The different motivational theories — and how to apply them in your job

We all have our days where motivation is lacking and tasks feel like an uphill battle. Here, we explore a range of prominent motivational theories to help you get the most out of your day.

In an ideal world, every professional would be carrying out their duties to the fullest, with not a single mistake or missed deadline in sight. Unfortunately, we all have our days when we’re performing at half our potential, where low motivation can make completing tasks feel like we’re pushing a boulder up a hill. Factor in your team, where everyone is different and has their own methods of staying motivated, and successes across the board can become a challenge.

Luckily, there are a whole host of motivational theories that have been developed over time that can help you to get the most out of your day, for both yourself and those employees who are under your charge. Here, we’ll go into some of the most popular theories of motivation as well as how you can apply them to your job if you think things are flagging.

Hertzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Developed by? Frederick Herzberg

When? 1959

What? After collating the responses of 200 accountants and engineers, Herzberg found two factors that tended to influence how motivated and satisfied these employees were…

  • Motivator factors: Recognising achievements, the opportunity to advance and enjoying work – factors that lead to satisfaction and increase motivation.
  • Hygiene factors: Poor working conditions, low salary, employee conflict – factors that cause job dissatisfaction.

Therefore, Herzberg’s findings suggest that supervisors must be able to effectively manage factors that leads to satisfaction and dissatisfaction.


Employees love to feel like their efforts are appreciated and they’re supported as people, but they also want to know that they will be able to grow and progress through the company too. Let them know that they’re on a path to progressing in this role; it will give them something to drive towards when completing their tasks.


Business people in light-hearted discussion

When it comes to mitigating the hygiene factors, it might underline the need to form a stronger relationship with your team. An aloof, unsympathetic approach can have very negative effects on morale. Consider workloads to see if they can be eased off; an overworked, underpaid team is a sure-fire combination for low motivation.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Developed by? Abraham Maslow

When? 1943

What? Possibly the most well-known theory of motivation, it involves human needs classified from lowest to highest order. Once the need has been met, it no longer provides motivation. At this point, they move on to the next level of need in order to motivate themselves.

From top to bottom, these are:

  • Self-actualisation: The need to achieve everything you possibly can.
  • Esteem needs: The need to feel confident and be respected by others.
  • Social needs: The need for friendships, relationships and family.
  • Safety needs: The need for personal and financial security, as well as health and wellbeing.
  • Physiological needs: Needs to be met in order to survive, such as food, water and shelter.

How? Employees in offices with a strong work/life balance, where they know they won’t be taking work back home, stand a better chance of adhering to this theory. Things like flexible working hours, industry-standard salaries and a friendly working environment help to meet esteem, social and safety needs.


Colleagues smile and high-five

Self-actualisation is a little bit more abstract by comparison. Things like progression, accomplishment, recognition, growth and autonomy lead to employee engagement and satisfaction. These are qualities or attributes in line with the concept of self-actualisation.

A workplace where there’s competition for bonuses between employees, for example, is less likely to lead to self-actualisation because these individuals are no longer working from a standpoint of achieving what they care for, but instead are aiming for an achievement to a relative degree compared to others.

An environment where employees can shape their goals and career development creates a degree of control, a large part of self-actualisation that gives a sense of progress to their duties.

Weiner’s Theory of Attribution

Developed by? Bernard Weiner

When? 1972

What? Attribution Theory attempts to explain how we attach meaning to the behaviour of ourselves and others. Weiner suggested that the reasons we attribute to our behaviour can influence how we behave in the future, and came up with three main characteristics of attributions that can affect our motivation.

  • Stability: How stable is the attribution? For example, if a student taking an exam believes they failed because they weren’t smart enough, that would be a stable factor. 

The attributions we assign to actions have a two-fold effect. Attributing something stable to a successful achievement can lead to positive expectations and higher motivation in the future. Conversely, negative situations and their attributions have the opposite effect.

  • Locus of control: Was the event caused by an internal or an external factor? Consider the exam scenario: was the failure caused by an internal cause i.e. the student believes they are innately not smart enough, they may be less motivated in the future. An external factor such as poor teaching, may not lead to a decrease in motivation. 
  • Controllability: How controllable was the situation? If an individual believes they could have performed better, they may be less motivated to try again in the future than someone who believes they failed due to outside factors.

How? The theory relates most readily to the feedback you give to employees. When giving them feedback, it’s important to be constructive. Let them know that they can improve and how they can go about it. In theory, this stops employees from attributing their failures to what they believe is their own lack of skill. Their successes are controllable if they use different strategies.


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Even if the desired outcomes haven’t been achieved, it’s still important to give them praise. In doing so, you’re encouraging employees to attribute the failure to controllable factors, which can be improved upon down the line.

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory

Developed by? Victor Vroom

When? 1964

What? People will work to a high level when they believe there is a relationship between the effort they put in, the performance they achieve and the outcomes or rewards they receive. In other words, we decide what to do based on what we expect the outcome to be.

The key constructs that are part of this theory are as follows:

  • Valence: The value placed on the reward.
  • Expectancy: The belief that your effort will result in the desired goal.
  • Instrumentality: The belief that you will receive a reward if performance expectations are met.


Woman plans strategy on a board 

How? Setting achievable goals and providing rewards that employees would want, and use is a good way of creating motivation through this theory. It doesn’t have to be something huge, but things like praise, an opportunity for progression and employee of the month-style rewards can help to keep a realistic level of expectation and motivate employees to better accomplish their duties.

It may take a little trial and error to find the motivation technique which works best for your team, but once you strike upon the right method, the rewards could be endless.

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