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What are motivation theories, and how do they enhance the employee experience?

Last updated

10 February 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Warren Jonas ACC

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Every business wants motivated employees who are not only happy at work but are also emotionally invested in the company. Motivated employees are more driven to succeed and inspire others, including co-workers and customers. But what creates motivation?

Motivation theory is the study of understanding what drives a person to work toward a goal or objective. While motivation theory can be relevant to everyone, it is particularly interesting in the business realm. Motivation theory as a whole is made up of numerous theories and factors.

For managers, HR coordinators, and anyone in a leadership position, it can be beneficial to understand the various ways employees can be motivated to succeed. Motivated employees can help your company reach new heights, including greater revenue and more successful campaigns.

What is motivation theory?

Motivation theory isn't one particular theory. Rather, it's an umbrella term that includes a wide variety of theories, some established and others relatively new. Motivation theory explores the idea that people are driven to work toward a particular outcome and are encouraged to do so through internal and external factors.

Motivation theory is important because motivated employees build strong teams. Forbes explains that driven, empowered employees lead to:

  • Improved productivity

  • Higher quality work

  • Lower turnover rates

  • Increased profitability

  • Increased employee satisfaction

  • Better customer service

  • More cohesive working relationships

Everyone works differently. Understanding the individual philosophies of motivation theory can help you get to know your employees and their dreams, goals, and aspirations. By knowing your employees and what motivates them, you can create a happier workplace.

As touched on above, content employees can boost productivity, produce work of better quality, and foster a culture of collaboration and cooperation. A happier workplace also strengthens the company’s reputation, increases employee loyalty, and attracts top talent.

Four types of motivation

There are four types of motivation. These relate directly to human endeavor, explaining how an employee's preference and approach increase their tendency to take goal-directed action.

External motivation

External motivation is when an employee is driven to achieve their goal through outside sources. These outside sources can include tangible or intangible rewards.

It can also be guided by an underlying negative outcome, for example, someone motivated to show up at work purely to keep from getting fired. Often, people who are externally motivated are not interested in the details of the tasks being performed. They keep showing up purely for the tangible or intangible aspect of the goal.

Introjected motivation

Introjected motivation is when a person is driven to achieve their goal based on their ego or sense of self. Their reward is intangible, relating to how others in their orbit perceive them.

For example, if an employee always shows up early to work purely to present the image of a devoted employee, they are displaying introjected motivation.

Identified motivation

Ideally, employees will find real value in their work, aligning their personal philosophy with the project they're working on. If this happens, the employee has displayed identified motivation.

In the case of identified motivation, the employee might work even harder on a project because, for whatever reason, they've identified the project as meaningful to them.

Intrinsic motivation

Many of the most dedicated, hardworking employees are driven by intrinsic motivation. They are encouraged to reach their goal because of the enjoyment of achieving that goal. For most employees driven by intrinsic motivation, it is enough simply to pursue the goal.

An example of intrinsic motivation is an employee who achieves real satisfaction from going to work every day and finds enhanced creativity and excitement from performing their job-related functions.

Motivation theories to inspire your team

These motivation theories can help you think differently about how to unlock your team's potential and reach new levels of team-building success. While it isn't realistic to place lofty expectations on any one theory, having some knowledge of each and pairing them with smart solutions for increasing motivation in the workplace can yield impressive results.

Maslow's theory of hierarchical needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is one of the best-known motivation theories. It states that our actions are guided by five tiers of physiological and psychological needs, from basic ones to complex ones.

The first and most basic tier of Maslow’s theory is physiological needs, including food, water, and air. Security and safety is the second level of the hierarchy, including health and wellness, financial security, and housing.

The third level of Maslow's hierarchy is social needs, including familial acceptance, romantic love, and belonging to social groups. Esteem needs encompass the fourth level. This more complex level holds that people need the respect and appreciation of others to have their psychological needs met.

At the top of the "pyramid of needs" are self-actualization needs. According to Maslow, people who have achieved this level have surpassed the need to be overly worried about the opinions of others and are more concerned with fulfilling their potential. Self-actualized people can actively use their talents and develop their skills to reach their full potential.

For managers, Maslow's theory presents an interesting approach to management. If team members don't have basic needs met, such as an adequate salary or comfortable working conditions, they aren't likely to stick with your organization long enough to achieve self-actualization in the form of a desired promotion.

Herzberg's two-factor theory

Herzberg's two-factor theory, also known as the motivation-hygiene theory, holds that there are separate sets of mutually exclusive factors in the workplace that can cause either job satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

The motivators ensure job satisfaction and include achievement, recognition, opportunities for advancement, and growth. A lack of "hygiene'" factors such as job security, working conditions, and an appropriate salary lead to job dissatisfaction.

To put Herzberg's theory into practice, leaders could focus on motivating factors, being sure to provide plenty of recognition for work well done and opportunities for advancement within the company. Following this theory, as long as the motivating factors outweigh the absence of hygiene factors, an employee can remain happy and motivated at work.

McClelland's theory of needs

David McClelland was a Harvard professor who spent decades researching motivation. He posited a theory of needs, which holds that there are three basic desires a person can have:

  • Power (desire to attain a leadership position)

  • Achievement (focus on success or achieving personal goals; like challenges and take pride in outperforming others)

  • Affiliation (seek out social connections and are hardwired to please others; not driven by the desire to succeed or stand out, so might not be the most effective employees)

McClelland's theory of needs has gained some popularity in recent decades as the basis for personality tests in employment interviews. Personality tests allow hiring managers to get a glimpse at what motivates their employees, although these tests should never be considered an exhaustive resource for determining personal ambition or suitability for a specific role.

Vroom's theory of expectancy

Vroom's theory of expectancy holds that a person’s motivation is affected by their expectations of the future.

For example, an employee might believe that if they work harder, they will be more likely to experience rewards at work. This is contingent on having appropriate resources on hand, including the right support at work, (such as experienced, empathetic management), and enough time to complete their tasks.

McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y

McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y refer to two particular styles of management:

  • Authoritarian

  • Participative

Managers who believe in an authoritarian management style, Theory X, tend to micromanage their employees and believe that team members need to be watched whenever possible.

Theory Y managers trust their employees to take ownership of their tasks and are more "hands-off" in their approach.

Theory X takes a rather pessimistic view of employees and their motivations, while Theory Y is a more positive approach. Most managers and business leaders use a mix of Theory X and Theory Y, although many people favor one over the other.

Alderfer's ERG theory

Alderfer's ERG theory is based on Maslow's theory of hierarchical needs. It was developed by psychologist Clayton Alderfer and compresses Maslow's theory of five basic needs into three:

  • Existence

  • Relatedness

  • Growth

The first and most basic level is existence needs, including physiological and safety needs such as food, water, air, clothing, and secure employment.

The second level is relatedness. At this level, people fulfill their need for interpersonal relationships, including friendship and family.

At the third and highest level, people can achieve self-confidence and have their self-actualization needs met.

These three levels aren't necessarily fixed and needs and priorities can change, depending on the person and their unique situation.

Reinforcement theory

The theory of reinforcement states that behaviors are shaped by consequences and that an employee’s behaviors can be altered by reinforcement, including punishment or reward.

Proponents of this theory believe that positive reinforcement with rewards, such as additional days off for an employee at the end of a long stretch of busy days, reinforces desired behavior. In this case, the desired behavior is continued hard work.

Adams' equity theory

Adams' equity theory of motivation claims that, by finding a fair balance between employees' "inputs," such as their hard work and skill level, and their "outputs," including salary, benefits, and recognition, businesses can count on motivated, happy employees.

Developed by psychologist John Stacey Adams, the theory claims that employees will lose motivation if their inputs are greater than the outputs they receive.

Locke's goal-setting theory

Locke's goal-setting theory addresses the power of goals as a motivational tool. The theory states that clear goals and appropriate feedback can serve as a motivating factor for employees, while working toward a goal can also be a major source of motivation.

The theory also holds that the more difficult and specific a goal is, the harder employees tend to work toward it. This is because the harder or more challenging the goal, the bigger the sense of reward once it is achieved.

The Hawthorne effect

Named after a series of social experiments conducted in Hawthorne, Chicago, the Hawthorne effect in a work environment suggests employees work harder and are more content when they are being watched.

This could be due to a heightened sense of accountability, or because of a better relationship between the employees and those watching them. Certain flaws have been pointed out in the original study, but the theory still attracts attention from motivational theorists today.

How can employers improve motivation?

Every employee is motivated by different things. It's not realistic to assume that putting any one motivation theory into practice will create happy, more productive employees.

However, some smart strategies should be part of every business plan. These strategies can help employees feel motivated and build a culture of job satisfaction within your organization.

Set achievable goals

Most employees want to reach their goals, even if they aren't especially motivated. To enhance motivation and encourage employees to succeed, set goals that are specific, measurable, and actionable. Identify each employee's role within the established objectives, so they know what they need to do to succeed, and support them along the way.

Role clarity

If you help employees understand their responsibilities and what’s expected of them, they will feel empowered in their roles. This can help them approach every task with confidence and a sense of purpose.

Create a positive work environment

A company that supports collaboration and creativity, representing a set of strong core values, is one that employees are excited to work for. Work on creating a positive work environment, whether your business is remote or has in-office workers.

Think of a place you would want to work, and include those features and benefits whenever possible. Above all, be positive and maintain a healthy environment where employees can come to you with questions or concerns.

Promote a healthy work-life balance

When employees are empowered to spend time on their hobbies and interests and to devote quality time to their families, they'll be more likely to be present at work. A healthy work-life balance is motivating for employees and can encourage company loyalty.

Consider providing work-from-home options when appropriate and offering flexible scheduling so employees don't feel guilty for taking time off for things like doctor's visits and self-care days.

Offer immediate praise for wins

Many managers save praise and encouragement for end-of-the-year reviews, but by offering praise right after the employee has done a great job, you'll build motivation and foster goodwill. Plus, you'll show the employee how much you value their contributions.

Design an employee incentive program

Praise is fantastic for building motivation, but tangible rewards are greatly appreciated. An employee incentive program rewards team members for their contributions and gives them goals to work toward.

Your incentive program can offer things like cash cards, paid time off, and bonuses. If you aren't sure what rewards your employees would appreciate most, carry out a poll or survey to find out.

Provide opportunities for advancement

Employees who know they can move up in the company might be more motivated to perform strongly in their current roles. Foster a culture of inclusivity and when opportunities for advancement arise, make sure employees are aware of them.

You could also look for ways for employees to hone their skills through certification courses or on-the-job training.

Assisting in self-discovery and personal growth

By helping employees in their personal-development journeys, you’ll be contributing to their growth as people and as part of your organization. Helping your employees become more skilled fosters a positive culture.

Motivating employees to be successful can benefit everyone within your organization. Motivated employees not only enhance productivity but also create a culture of success and a positive employee experience that inspires everyone, from clients to customers.


What are the four stages of motivation?

It's generally agreed there are four unique stages to the cycle of motivation, starting with the need or the absence of the ultimate goal. Need is followed by drive, which serves to excite the person to take action. Incentive is the object towards which motivated behavior is directed, while the goal satisfies the tension that has been created by the previous stages. After the goal or reward has been reached, the person is ready for new motivations.

What is incentive theory?

Incentive theory is a motivational theory that suggests behavior is motivated by outside reinforcement or incentives rather than internal forces. The theory notes that individuals driven by these external forces are pushed toward a positive payoff and away from negative consequences.

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