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The Power of Motivation: Understanding What Drives Employee Behaviour

What is motivation theory? What makes people tick? This is the question that underpins motivation theory. Discovering what motivates people is an important factor in helping them achieve their potential ...

The Power of Motivation: Understanding What Drives Employee Behaviour

What is motivation theory?

What makes people tick?

This is the question that underpins motivation theory. Discovering what motivates people is an important factor in helping them achieve their potential and optimise productivity.

Motivation theory can come into play in many different scenarios, including the workplace. In a business context, motivation theory relates to understanding how to get the best out of people so they can perform their job for the optimal outcome.

Motivated employees consistently deliver positive results and are less likely to leave the organization.

Disengagement is the enemy of motivation. If you’ve ever worked for an organisation where you felt disconnected from your role and uninspired by the company’s mission, then you’ll know just how hard it can be to get motivated and perform at your best. This is why understanding the hows and whys behind motivation theory is so important.

Why is motivation theory important in the workplace?

Identifying why people do what they do – what makes them want to work towards a certain goal – contributes to boosting employee engagement, positively influencing company culture and decreasing employee churn. Understanding motivation theory in the workplace benefits everyone. Team members feel heard and enjoy coming in to work each day; while the business gains a productive, cohesive team of people who are engaged in their roles.

But determining what drives employees can sometimes be a challenge. For HR professionals and leaders, understanding employees’ motivations is the first step toward creating a productive and positive work environment.

motivation theory

Key motivation theories in the workplace

There are many different types of motivation theories out there that have been formed over the years. These represent a selection of the most prevalent motivation theories applied in the workplace.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow’s theory states that there are five categories of human needs that dictate behaviour. They are:

  1. Self-actualisation – the desire to become the best version of oneself.
  2. Esteem needs – self-respect, recognition, accomplishment.
  3. Love and belonging needs – friendships and other relationships, community, a sense of connection and belonging, intimacy.
  4. Safety needs – stable employment, financial security, health and wellbeing.
  5. Physiological needs – the basic needs of every human, including food, water, shelter, clothing and sleep.

Maslow’s motivation theory is that all people are motivated to achieve these needs. Imagine these needs in a pyramid, with number one at the top and number five at the bottom. Maslow’s theory suggests that a person can only begin to address the needs at the top of the pyramid when the needs at the bottom have been met.

In a business sense, when an employee’s basic needs are met (a safe work environment with a good company culture where they feel like they are part of the company’s larger vision) they can move on to meeting their higher needs (achieving goals, receiving recognition and rewards, and being encouraged to take on projects that challenge them and encourage them to think more creatively).

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Frederick Herzberg’s motivation theory posits that two factors influence job dissatisfaction and job satisfaction: hygiene and motivation. In this context, hygiene serves a similar purpose as it does in our everyday lives: it minimizes the threat of health risks posed by viruses and bacteria. In the workplace, good hygiene limits the risk of an employee feeling dissatisfied and perhaps even quitting their job.

Hygiene factors include:

  • Salary
  • Culture
  • Working conditions
  • Relationships at work

Motivation factors include:

  • Advancement and promotions
  • Recognition
  • Responsibility
  • The employee’s connection to the work itself

Two-factor theory states that hygiene factors prevent job dissatisfaction; while motivation factors increase job satisfaction.

Expectancy Theory

Expectancy theory focuses on the desired outcome. People seek rewards for motivation and actively strive to obtain them based on their perceived value.

Expectancy theory asserts that organisations need to directly relate performance and productivity with rewards. The rewards should be in direct proportion to the task and the outcome, and they should actually be valuable to the recipient. For example, only those who follow football will see tickets to an upcoming NRL match as valuable.

Self-Determination Theory

Do you see yourself as a self-determined person? This theory is all about an individual’s ability to make choices that directly impact their life. Self-determination influences your sense of control over your life and shapes your self-perception.

Self-determination theory has three assumptions about people: 

  1. Autonomy – People need to feel independent and in control of their actions and goals.
  2. Competence – People need to know that they have the skills and knowledge to succeed.
  3. Connection – People need to feel a sense of belonging to a group.

Essentially, this motivation theory posits that when people have all three of these things they become self-determined; and self-determined people are more likely to want to achieve their goals. Therefore, if a self-determined employee is working towards achieving a goal of the business that also aligns with their own goals, this makes them feel more responsible and in control of the outcome. Team members who feel that they can have a genuinely positive impact at work are typically happier, more engaged and more motivated.

Which motivation theory is right for my business?

At the end of the day, which motivation theory you choose to follow will depend on the business and its employees. There might not be a single motivation theory that fits perfectly, but individuals may combine two or more theories to better explain their motivations. What is most important is that the theory fits the organisation, and that it provides the best outcome for staff to thrive.

There are many ways to understand what motivates employees in your organization. For example, ELMO Survey helps you collect, manage, analyse and compare useful data that can provide valuable, actionable insights. This will help you understand the thoughts, motivations, and needs of your employees.

Visit the ELMO Survey product page to find out more.

ELMO Software is a leading provider of integrated, cloud-based HR technology operating in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. With over 3,000 customers, ELMO helps users to save valuable time, money, and resources by streamlining HR processes within one easy-to-use platform.

Highly configurable, the solutions can be tailored to meet each organisation’s unique needs and processes. What’s more, supportive implementation services and dedicated Account Managers help our clients to get the most from their ELMO platform and drive a higher return on investment. Visit the ELMO website to find out more or book a demo to experience the platform for yourself.