Self-Concept Theory

The study of work motivation centers on why employees initiate, terminate, or persist in specific work behaviors in organizations. Most traditional theories of work motivation are built on the premise that individuals act in ways that maximize the value of exchange with the organization. However, the nature of an individual’s work motivation may also involve an internal, individually rooted need or motive—for example, to enhance one’s self-esteem, to achieve, or to affiliate. These motives are assumed to be part of the unique, internal core of a person’s self-concept.

Structure of Self-Concept

Current theories purport that self-concept is a multi-dimensional knowledge structure that helps individuals organize and give meaning to memory and behavior. Indeed, psychologists have argued that attaching an object or event to the self gives it special meaning (e.g., my car versus a car). Self-concept may be seen as consisting of attributes related to individual self-perception, including traits, competencies, and values. For example, individuals may use trait terms such as ambitious and dependable to describe their essential character or hold perceptions of the competencies they possess (e.g., “I am a good leader”).

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The working self-concept (WSC) is the highly activated, contextually sensitive portion of the self-concept that guides action and information processing on a moment-to-moment basis. The activation of the components of the WSC varies depending on the cues in one’s current context. For example, one’s self-concept may include several roles, such as being a parent, a spouse, and an employee. These alternative self-concepts are associated with different social contexts, which become activated when the right social cues are present.

The WSC can be viewed as consisting of three components: self-views, or one’s perceived standing on salient attributes, and two types of comparative standards—current goals, which are short-term and narrowly focused, and possible selves, which are long-term and future focused and provide much broader comparative standards. These three components combine to create control systems that regulate motivation. Furthermore, a control system may involve any two of the three components, so that one component provides the standard and the other the source of feedback. Researchers have proposed that combinations of the three components have very different motivational consequences on work behavior.

Finally, self-concept also has different focal levels that are composed of personal and social identities. Personal identity refers to self-categorization based on comparisons to others that emphasize one’s own uniqueness. Social identity is based on self-definition through relations with others or through group membership, and thus it emphasizes one’s similarities and connectedness. These identities are active at different times, creating a personal WSC or, alternatively, a social WSC.

Relationship between Self-Concept and Work Motivation

The self-concept is a source of work motivation in that individuals are motivated to maintain and enhance an internalized view of the self. Specifically, the meaning that individuals attribute to information is often a function of the strength of their self-perceptions and their need to affirm their self-concept. In an organizational setting, employees make choices among behavioral alternatives, set and accept work goals, take on projects, and generally direct effort toward obtaining task and social feedback that is consistent with their self-concept. In addition, when there is conflict between the self-concept and social or task feedback, employees may engage in a number of adaptive strategies to achieve congruence between their self-concept and performance feedback (e.g., increasing effort, changing feedback).

Whether work goals are tied to current self-views or possible self-views has important implications for work motivation. When work goals are tied to current self-views, more proximal motivation mechanisms may be engaged, creating an overriding performance orientation that accentuates self-enhancement. Alternatively, when work goals are connected to possible selves, more distal motivational processes predominate that are rooted in the need for uncertainty reduction and consistency and the ability to predict and control the environment.

Possible selves normally reflect ideals toward which individuals strive, but they can also represent feared selves that individuals attempt to avoid. The contribution of these two motivational components changes with one’s perceived proximity to each, with the more proximal source generally having a greater impact. For example, studies show that feared selves are powerful sources of motivation, particularly for individuals who perceive themselves to be close to the feared self. These findings have implications for work motivation: Organizational leaders may need to understand that both feared and desired selves serve as regulatory standards for employees. Consequently, for an employee who is close to the feared self, articulating a vision of an ideal may not have much motivational impact, but framing work tasks in terms of the feared self may serve as a powerful motivator. Conversely, for an individual who is close to ideal and far from the feared self, explaining how the employee can avoid the feared self may have minimal effects, but linking work activities to the ideal self may be very motivating.

Consistent with the distinction between personal identity and social identity, work motivation may also be internally or externally based. Work motivation is internally based when a personal WSC is activated by cues in the work environment. In this situation, the employee may set internal standards that become the basis of the possible self. Furthermore, the individual may tend to use fixed rather than ordinal standards of self-measurement as he or she attempts to first reinforce perceptions of competency and later achieve higher levels of competency. Employees for whom a personal WSC is chronically activated will likely have a high need for achievement and be highly motivated by task feedback. It is important to these individuals that their efforts are vital in achieving work outcomes and their ideas and actions are instrumental in performing a job well.

Work motivation is externally based when a social WSC is activated and the individual is primarily other-directed. In this case, the possible self is derived by adopting the role expectations of the reference group, leading to ordinal standards of self-evaluation. When a social WSC is chronically activated, the individual is motivated to behave in ways that meet the expectations of others and elicit social feedback that is consistent with self-concept perceptions. The individual may behave in ways that satisfy reference group members, first to gain acceptance and, after achieving that, to gain status.

Recent studies show that core self-evaluations, a concept that overlaps to a great extent with self-concept, are predictive of work motivation. Core self-evaluations refer to fundamental assessments that people make about their worthiness, competence, and capabilities. Findings suggest that individuals who choose goals that are concordant with their ideals, interests, and values are happier than those who pursue goals for other (e.g., extrinsic) reasons. Further, self-concordant goals are likely to receive sustained effort over time and be more attainable and more satisfying.

In sum, the theories and findings related to self-concept and work motivation suggest that individuals are motivated to behave in ways that are consistent with their existing self-concepts. Thus, theories based on the assumption that individuals have a fundamental need to maintain or enhance their self-concept may be useful in expanding our understanding of motivated behavior in the workplace.


  1. Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Erez, A., & Locke, E. A. (2005). Core self-evaluations and job and life satisfaction: The role of self-concordance and goal attainment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 257-268.
  2. Leonard, N. H., Beauvais, L. L., & Scholl, R. W. (1999). Work motivation: The incorporation of self-concept-based processes. Human Relations, 52, 969-998.
  3. Lord, R. G., & Brown, D. J. (2004). Leadership processes and follower self-identity. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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