Motivational Theories In The Workplace To Improve Productivity

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If you’re looking to improve productivity in the workplace, you might already be using or considering performance review software to support your efforts. However, while tracking employee performance is a useful metric, you can’t encourage long-term improvements without applying a strategic approach. 

Motivation theory can help you to better understand what makes employees tick and what encourages them to work. Each person is unique, and their motivations vary, so learning more about the different factors that drive people will give you a solid foundation to build an effective improvement strategy. 

In this article, we’re going to explain what motivation theory is, before looking at how to apply these concepts to the workplace to boost productivity. 

What is motivation theory?

Motivational theories are about understanding why people act the way they do at work. It explores different factors that influence how people behave at work, such as personal satisfaction or physical rewards, and what encourages them to achieve goals in their job. 

Understanding motivation theory helps businesses to improve productivity. When employees feel motivated, they’re happier in their jobs and put more effort into their tasks. Using these theories effectively allows businesses to create environments that boost performance, creativity, and overall success. 

Intrinsic vs extrinsic factors

There are two main factors of motivational theories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic factors refer to motivations that come from within an individual. These include personal satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, enjoyment of the task itself, or the desire to learn and grow. Extrinsic factors, on the other hand, are motivations that come from outside sources. These can include tangible rewards such as salary, bonuses, promotions, or other forms of recognition. 

Top 5 Motivational Theories in business

As each employee is different, with their own strengths, weaknesses, goals and needs, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to motivating workers. For the best results, businesses need to combine different motivational theories to nurture employee enthusiasm and productivity. 

Let’s look at some of the top motivational theories and how you can apply them in the workplace. 

1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory that suggests people have different levels of needs that must be met in a specific order. At the bottom are basic needs like food, water, shelter and safety. These are followed by psychological needs such as social connections and a feeling of accomplishment. At the top are self-fulfilment needs, where people strive for personal growth, creativity and meeting their potential. 

According to Maslow, each level builds on the one below, and people move up the hierarchy as lower needs are met. This means that, before your employees will work on meeting the needs that will lead them to excel in the workplace, you need to make sure that their basic and psychological needs are met. While basic needs may be met by salary and healthcare benefits, psychological needs are less commonly met by employers. Focusing on these will help to better support your employees and give you an edge over competitors. 

2. Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory

Herzberg’s two-factor theory, also known as Herzberg's motivation-hygiene theory, suggests that there are two sets of factors that influence job satisfaction: motivators and hygiene factors. Motivators, as the name suggests, are those that lead to job satisfaction. They’re directly related to the job itself and include things like challenging work, responsibility, and development opportunities. Hygiene factors are those that aren’t necessarily related to the work itself but are essential for a person to feel content in their role. This includes things like salary, interpersonal relationships, and working conditions. 

The theory states that the two sets of factors are independent of each other, so if hygiene factors improve, this doesn’t necessarily mean that motivation will increase. Likewise, improving motivators might not lead to increased contentment in the workplace. It’s therefore important to focus on both sets of factors for the most effective approach to boosting productivity. 

3. McClelland's Needs Theory 

McClelland’s need theory, also known as the three needs theory, states that every person has the need for achievement, affiliation and power, regardless of their age, sex, race or culture. While all three needs are believed to be present in everyone, the dominance of one or more types of motivation comes from their life experiences. 

Employees with a need for achievement tend to enjoy tasks where results are directly proportional to their efforts. They’re motivated by accomplishments in the workplace, such as climbing the employment ladder. Employees with a need for affiliation enjoy being part of a group and feeling accepted. They’re motivated by collaboration and roles that require high levels of interaction. Employees with a need for power tend to be very disciplined and enjoy recognition. They’re motivated by competition, influencing others, and increasing their personal status. 

4. Taylor’s motivation theory (Scientific Management)

Taylor’s management theory focuses on improving efficiency and productivity in the workplace through scientific methods. The core principle is breaking down work into specific tasks and standardising methods of performance to maximise productivity. It also focuses on the idea of  financial incentives as a motivator for workers, and a belief that monetary rewards encourage workers to increase their output. 

By aligning rewards directly with productivity and output, the theory suggests that employees should be motivated to work more efficiently and effectively. However, critics argue that this approach can lead to overemphasis on individual performance and neglect other important aspects of employee motivation, such as job satisfaction and personal development. 

5. Mayo’s Theory of Management 

Mayo’s theory of management focuses on the social and psychological aspects of work and management. One of the key principles is the idea that social interactions and relationships at work significantly influence employee motivation and productivity. 

This theory emphasises the importance of creating a supportive and positive work environment where employees feel valued and respected. By focusing on the role of social factors in influencing employee behaviour, such as team dynamics, leadership style, and organisational culture, organisations can significantly impact employee motivation and job satisfaction. 

Examples of Motivational Theories in Business

There are many different ways that businesses can use some or all of these theories to create a more motivating work environment and boost productivity. Remember, it’s important to combine multiple approaches to meet the needs and preferences of different employees. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the workplace 

While each individual has their own specific needs and preferences, Maslow’s hierarchy covers broad categories that can be applied on a larger scale to support the wider workforce. To apply this theory, you first need to consider which elements of employees’ roles and the overall working environment that would fit into the basic, psychological and self-fulfilment needs. 

Meeting employees’ basic needs could mean offering bonuses and a fair salary, or implementing private healthcare and mental health programs. Meeting their psychological needs could involve providing opportunities for social interaction and teamwork, or suitably recognising achievements. To meet self-fulfilment needs, ensure that there are ample opportunities for personal and professional development, as well as a culture that encourages creativity and innovation. 

Herzberg’s two-factor theory in the workplace 

Remember that the two sets of factors operate independently, so improving one won’t necessarily improve the other. However, by identifying and addressing weaknesses in both motivation and hygiene factors, you can create a more fulfilling workplace that boosts employee satisfaction and productivity. 

Supporting motivational factors could mean giving employees a sense of autonomy and purpose in their roles, and offering a variety of personal and professional development opportunities. For hygiene factors, you might look to increase wages, offer permanent contracts to temporary members of staff, or engage in team-building activities to strengthen interpersonal relationships. 

McClelland’s need theory in the workplace

For each individual, it’s important to identify the primary motivator from McClelland’s three needs: achievement, affiliation or power. Remember that there could be a mix of these motivators at play, although one is often more dominant. 

To motivate employees with a need for achievement, ensure that they’re always kept busy with new, challenging tasks rather than stagnating on long-term projects. For those motivated by affiliation, make sure they have plenty of opportunities to work with others and build meaningful relationships. For power-motivated employees, give them the opportunity to lead others and delegate responsibility to their colleagues. 

Taylor’s scientific management theory in the workplace

More so than any of the other motivational theories we’ve looked at in this article, Taylor’s theory needs to be supported by other approaches to ensure that broader aspects of employee motivation aren’t neglected. However, financial incentives can successfully complement wider engagement and satisfaction incentives when applied strategically. 

Implementing this theory could involve creating compensation structures that directly link pay to individual productivity, motivating employees to increase their performance levels to earn higher financial rewards. This could be a piece-rate payment system, where workers receive payment based on the quantity of work they produce, or a bonus paid for early completion of a project. 

Mayo’s theory of management in the workplace

Fostering strong interpersonal relationships and promoting a positive work culture are key to supporting productivity in the application of this theory. Organisations can encourage teamwork, open communication, and a collaborative approach decision-making to create a supportive environment for employees. 

As well as peer-to-peer relationships, it’s important to focus on the relationships that managers and leaders have with the rest of the workforce. Those in a leadership position should demonstrate empathy, respect and appreciation towards employees to enhance motivation and engagement. This could include promoting a culture of accountability where the same rules apply to all individuals, regardless of seniority, and ensuring that each employee is adequately recognised for their contributions. 

Pros of Motivation Theories in the workplace

Motivational theories offer valuable insights into employee behaviour, providing a framework for understanding what drives individuals that businesses can use to enhance productivity. Let’s look at some of the key benefits of applying motivational theories in the workplace. 

Helps to understand employee needs 

Motivation theories help managers understand the diverse needs and motivations of their employees. By recognising that individuals are motivated by different factors, such as recognition, growth opportunities or social connections, employers can better meet these needs. This understanding fosters a more empathetic and supportive work environment that provides more benefits than just increased productivity. 

Supports targeted HR strategies 

Motivation theories enable organisations to develop targeted HR strategies to enhance employee engagement and performance. By applying specific motivational techniques, such as goal-setting, job enrichment or performance-based rewards, managers can create initiatives that resonate with employees’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. 

Improves employee performance

Implementing motivation theories helps to improve performance and productivity among employees. When individuals are motivated and engaged in their work, they’re more likely to exert effort and strive towards achieving organisational goals. This ultimately contributes to higher levels of performance and overall success for the business. 

Reduces employee turnover

Understanding and addressing employee motivations can help reduce turnover rates within organisations. By fulfilling employees’ needs and providing opportunities for growth and development, organisations can increase job satisfaction and loyalty, leading to reduced turnover and retention of valuable talent. This allows employers to avoid unnecessary recruitment and training costs, increasing profitability. 

Cons of motivational theories in the workplace

While motivational theories offer many valuable insights, they also have limitations that must be considered when applying them in practice. Let’s look at some of the key considerations of applying motivational theories in the workplace. 

Requires a personalised approach

One challenge of motivation theories is that they may not account for individual differences and unique circumstances. What motivates one employee may not necessarily motivate another, so it’s important to use a tailored, flexible approach for each person. While this can be complex and time consuming, a strategic initiative will generate better long-term results. 

Oversimplifies human behaviour

Motivation theories often simplify complex human behaviours into distinct categories or frameworks. However, humans are multifaceted and influenced by various internal and external factors. Relying too much on simplistic models could therefore cause employers to miss important factors that support their workers. 

Poses the potential for manipulation

Some critics argue that motivation theories can be used to manipulate employees by focusing solely on external rewards or incentives. This can lead to a transactional approach to motivation, where employees feel like they are being controlled rather than genuinely motivated. While you might see a boost in productivity in the short term, this type of approach won’t help to create a positive working environment where employees can thrive. 

Doesn’t address the dynamic nature of motivation

Employee motivations can change over time based on individual circumstances and experiences. Motivation theories may struggle to account for this dynamic nature, requiring continuous adaptation and refinement of motivational strategies to remain effective in the long term. 

Motivational Theories in the workplace: Are they worth it?

Understanding different motivational theories can help businesses to develop tailored strategies that address the individual needs and aspirations of employees. By applying insights from these theories, employers can create more effective approaches to motivate their teams and increase productivity. 

However, there are several key considerations when applying motivational theories in business, and it’s important not to rely too heavily on a single approach. It’s important not to stick rigidly to a single approach, and to regularly check in with your employees to assess their needs and motivations as they develop. 

Performance reviews provide an ideal opportunity to discuss each individual’s needs and specific motivators. Managers can then use this information to outline a tailored approach to keep employees engaged and boost productivity. 

The easiest way to benchmark and monitor employee performance is by using performance management software. With tools that make it easy to set goals, provide and review 360-degree feedback and convenient performance review templates to ensure a consistent approach, HR professionals can better manage performance strategies on an individual level. 

To find out more about our performance management software, book a demo or get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to answer any questions. 

Sheldon Walker
By Sheldon Walker New Business Sales Representative

Sheldon is a New Business Sales professional with Access PeopleHR. He is dedicated to helping SMBs thrive in today's competitive landscape. With over 5 years of experience in SAAS and HR software products, he has provided numerous clients with the tools to make their life easier. Sheldon's passions lie in helping clients achieve their goals and giving them the freedom to do more.