings or emotions can lead to positive or negative behavior. Generally, positive feelings lead to positive behaviors and negative ones tend to sabotage the work environment.
  • Values-- When talking about values we are referring to the importance we give to things. Values include honesty, fairness, loyalty, dignity, professionalism, etc., and their influence in an employee’s priorities.
  • Realistically, not all employees will share the same set of values, therefore it is a good idea to implement certain company values and encourage all employees to respect them.
  • Needs-- We talked more about the need hierarchy theory earlier in this report. Mainly, in order for a reinforcer to be effective and for motivation occur, the system has to fulfill not only the employees’ basic needs but the more complex ones too.


Motivation is a very complex subject and many theories have been developed with respect to its use in the work environment. No one theory solves every problem one might encounter in motivating others, but there are certain concepts that have been proven quite efficient and that have become somewhat universal in the Motivational Theory field.

One concept is the concept of praise. Praising is based on the concept of feedback as a reinforcer and motivator. There are some guidelines to praising that should be followed. Praise should follow desired performance almost immediately. The longer a company or manager waits the more the use of praise as a reinforcer looses its efficiency. Recognition is one of the most powerful tools a company has. The New Webster’s dictionary defines "recognition" as "acknowledgment of a fact or claim; friendly notice; salutation; attention." Recognizing good performance can cause desired behavior to increase, and it is something that is readily available. In addition to being so powerful, recognition is an example of a reward tool that passes all 7 of the tests mentioned above in the "Reward and Punishment Systems" section.

Personal Recognition can be given in many different ways. It could be a verbal praise, a letter of recommendation, a formal memo, a thank you card. But the most important characteristic of praise is that it needs to be timely, genuine and contingent with desired behavior.

After having said so much about praise, it is important to remember that however powerful praise may be, it is the combination of praise and other more tangible rewards that brings the most effective motivation. There are many theories of motivation, however experts agree that no one single theory provides all the answers. Let’s keep in mind that it is a well designed combination of theories that is more likely to present us with the solution.


Ames, C. & Ames, R. (1989). Research in Motivation in Education, Vol 3. San Diego: Academic Press.

Keller, J. (1983). Motivational design of instruction. In C. Riegeluth (ed.), Instructional Design Theories and Models. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Malone, T. (1981). Towards a theory of instrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 4, 333-369.

Weiner, B. (1986). An Attribution Theory of Motivation and Emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Hull, C. (1943). Principles of Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Hull, C. et al. (1940). Mathematico-Deductive Theory of Rote Learning. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.

Tolman, E.C. (1932). Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Copyright 1998, Center for the Study of Work Teams, University of North Texas. All Rights Reserved.