Raising Performance through Motivation Part One: Content Theories

What is it that motivates us? Ask many employees this question and the most frequent reply is "money". But how effective is money as a motivator? Probably not as much as most managers would like to believe.

The fact is, motivating people at work is a very complex issue and, to really be able to use motivation techniques effectively, managers need to understand the principles behind some of the leading theories in this area.

Motivation is not a 'one-size-fits-all' topic and often the role of personality differences and in particular thinking style, is often overlooked.

Maslow's theory may be very popular on management workshops, but it probably isn't going to help very much with the practical problem of motivating someone who's not performing very well. The ability to select an appropriate framework for analysing and correcting a motivational problem is a key skill for managers in today's business environment.

So, what is happening in the world of motivation? In essence, theories are divided into content theories (what motivates people?), process theories (how are people motivated?) and personality theories (who is motivated?).

Content theories of motivation

Maslow is still generally the number one name on courses dealing with motivation despite the fact his theory is now quite old and not particularly well supported by empirical research. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs theory was developed as a general theory of motivation and not specifically intended for use in the work setting. He suggested five levels of need:

  1. Physiological: biological needs such as food and drink
  2. Safety/security: a secure and non-threatening environment
  3. Belongingness: social needs, a sense of attachment and affiliation
  4. Esteem: both self-esteem and esteem from others
  5. Self-actualisation: the need for self-fulfilment, achieving potential.

Maslow purported once a level of need had been satisfied, it no longer acted as a motivator and the next level of need had to be brought into play in order to motivate the individual.


The highest level of need, self-actualisation, is what we all strive for, according to Maslow, although he also believed that few of us actually achieve this. The theory is still popular because it makes intuitive sense and it is easy to understand; yet it's been shown to have several flaws and doesn't offer any practical suggestions to help managers motivate their staff.

Herzberg's Two Factor Theory

Pay increases, commission structures, bonus payments and so on are the standard enticements for improving performance.

Money is what we all (and particularly sales people) relate to. Right? Well, partly. Herzberg found money doesn't actually work as well as we would like it to.

His research, distilled into what is known as the 'Two-factor Theory of Motivation', found that salary, working environment and work relationships had to be at a particular level (different for each individual), in order to prevent a person from being dissatisfied with work.

He called these concepts 'hygiene factors' - once they're at an acceptable level, increasing them won't improve motivation. This requires attention to the job itself. Herzberg found that making jobs more challenging helps motivate individuals - the critical factors - the motivators - are achievement, recognition, praise and responsibility.

Again, there have been flaws identified in Herzberg's theory, but it does raise two useful points. Firstly, improving pay and conditions may not have much effect, other than in the very short term. It can depend on whether a person feels they are fairly rewarded, or not.

Secondly, the psychological factors need much more attention. Does the job challenge an individual's skills and abilities? How much variety does it have? Does the manager recognise and praise the person's achievements?

The answer might be more challenges

Interestingly, later research into job redesign and goal setting theory has shown the value of incorporating more challenge and responsibility into jobs, with subsequent improvements in motivation and performance. Of course, such changes have to be made in consultation with staff, rather than imposed from above, in order to be effective.

So, Herzberg's theory, although not the complete answer, does give food for thought. In particular, it does suggest that focusing on the money principle should not be the automatic choice for managers. There may be more important issues.

These issues are developed in the more recent process theories of motivation, which look at how people interpret what is happening to them and how they decide whether to increase their efforts.

Next month I'll be exploring these process theories and showing why they often have more potential for analysing motivation problems.