Work Motivation

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Work Motivation

Work is the best antidote to sorrow my dear Watson. (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1920)

Where there is no desire, there will be no industry. (John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1690)

Work banishes those three great evils: boredom, vice and poverty. (Voltaire, Candide, 1750)

The question most bosses want to know the answer to is: What drives employees to do or not do all sorts of things at work? What accounts for their tastes and reactions to others? Why do they spend so much time and effort in certain activities? Why do they crave power or recognition to such a degree? Why are some people just more motivated, more hungry, more involved than others?

Motivation is what activates and drives behaviour. The word comes from the same Latin root as motion: it literally means to move people. Motives help us regulate our behaviours, ensure our survival and find solutions when we are knocked back. People usually want to know the answer to various specific questions:

Where do drivers/needs/motives come from?

Do drivers (motives) change (much) over time?

Do people have mixed (even contradictory) motives / drivers?

Are motives/drivers conscious or unconscious?

What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

One of the most oft-cited motivation theorists is David McClelland. He identified three major motives or drivers:

The need for affiliation: needing to be liked, included and accepted by others. An individual with a high need for affiliation is likely to be a team player, good at customer services and have a wide circle of friends. They like to co-operate. A strong need for affiliation and the drive to be liked can affect a person’s behaviours adversely, prompting them to make unwise decisions to increase their popularity. They crave acceptance and are very susceptible to flattery. They may also react badly if they perceive themselves to have been excluded or under-valued.

The need for power: needing to influence, lead and dominate others and make an impact in society as a whole. Some people have a need for personal power or power over others. This is a need for control and domination. Others have a need for institutional power. Power can be intoxicating: it is a major driver in politicians and business people.

The need for achievement: needing to achieve, excel and succeed at everything. Usually those with a high need for achievement set challenging but realistic goals for themselves. This type of person prefers to work alone or with other high achievers. They do not need praise or recognition. Achievement of the task is their reward. Competitive sportsmen and successful businessmen are often driven by this motive.


Over 50 years ago a group of psychologists lead by Herzberg were to develop a theory of great consequence. Two-factor theory states that there are certain factors in the workplace that cause job satisfaction, while a separate set of factors cause dissatisfaction.

The researchers found that job characteristics related to what an individual does at work have the capacity to gratify specific needs such as achievement, competency and personal worth, leading to happiness and satisfaction. However, the absence of these specific job characteristics did not appear to lead to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. However, dissatisfaction resulted from other very specific factors like company policies, supervision, salary, interpersonal relations on the job and working conditions.

Two-factor theory then distinguishes between:

Motivating Factors such as challenging work, recognition for one’s achievement, being given responsibility, opportunity to do something meaningful, involvement in decision making, sense of importance to an organization. These together give positive satisfaction, arising from intrinsic conditions of the job itself, such as recognition, achievement or personal growth.

Hygiene Factors such as job security, salary, fringe benefits, work conditions, good pay, paid insurance, vacations paradoxically do not give positive satisfaction or motivation, though dissatisfaction results from their absence. The term ’hygiene’ is used in the sense that these are maintenance factors. These are extrinsic to the work itself, and include aspects such as company policies, supervisory practices or wages/salary.

According to Herzberg (1966), hygiene factors are what causes dissatisfaction among employees in a workplace. In order to remove dissatisfaction in a work environment, these hygiene factors must be eliminated. There are several ways that this can be done but some of the most important ways to decrease dissatisfaction would be to pay reasonable wages, ensure employees’ job security and to create a positive culture in the workplace. Herzberg and his team rank-ordered the following hygiene factors from highest to lowest importance: company policy, supervision, employee’s relationship with their boss, work conditions, salary and relationships with peers.

Herzberg distinguished between work-related actions because you have to, which is classed as ’movement’; but if you perform a work-related action because you want to then that is classed as ’motivation’.

Most importantly Herzberg thought it was important to eliminate job dissatisfaction before going on to creating conditions for job satisfaction because it would work against each other. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us turned out to be a best seller. He acknowledges as a science journalist that most of the ideas are not his but mainly derived from self-determination theory developed by Deci and Ryan. The book made the message clear: carrot-and-stick motivation does not work anymore.

Pink (2011) proposes that businesses should adopt a revised approach to motivation which fits more closely with modern jobs and businesses, one based on self-determination theory. Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another, and that when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives. Organizations should focus on these drives when managing their human capital by creating settings which focus on our innate need to direct our own lives (autonomy), to learn and create new things (mastery, and to do better by ourselves and our world (purpose).

The three components of the theory with appropriate recommendations are:

Autonomy & Empowerment — Provide employees with autonomy over some (or all) of the four main aspects of work: When they do it (time), how they do it (technique), whom they do it with (team), what they do (task).

Mastery & Competence — Provide ’Goldilocks tasks’ which are neither overly difficult nor overly simple, create an environment where mastery is possible.

Purpose — Communicate the purpose, place equal emphasis, use purpose-oriented words.


Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2008). Self-determination Theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 182—85.

Herzberg, F. (1966). Work and the nature of man. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishers.

McClelland, D.C. (1965). Toward a Theory of Motive Acquisition. American Psychologist. 20: 321—33.

Pink, D. (2011). Drive. New York: Riverside Books.