This article is part of The Ascender, the Highrise platform for articles and resources.

Adam's Equity Theory of Motivation Explained

The Highrise Team
September 15, 2022
Motivated employees high-fiving in an office setting.
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Motivation gets you up in the morning, regardless of how you feel. It is an essential part of our lives, but we all experience it differently. 

As individuals, each person is motivated by different things, and understanding what we are motivated by is an incredible way to improve motivation and inspire others.

The equity theory of motivation is one way to think about motivation, and it can be a helpful tool for individuals looking to understand themselves and others better. Please keep reading to learn more about this influential theory and how it potentially impacts your intrinsic motivation.

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What Is Adam’s Equity Theory of Motivation?

Equity theory states that individuals are motivated by their perception of fairness. In other words, we are motivated when we feel that we are being treated fairly compared to others. Our motivation decreases when we don’t feel like our jobs treat us fairly.

John Stacey Adams

John Stacey Adams developed his theory back in the 1960s. Adams worked as a workplace behavioral psychologist, and many consider him to be one of the most influential psychologists of his time.

When our perception of perceived fairness is low, so is our motivation. When our perception of fairness is high, our motivation is also high.

Adam's equity theory suggests that people are motivated to maintain equity between the inputs they put into a situation and the outcomes they receive from it. Inputs are the things we put into our jobs, such as time, energy, and effort. Outputs are the things we get from our position, such as pay, vacation days, and recognition.

The Importance of Fairness

This theory of motivation suggests that employees who feel like they are putting more into their job than they are receiving will be less motivated. On the other hand, employees who feel like they are getting more out of their career than they are putting in will be more motivated.

It’s important to remember that everyone has different standards for what they consider fair. What one person decides is acceptable, another person may not. 

That’s why it’s so important to maintain open communication with the people you work with. Communicating with your coworkers allows you to understand better what they perceive as fair and adjust your behavior accordingly.

How To Use This Theory

The equity theory of motivation can be a helpful tool for individuals looking to improve their intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation – doing something in order to receive a reward or avoid punishment – is fairly common in the workplace. Many businesses implement rewards for their best employees, for example. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is the desire to accomplish something because we enjoy it or think it’s important, not because of external factors.

If you’re looking to increase your intrinsic motivation, it’s essential to ensure that you feel like you are treated with fairness. Adam's equity theory of motivation can help you identify when you feel undervalued or overworked. Once you’ve identified these feelings, you can take steps to address them.

It’s also critical to recall this is just one of many theories of motivation. This postulation focuses on the idea of fairness, but others, like the ERG theory of motivation, focus on different aspects of motivation. They usually complement one another.

Four Employees high-fiving in a meeting room.

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Examples of Equity Theory of Motivation in the Workplace

There are many ways to put this theory into practice in the workplace. Some equity theory examples are:

  • Openly communicate with your boss or supervisor about your workload. If your boss is asking you to do too much, voice your concerns. By doing so, you can mutually agree on what is fair.
  • Keep track of the hours you work. Talk to your boss if you feel you are putting in more hours than your coworkers. Again, open communication is critical.
  • If you’re in a management position, take the time to get to know your employees. Ask them how they’re doing and if there’s anything you can do to help. By building a relationship with your employees, you can better understand their needs and ensure that they feel valued.

These are just a few examples of how to identify equity theory. A good way of applying equity theory is to think about fairness. Speak up if your boss mistreats you. The goal is to maintain equity in the workplace so that everyone feels motivated and valued.

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Why Is the Equity Theory of Motivation Important for Leaders?

This theory is critical for leaders because it can help them create a work environment that is fair and motivating for their employees.

Employees who feel like their jobs treat them fairly are more likely to be intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation is important because it leads to employees who are passionate and engaged in their work.

Leaders who let employees determine what is fair compensation can help reduce equity tension in the workplace. It also promotes a sense of job security.

A great way a leader can implement this motivation theory is to accept flexible working hours (if the company allows for it), consider employee perception, and define equity in the workplace and within the team.

Leaders who create a fair and motivating work environment are likelier to have invested employees who care about the organization’s success. Invested employees, in turn, lead to a more prosperous and productive organization and are more likely to stay in the same organization.

Adams' equity theory is just one tool leaders can use to create a fair and motivating work environment. However, it’s a vital tool because it helps leaders understand the importance of fairness in the workplace. It is often a topic of executive coaching for leadership development, which approaches leadership training with a focus on self-awareness.

Two executives working together in an office setting.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Equity Theory of Motivation

Although this theory of motivation may seem like a beautiful concept, it does have its advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of Equity Theory:

  • It helps individuals assess if their bosses treat them fairly 
  • Encourages individuals to communicate openly about their workload
  • Builds relationships between employees and managers

Disadvantages of Equity Theory:

  • It can be time-consuming for leaders to build relationships with each employee
  • It may lead to conflict if employees have different concepts of fairness and do not agree with each other

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Criticism of Equity Theory of Motivation

John Adams is not the only workplace behavioral psychologist who studied workplace motivation. Although many respect his work and the workplace equity theory of motivation, it is not perfect.

Motivations Other than Fairness

One of the main criticisms of this theory of employee motivation is that it doesn’t account for different types of motivation. For example, some people may be motivated by more than just fairness. They may also be motivated by recognition or a sense of accomplishment.

Another criticism of this theory is that it doesn’t always lead to the most productive work environment. For example, if employees are constantly focused on whether or not they are being treated fairly, they may spend less time working.

One of the other significant criticisms is that it assumes that people are rational beings, which may not always be the case. People are often driven by emotions, leading them to make decisions that are not always rational.

Despite these criticisms, this theory is still widely accepted. It can be useful for leaders and managers who want to create a just and motivating work environment.

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Final Words

Overall, the equity theory of motivation is helpful for leaders and employees. It can help individuals assess whether or not they are being treated fairly and encourages communication about workloads. Although it has its criticisms, this theory of motivation is still widely accepted.

By understanding the theory, individuals can assess if they are being treated with fairness and take steps to address any concerns. Adams' theory of motivation can help create a fair and motivating work environment for all.

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