Work Motivation

Work motivation is one of the most central and highly researched topics in industrial-organizational psychology. Even the earliest textbooks in I/O psychology addressed motivation and topics related to it, such as morale, job attitudes, productivity, and job performance. Several definitions have been offered, but the one adopted here was first advanced by the author in 1984: Work motivation originates within and beyond the individual to initiate and determine work-related behavior.

The focus of most attention on work motivation has been on the effort people expend at working, the intensity component of the definition. Yet it is critical to keep the other components in mind to fully understand work motivation. Although an individual may not be working very hard toward the goals others set, the person may have plenty of motivation to achieve goals other than those prescribed by managers or critics (the form and direction components).

It is also important to distinguish between motivation and its antecedents and its consequences, particularly the latter. Observers often conclude that a person’s motivation is low (usually implying not enough effort) or misguided (inappropriate goals) on the basis of observing low standards of performance, which is the accomplishment of some standard or criterion. This conclusion is often false, resulting in what social psychologists refer to as the fundamental attribution error—attributing low judged performance to low motivation, a characteristic of the individual. Considerable research and theory show that performance is a multiplicative function of motivation and individual ability as well as the constraints or opportunities offered by the context in which work is occurring. These distinctions are more than a matter of theoretical or conceptual semantics: They have real, important applied implications if one is to understand job performance, employee withdrawal (in its various forms), creativity at work, career choices, and myriad other work-related phenomena. The source of the poor performance is frequently the context or the person’s ability to do the job.

Some Popular Theories of Work Motivation

There are many popular and well-known theories of work motivation, most of which were first proposed during the 1960s and 1970s. Among managers, they are certainly well-known, some more than others, and some believe that they may be more valid (in terms of their capacity to predict individual work-related attitudes, emotions, and behaviors) than current social scientific methods can demonstrate.

The various theories of work motivation are all predicated on a few fundamental models of human functioning, that is, on a few basic ontological assumptions about human nature. Perhaps the most widely known of these theories are those based on the premise that people are fundamentally need-driven creatures. Hedonism is a central tenet of these models, which share the view that people strive to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Henry Murray developed an insightful definition of human needs during the 1930s that is still in use today. Building on that tradition, Abraham Maslow offered the best known of these theories in the 1940s. He believed that human needs are arranged in hierarchical categories, such that some needs are more prepotent than others. For example, as the more basic needs are becoming satisfied, other less urgent needs increase in relative importance. Maslow’s theory is frequently oversimplified in interpretation. A key concept in thinking about work motivation and behavior is overdetermination, which indicates that most human behavior, except that related to the most basic biological functions, are instigated and directed by more than a single motive (or need). Too frequently, textbooks, teachers, and consultants claim that Maslow believed that behavior was determined by the forces of single needs, one at a time, and that the particular need in force at any given time followed the structure of his famous hierarchy.

More recent versions of need theory have been offered by David McClelland, a student of Henry Murray, who made major contributions in our understanding of three particular needs that have considerable importance for work motivation—the needs for achievement, power, and affiliation—and Clayton Alderfer, who offered a simplified version of Maslow’s hierarchy.

Frederick Herzberg and his colleagues advanced a controversial theory of job satisfaction and work motivation in 1959. The theory was heavily criticized for methodological and other reasons, but it was instrumental in spawning later theories of job design that have many implications for work motivation. Indeed, the meaningfulness factor appearing in these later theories (from the 1980s) is enjoying attention now as part of the positive organizational scholarship movement.

There are a variety of theories that rest on the assumption that humans are basically information-processing creatures. Collectively, they are the most significant class of current theories. In the 1960s J. S. Adams offered a theory that claimed that work motivation could be understood in terms of people’s perceptions of the exchange relationship they have with the employer. Social comparison processes with other individuals played a huge role in the dynamics of this theory, which has evolved over the past 15 years to diverse and more advanced thinking about justice. In fact, justice theories are, as a group, one of the freshest and most progressive bodies of theory to emerge in recent times.

A variety of expected value theories emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The common theme among them is that work motivation is a decision-making process by which people choose among alternatives to maximize their expected utility. Perceptions about the expected value of outcomes associated with alternatives and the perceived probability that those outcomes will accrue are the major parameters of the model.

Popular behaviorist models from the 1960s and 1970s have given way to modified forms that admit cognitive elements. Currently, Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory is one of the most viable approaches of this new generation. The central tenet of this approach is that psychosocial functioning results from three-way interactions among people, their behavior, and the environment.

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham’s goal-setting theory is probably the most successful of current contenders. Based on the information processing model, it enjoys the most scientific validity and applied value for practitioners. In a nutshell it claims that people are motivated to pursue goals, based on intentions. Difficult, specific goals are the most motivating, as long as they are accepted by the individual, particularly when they are accompanied by feedback.

Participation, rewards, deadlines, and other incentives enhance goal striving only to the extent that they influence goal acceptance.

A survey of the leading theories published in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2005 concluded that, as a group, theories of work motivation have advanced considerably over the previous 30 years, largely by becoming more fully articulated and refined with the inclusion of mediating and moderating effects. Also as a group, work motivation theories have recently been judged as one of the two most valid and useful bodies of knowledge in the organizational sciences. Aside from a sharp increase in research and theory involving human affect, there have been few fundamentally new models offered in three decades. Future progress will most likely require the exploitation of other basic models of human functioning, such as spirituality.


  1. Bandura A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of moral thought and action. In W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gerwitz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development (Vol. 1, pp. 45-103). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  2. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.
  4. McClelland, D. C. (1975). Power: The inner experience. New York: Halstead. Murray, H. A., & Shneidman, E. S. (Eds.). (1981). Selections from the personology of Henry A. Murray. New York: Harper & Row.
  5. Pinder, C. C. (1998). Work motivation in organizational behavior. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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