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Theories of Motivation: Content & Process Theories

The Highrise Team
September 15, 2022
Executives sitting in a meeting room.
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Motivation remains a crucial aspect of job performance. If employees don't feel motivated, they'll fall behind on their work. But it also plays an important role in understanding your own needs as a worker, setting goals, and working towards them.

By understanding motivation theories, employees can grow as people and get job-transferable skills that will motivate them throughout their careers. 

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What Are Theories of Motivation?

Theories of motivation are methods that are widely utilized in the organizational behavior field. They encourage people to work towards a goal and increase job satisfaction. Sometimes, managers or Human Resources within business organizations will implement them at the workplace, but employees can also apply them themselves, both at work and in almost every area of life.

These theories don’t work alone and compound with each other. 

Motivation plays a role in improving performance at your job. These theories analyze why this happens and propose ways in which people can apply them to increase motivation and self-determination.

These theories can be further broken down into two major categories: process theory and content theory. Content theory refers to what a person needs in their life (their content), and these are often called need-based theories. Process theory relates to a person's behaviors and psychological processes.

Executives talking about motivation in an office.

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Content Theories of Motivation

The content theory identifies a person's needs and maps the ideal way to fulfill that need to drive or motivate a person toward a goal. These six theories of motivation can be categorized as follows.  

1. McGregor's Theories of Motivation X & Y 

The Theory X and Theory Y model is a motivation theory made of two parts developed by Douglas McGregor that offer two very different management styles for more successful people management. 

Theory X is authoritarian, authoritative leadership. It suggests that people must be made to work. 

On the other hand, Theory Y is a more relaxed and people-oriented theory that states that people will do their best when given an environment they can thrive in. Instead of tight control, McGregor's theory of motivation encourages employees to fulfill needs to promote meeting goals.   

2. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs 

Behind Maslow's theory of motivation is a hierarchy of needs pyramid that starts with the immediate physiological needs such as shelter, food, and water at the base. If you fulfill those needs to a moderate degree, fulfilling higher needs like love, safety and security, and self-fulfillment will be easier. 

In a work situation with Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory, management assumes people should handle things independently. Still, they can contribute to lower levels of the needs pyramids of their employees by providing pay and safety. Then, employees will be able to focus on their self-actualization needs, which relate to personal and professional development, in this context.

3. Alderfer's ERG Theory of Motivation

Clayton Alderfer created ERG theory to update Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory. He took Maslow’s categories and redefined and organized needs into three ways for motivating employees: 

  • Existence
  • Related
  • Growth

Existence includes all the needs related to existing, including shelter, food, water, and safety needs like job security, benefits, and the need to be paid for work. 

Related concerns were developing relationships with others. Alderfer believed workers prioritized friendships and also wanted to be identified within groups.

Finally, growth relates to self-actualization in the Maslow hierarchy. A person wants to become more and grow their life beyond what others believe they are capable of.

4. Herzberg's Motivation-Hygiene theory (Two-factor theory) 

Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are the foundation of Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene theory. 

Intrinsic motivation refers to the factors that influence someone while doing a job. As a means to help you feel intrinsically motivated, executive coaching and leadership coaching can allow for a reward or recognition when a task is finished successfully. 

Extrinsic motivation or hygiene factors are the conditions of job completion, including the working environment, and relationships with supervisors or other employees. 

When the two sets of motivational factors, the worker will be more productive as the motivation to do the job and the hygiene of the environment support a positive working environment. 

5. McClelland's Theory of Need 

Also known as the Three Needs Theory, this process theory states that a person’s needs fall into one of three categories, which determines their motivating factors. 

  • Achievement - The need to achieve something, even if you struggle. This pushes you to do better. People with this need are often self-motivated.

  • Affiliation - The need to work within a hierarchy. They seek social interaction and team building. They are often in customer service roles.

  • Power - These are the people who aspire to or exist in leadership roles. Power needs individuals don’t like to lose and can be motivated by the chance to gain more authority and power.

6. Self-determination Theory 

This content theory involves being self-aware of your psychological needs and tackling them. There are three universal psychological needs: competence, connection, and autonomy. They direct human behavior, and when you understand them and work towards their satisfaction, you will be motivated to do your best. 

Competence relates to internal motivation and the need to gain new skills and grow as a person. Connection means there must be a feeling of belonging, and autonomy means you can still exist as your own person, controlling your own actions.

Two executives working in an office.

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Process Theories of Motivation

While content theories matter, process theories focus on reaching personal achievements and being motivated to grow and develop your potential. Try the four process theories of motivation below to apply motivation and self-determination to your work life.

1. The Reinforcement Theory

When a person experiences a positive reaction to one of their actions, they are likely to repeat that action in the future. It can be as small as a friendly smile of encouragement from a coworker or recognition from management.

When an employee practices reinforcement and encourages it within their team, it can lead to improved self-esteem and morale in the whole group. Everyone likes recognition and praise for a job well done. This content theory simply brings that idea down to a smaller level. 

2. The Goal-Setting Theory

Specific and attainable goals that are also a little challenging can motivate employees to grow. This theory accompanies the acronym SMART to define how employees should outline goals. 

  • Specific - Define the goal
  • Measurable - Be accountable for each step of the process
  • Achievable - Can be achieved in the set amount of time
  • Relevant - Relates to the job 
  • Timely - Includes one or more deadlines

Using these parameters helps to anchor workers in a task so they can see it through to completion.

3. Expectancy Theory

Expectancy theory states that the person attempting to reach the goal will be less motivated to try if they deem it impossible or without rewarding consequences. 

This theory uses the relationship between effort and outcome to state that no matter how motivated human beings are, they will put in less effort if they feel the outcome is unattainable. 

The theory shows a correlation between the amount of effort put forward and the desirability of the reward at the end. If expectations are met or exceeded, they will put out more effort.

4. Equity Theory

The equity theory of motivation expresses how people need progress to receive motivation. If employees compare and feel like their environment is at a disadvantage in relation to others, they don't have as much incentive to work. 

The equity theory expresses that if a manager offers financial rewards, intrinsic motivators, extrinsic rewards, or intrinsic rewards, they need to offer them to everyone. 

When you use an incentive theory to motivate yourself, ensure that you receive positive reinforcement when you reach a personal achievement that you consider important. Be consistent so that you keep up your motivation and enjoy a competitive advantage. Unlike negative reinforcement, incentive theories will help you stay aware of your progress.

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Why Are Theories of Human Motivation Important?

Many theories, like the two-factor theory, or Alderfer's ERG theory, can encourage better human performance while raising self-esteem and ensuring employees feel wanted in their job. Applying a motivation theory in management based on McGregor or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs means that all aspects of life are addressed, not just ones tied to increasing revenue, to enhance an individual's motivation.

Employees want a reason to work and practice self-improvement. Goals that provide an adequate challenge for their working style offer a richer environment to spend their day. Instead of fearing punishing consequences, employees can enhance intrinsic motivation and feel more confident in their jobs.

Knowing these theories of employee motivation can also offer the employee insight into their own working style, which they can carry with them throughout their career. Realizing they work best with appropriate organizational support or by setting goals is good knowledge, no matter where they work. 

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How Are Motivation Theories Used?

Motivation theories are tools that aid people in understanding themselves, setting goals, and working to meet those goals. For employees, this statement means that motivational theories can allow them to effectively manage their tasks, achieve a healthy work-life balance and grow professionally.

In other words, motivation theories can make you happy while giving you a reason to work. 

Process theories help with human needs and job satisfaction rather than numbers, and content theories shape the environment and practical tools you may need to use, and they reinforce the other theories.

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In Conclusion

Human motivation matters if you want to unleash your full potential and truly succeed in what you do. Try looking through the motivation strategies and applying suitable methods to your life and your workplace.

Make sure you apply both content and process theories to maximize your efforts. You’ll start seeing the results as soon as you focus on them and begin utilizing them.

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