Theories of Motivation – Classical and Modern

Motivation has been a subject of discussion for decades. Many theories of motivation have been put forward by psychologists based on human behaviour, thinking, analytical skills and response to external environment. For organization building focus has been put into creating leaders who can infuse motivation in the team members, and hence, the system. Psychologists researched and structured their studies into various theories of motivation which can help leaders, even today, to apply and create another set of leaders and so on.

Leaders are the vital resource of any organization. Good leaders keep their team happy and motivated making sure that they are creating leaders who will together take the organization to new heights. Motivated and happy team members encourage and support each other, become creative in project management and execution and keep looking for opportunities to induce innovation and improvisation of the system.

Employee motivation plays a significant role in an organization for reasons listed below.

  • Increases productivity – Motivated employees attend to their work passionately to get results. Achievements further motivate to keep moving forward and giving the best. Productivity increases and also the happiness quotient of the employees.
  • Improves organization morale – Employee motivation helps to accomplish challenges and increase the confidence amongst them. This confidence is contagious and quickly spreads in the entire organization boosting the morale.
  • Reduces absenteeism – Committed and confident employees tend to attend to work regularly and complete their tasks faster to take on more responsibilities.
  • Increases creativity – Motivated employees work with their own share of freedom and passion, hence tend to be more creative in their approach to problem-solving and making decisions.
  • Builds organization culture – Motivation brings in passion, commitment, morale, and creativity, all these factors lead to building strong bonds in the team. Positively motivated team members happily support each other instead of trying to pull the other down, which in turn keeps office politics away and builds a productive work environment and culture.

Employee motivation is important as it brings in benefits that help in the achievement of organizational goals (monetary and non-monetary). Considering the importance of motivated employees and the impact they have on the organization many scholars have developed theories that define the nature of employee and the factors that affect employee motivation.

Theories of motivation can be categorized as Classical Theories of Motivation and Modern Theories of Motivation.

Classical Theories of Motivation were developed during 1950’s, these theories are the building blocks of the theories developed later. Three main theories developed during this phase are,

  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  • Herzberg’s two-factor theory
  • Theory X and theory Y

Modern Theories of Motivation were developed much later, these theories are also called  Contemporary Theories of Motivation. All the theories developed under the modern category of motivation are well supported with evidence. Few modern theories of motivation are,

  • ERG theory (modern categorization of Maslow’s needs by Clayton Alderfer)
  • McClelland’s theory of needs
  • Goal Setting theory

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow proposed the Hierarchy of Needs theory. This theory depicts the human motivation, and is based on the basic five needs of the individual.

  1. Physiological Needs – Needs of the basic amenities of life such as air, water, food, clothing and shelter.
  2. Safety Needs – Safety and protection from physical, environmental and emotional factors.
  3. Social Needs – Need for love, affection, care and friendship.
  4. Esteem Needs – Needs of internal esteem such as self-respect, confidence, competence, and freedom, and needs of external esteem such as recognition, power, status and admiration.
  5. Self-actualization Needs – Need for growth and self-contentment, need to gain more knowledge and creativity.
Implication of theory
  • Employees should be offered appropriate salaries, equal breaks and opportunities.
  • Employees should be provided with job-security, safety and hygienic work environment.
  • Teamwork should be encouraged and social events should be organized.
  • Appreciation and recognition of efforts of employees should be a mandatory task.

Offer equal opportunities for growth and creativity.

Limitations of theory
  • Not all employees are motivated by same set of needs.
  • Not empirically supported

Not applicable for all situations

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory of Motivation

Herzberg’s two-factor theory proposes that some factors result in satisfaction and some factors prevent dissatisfaction. The factors for the motivation theory are classified into two types – Hygiene Factors and Motivational Factors.

Hygiene Factors are maintenance factors required to prevent dissatisfaction. These factors describe the work environment.  These are the physiological needs of the employee such as Pay, Company policy and administration, fringe benefits, working conditions, status, interpersonal relations, and job security.

Motivational Factors motivate the employee for supreme performance. These factors provide satisfaction and are fundamentally rewarding. The motivation factors include recognition, sense of achievement, growth and promotional opportunities, responsibility, and meaningfulness of work.

Implication of theory
  • Organization should guarantee the adequacy of hygiene factors.
  • Work should be simulating and rewarding.
  • Job enrichment is the focus.
  • Job must utilize the employee’s skills and competency to maximum.
Limitations of theory
  • Overlooks situational variables
  • Stress upon satisfaction and productivity is ignored
  • Uncertain reliability

Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor formulated Theory X and Theory Y. This theory is based on the positive and negative views of individuals in the organization. The negative view is called Theory X and the positive view is called Theory Y.

Assumptions of theory X

  • Employee does not like work and tries to escape.
  • Employee should be persuaded, compelled or warned always.
  • Employee generally dislikes responsibilities.
  • Employee resist change.
  • Employee needs formal directions.

Assumptions of theory Y

  • Employee perceives job as normal and relaxing.
  • Employee uses self-direction and self-control in work.
  • Employee commitment and loyalty to organization is dependent on if the job is rewarding and satisfying.
  • Employee has required skills and capabilities.


Implication of theory
  • Theory X implies employees are reluctant to organizational change.
  • Theory X does not encourage innovation.
  • Theory Y emphasizes on creating an encouraging work environment.
  • Theory Y inspires decentralization of authority, and teamwork.
  • Theory Y emphasises on employee needs and aspirations to be in sync with organizational needs and aspirations

McClelland’s Theory of Needs

David McClelland proposed the McClelland’s theory of needs. According to the theory, human behaviour is derived by three needs.

  • Power – Desire to control or influence the actions of another individual.
  • Achievement – Urge to excel and accomplish by setting standards and in the process, achieve success.
  • Affiliation – Desire to have a social and co-operative relationship in harmony.
Implication of theory
  • Individuals are highly motivated by challenging work.
  • High achievement is directly linked to high performance.
  • Individual motivated by power will perform better.
  • Individuals urge for a friendly environment.

Goal Setting Theory

Edwin Locke proposed Goal setting theory of motivation. According to the theory, specific and challenging goals accompanied by appropriate feedback results in high performance. Clear, specific, and difficult goals draw great motivation than easy, general and vague goals.

Implication of theory
  • Willingness to work is main factor of motivation
  • Specific and clear goals have high motivation
  • Goals should be realistic and interesting
  • Appropriate feedback drives the morale and increases motivation

It is true that every organization formulates its roadmap based on the customer requirements. Customers drive the market and companies have to align with the market needs to be beneficial. The key to success of an organization is assured only when the employees are aligned with the organizational goals and motivated to work happily towards achieving them.

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