Two-Factor Theory

Before the mid- to late 1950s, it always made sense to most people who thought about it that the opposite of employee job satisfaction was job dissatisfaction and that the opposite of job dissatisfaction was job satisfaction. The more a person had one of these on the job, the less he or she had of the other—they were opposite concepts, experiences at two extremes of a common continuum.

Then, in 1957, Frederick Herzberg, a psychiatrist from Pittsburgh, and his colleagues did a thorough review of the literature of job attitudes and came forth with a new hypothesis that they tested later in an empirical study of 200 engineers and accountants, asking them to recall events that made them especially happy or unhappy about their jobs. Herzberg, Bernard Mausner, and Barbara Bloch Snyderman published a book, based on those findings, that revolutionized thinking about employee attitudes and, subsequently, considerable management policy and practice. Herzberg and his colleagues proposed that job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction were not the opposite ends of a single continuum; rather, they claimed that that they are orthogonal constructs, each caused by different antecedent conditions and resulting in different consequences. Job content factors, the motivators (so called because the results indicated that people performed better after events involving these factors), were necessary to make people happy at their jobs, but not sufficient. On the other hand, the hygienes— which were elements of the job context, such as employer policies, work relationships, and working conditions—had to be in place to prevent job dissatisfaction but, by themselves, could not create job satisfaction, and, consequently, work motivation.

Tremendous controversy ensued among academics during the 1960s and early 1970s, mostly because of the empirical methods employed. It was alleged that the results of the research, and therefore the major tenets of the theory, were artifacts of the critical incident technique employed in the research. Tests of the theory, using other research methods, frequently failed to support the two-factor, orthogonal conclusion of the new model. The basic thrust of these criticisms, predicated on attribution theory, was that, naturally, people would attribute “felt-good” experiences to events during which theyhad a role, whereas events that had caused dissatisfaction had to have been caused by external factors.

In addition, there had been considerable overlap between the hygienes and the motivators in felt-good and felt-bad stories. In fairness, these overlaps were noted in the 1959 book in which Herzberg and colleagues reported their findings. For example, failure to receive recognition for good work (recognition being categorized as a motivator) was the principal cause of 18% of the felt-bad episodes. There was similar (although not as strong) association reported between instances of job dissatisfaction and two other motivators—work itself and advancement. Therefore, the empirical distinctions between the two categories of work factors and instances of job satisfaction/dissatisfaction were neither total nor definitive.

Just the same, both scientific and popular interpretations of the theory tended to overlook the overlaps and the acknowledgment by Herzberg and his colleagues of the existence of the overlaps. As is so often the case in the histories of theories of work motivation, caveats, exceptions, boundary conditions, and exceptions to the rule are overlooked as science carries on and practical applications are produced and sold to consumers, as noted by C. C. Pinder both in 1988 and in a forthcoming publication. Pinder wrote in 1977 that the commercial desire for a new, innovative model propelled the two-factor theory into classrooms and boardrooms for many years, caveats notwithstanding. It is one of the most known and recognized theories of management today, as noted by G. P. Latham and Pinder in 2005 and by J. B. Miner in 2003.

The theory has proven invaluable in the evolution of thought on work motivation theory, despite the controversies. Subsequent models of job design and redesign (e.g., by J. R. Hackman and G. R. Oldham in 1980) featured many of the major parameters of Herzberg’s motivators in how to make jobs satisfying and, indeed, motivating. Designing jobs that provide the possibility of achievement gratifications is known to be wise. Providing recognition for work well done is an age-old bromide that still pays dividends for both the achiever and those who care to watch or supervise. Providing responsibility is the essence of empowerment, a concept that was named years after Herzberg’s work but that is in vogue today. Self-determination theory, as noted by Marilye Gagne and Edward Deci in 2005, owes some of its origins to the early work.

So much for the things that motivate people. What about the two-factor theory’s hygiene factors? Intelligent management these days knows that it must provide company policies to meet people’s fundamental needs, else they lose good people. Indeed, failure to provide certain contextual factors in the workplace is a mistake; they may not motivate people, but they can build commitment and staying power. The list of company-sponsored provisions (such as day care for employees’ children, gyms, time-sharing arrangements, flextime, profit sharing, sabbaticals, and employee assistance packages) affirm the wisdom of the Herzberg model, at least in part. Whether these provisions attract, retain, and motivate employees is more important than the nuances of the scientific battles that occurred during the years following the release of the Herzberg model. For all its scientific shortcomings, the two-factor theory provided the edge of a wedge to new thinking and practice in Western management.


  1. Gagne, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331-362.
  2. Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1980). Work design. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., Peterson, R. O., & Capwell, D. F. (1957). Job attitudes: Review of research and opinion.
  3. Pittsburgh, PA: Psychological Service of Pittsburgh. Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., & Snyderman, B. B. (1959). The motivation to work. New York: Wiley. Latham, G. P., & Pinder, C. C. (2005). Work motivation theory and research at the dawn of the 21st century.
  4. Miner, J. B. (2003). The rated importance, scientific validity, and practical usefulness of organizational behavior theories: A quantitative review. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 2, 250-268.
  5. Pinder, C. C. (1977). Concerning the application of human motivation theories in organizational settings. Academy of Management Review, 2, 384-397.
  6. Pinder, C. C. (1998). Work motivation in organizational behavior. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  7. Pinder, C. C. (in press). Work motivation in organizational behavior (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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