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Employee motivation is the level of energy, commitment, and creativity that a company's workers bring to their jobs. Your motivated employees are the ones who roll out of bed almost every morning feeling excited to go to work and take on new challenges.

They look forward to learning new skills, stretching their capabilities, and taking on new responsibilities.

And they’re not just full of energy and enthusiasm - they’re also very beneficial for your business. They’re more productive, leave your company less often, and bring positive energy to the whole team.

That’s why so many businesses have spent time trying to figure out the best ways to motivate employees.

What motivates your employees to perform at their best every day? Many people think the main motivator is just money. And while it’s true - we do all work for money - there’s so much more to employee motivation than compensation.

Knowing what truly motivates your employees can seem like a bit of a mystery. What really makes a difference, and what is just nice to have?

When you know what works, you can make improvements and see a difference in employee motivation levels and your workforce's strength.

6 Employee motivational theories in the workplace

There are various theories and research on employee motivation. We'll discuss some of the important motivational theories in the workplace to explain employee motivation.

1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory of motivation

Psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with this theory in his famous 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation'.

The basis of his theory is that human beings need to have their most basic needs met before they can get the motivation to achieve those higher goals.

His hierarchy has five levels:

  • Physiological – these basic needs, like food, water, sleep, and shelter, have to be met in order for a person to survive.
  • Safety – these needs help people feel safe and include health, freedom, and personal and financial security.
  • Social – these needs are for connections like love, friendships, relationships, and family.
  • Esteem – these needs are to feel good about yourself, confident, appreciated, and recognized.
  • Self-actualization – the top of the pyramid is the need to become your very best self.

This theory makes sense - if you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from and how you’ll afford it, you’re not going to be able to do a lot of top-notch thinking about strategic initiatives.

What does this mean for employee motivation?

Supporting the needs of your employees outside of work is vital. They will not achieve everything they’d like to at work if they’re uncertain about their next paycheck or taken up with basic daily chores.

This is why many companies offer perks like on-site amenities, flexible work schedules, wellness discounts, and more.

Employees are not just workers - they’re human beings with complex needs, and helping them fulfill more of those needs can allow them to shine when they’re at work and thrive outside of it too.

According to Maslow’s theory, in order to understand a person’s motivation at their work, an organization needs to understand the person’s general motivations first. An employee first looks forward to meeting his physiological needs of food, water, and shelter.

When this is met, he moves up the hierarchy to fulfill his safety needs, then to the next, and so on. The highest need in the hierarchy is self-actualization which encourages one to become the best version of themselves.

An employee works his/her way up this hierarchy and upon fulfilling any need level, aspires for the next one. So organizations should identify the position of each employee in the need hierarchy and motivate him/her to reach the next level.

The employee motivation as per this theory can depend upon the type of your industry, the size of the company, the current stage of the company. Eg. A company with largely white-collar employees have different motivational needs compared to a company that has largely blue-collar employees.

2. Hertzberg’s two-factor Theory

Developed by psychologist Frederick Herzberg in the 1950s, the two-factor theory posits that two main factors significantly influence employee engagement and motivation.

Motivator factors are factors that provide employees with positive motivation to do their best at work every day. These positive factors include feeling recognized and appreciated, enjoying their role, and seeing a clear career progression path.

Hygiene factors are the factors that can make employees feel dissatisfied and demotivated when they’re not present. These negative factors can include salaries, benefits, relationships with coworkers and managers, and company policies.

Both of these factors contribute significantly to employee motivation, but they operate independently of each other. You need to work on both factors to really improve employee motivation.

Preventing low motivation means taking care of those hygiene factors, so employees feel well-paid and happy with the people they work with. And raising motivation means promoting those motivator factors like making recognition frequently and meaningful.

3. Self-determination theory of motivation

External factors are certainly important for employee motivation - but it can also be highly helpful and effective to provide the framework for increasing internal motivation as well.

That’s where the Self-Determination Theory comes in.

This theory posits that satisfying the three basic psychological needs of employees helps encourage intrinsic motivation and high-quality performance.

These three basic internal needs are:

  • Relatedness, or the feeling of being cared for and having a strong sense of belonging. This means making people feel heard, valued, and appreciated.
  • Competence, or feeling effective and experiencing growth. Trusting employees to do their jobs well while holding them accountable for achievable goals is a key factor here.
  • Autonomy, or empowering employees to feel like they’re in charge of their own actions, can make their own choices. Avoiding micro-managing and encouraging employees to take initiatives on their own help fill these needs.

This employee motivation theory is all about creating a workplace environment that helps employees be their best selves.

The human need to grow, feel valued, and have confidence in skills is at the heart of this SHRM-approved theory, especially in difficult external times.

4. Expectancy theory of motivation

Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory states that a person’s motivation depends on three factors: expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.

It differentiates between the efforts put by a person, his/her performance, and the final result. Victor Vroom argues that when employees have the liberty to make choices in their work, they mostly choose something which motivates them the most.

People choose how they’ll behave as per the outcome they expect from that behavior - that’s the logic behind the Expectancy Theory. That means, in short, we decide what we’re going to do based on the outcome we expect. Humans are generally pretty rational creatures, and Expectancy Theory agrees with that notion.

According to this theory,

Motivational Force = Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valence
  • Expectancy: What employees expect from their own efforts.
  • Instrumentality: It is about whether the employee’s performance is good enough to achieve the desired result.
  • Valence: which is how much you value the expected reward.

To motivate an employee, there has to be a positive correlation between his effort and performance. An employee’s persona, his/her skills, and the expectations he/she has from his/her own abilities together form a motivating force for the employee. To keep up with and analyze the overall employee performance, consider using various employee time-tracking apps and task management tools.

In the expectancy theory of motivation, Victor Vroom suggests that organizations looking to motivate employees need to ensure that all three factors: Expectancy, Instrumentality, and Valence are positive or high.

All three factors need to be achieved for employee motivation. Even achieving two out of three factors does not motivate employees.

The expectancy theory also states that even if the employer has provided everything to motivate the employee, the employee still may not be completely motivated unless he/she believes that the employer has actually provided what is needed.

What does this all really mean? People are motivated to perform well if they believe there’s a reasonable chance they’ll get a reward that they value.

So if you’re trying to increase employee performance by handing out little ceramic sculptures of frogs as a reward for good work, employees might think they have a good chance of getting that reward - but it’s not really valuable.

On the other hand, if merit raises are highly valued but are rare and stingy at your company, employees will probably not be highly motivated since they don’t see a high likelihood of a decent raise coming soon. Instead, try to set goals for your employees to achieve and then provide rewards for those goals they actually want.

5. Three-dimensional theory of attribution

Human beings are always looking for meaning in everything that happens to us. This is the basis behind the Three-Dimensional Theory of Attribution, which was developed by Bernard Weiner.

It says that people try to determine why we do what we do, and the reasons we try to find in our behavior influence how we act in the future.

For example, an employee who performs poorly in a big presentation might attribute this failure to bad luck, the technology in the room failing, or their own lack of confidence or competence.

This theory boils down to three main characteristics we tend to attribute behaviors to.

  • Do we see the problem as temporary, like a bad night’s sleep? Or is it an ongoing and stable issue, like our own unworthiness?
  • Do we believe the problem was caused by external events, like the presentation computer crashing? Or do we locate the problem internally to a lack of our own intelligence?
  • Were the factors for presenting well within our control or outside of it? Was it a lack of preparation we could have controlled or an internet outage that was outside our control?

When people feel they lack innate strengths and skills, they can tell defeatist stories about themselves that cause them to give up hope for improvement. And that’s a very demotivating feeling.

On the other hand, when employees feel they can control more factors that caused problems and know how to fix them, they’re more likely to make improvements and feel motivated to do better.

6. Nudge theory

Nudge theory credited to American academicians Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein motivates employees to make decisions that are in their broad self-interest.

Organizations can gauge how each of their employees thinks and make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families, and society.

Nudge theory can also be used to explore and understand influences on how people behave, especially looking at negative influences, with a view to getting rid of them. This theory clearly accepts that people have certain attitudes and capabilities and considers it a part of human tendencies.

Organizations cannot force employees to adopt a particular behavior or follow a set of rules. They can only change the employees’ behavior towards a certain something without forcing it on them.

They can simply nudge or influence them toward the right set of decisions. One way of doing this is to give references from other people’s behavior to highlight what is acceptable and desirable.


Employee motivation has been an area of academic research for decades. There are various other theories like Hawthorne Studies by Elton Mayo, Adams’ theory, Lindner’s theory, and Skinner’s theory.

These theories help organizations to understand the motivators for their employees in different ways and settings. Accordingly, companies can devise strategies & implement technologies to keep their employees motivated.

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Kathleen O'Donnell

Kathleen O'Donnell LinkedIn

Kathleen is a freelance writer and employee communications and culture expert, with 6+ years of experience in corporate internal communications.