Motivating staff – Motivational Theory

What is motivation and how can we motivate our staff to perform better? Motivation staff in an increasingly uncertain business environment can be challenging for any organisation or manager, understanding some of the theories behind motivation and applying these can make a huge difference to staff moral and productivity.


Motivation, a problem with staff?

I manage a team that, like everyone else, has been through a degree of stress recently. We’ve been reviewed, restructured (from 8 to 4), had to apply for our own jobs, audited (twice), had our budget reduced and are about to be being reviewed again.

And to top it off, the team is now being managed by an inexperienced manager that once used to be a peer… me.

It’s not surprising that the productivity of the team has perhaps dropped off slightly; a state of affairs which some of our senior managers appear confused by.

Motivation is one (of several) factors I am prioritising – I’m sure I’ll address some of the other issues later on. I’ve got a team of capable and experienced staff that perhaps, lets say, aren’t as determined as they once were.

So what is motivation?

Rollins defines motivation as:

… a state arising in the processes that are internal and external to the individual, in which the person perceives that it is appropriate to pursue a certain course of action (or actions) directed at achieving a specified outcome (or outcomes) and in which the person chooses to pursue those outcomes with a degree of vigour and persistence.

D Rollins, 2008

…which frankly, is a little demotivating in its length and complexity in itself and sounds a little like a Monty Python sketch. I’m not saying it’s not accurate, as it is. It’s just a little detailed and convoluted.

I tend to prefer this, by Mullins (2008):

A ‘driving force’ through which people strive to achieve their goals and fulfil a need or uphold a value.

Mullins, 2008

This is a good, simple and straight forward definition. It sums up in a line what Rollins delivered in four and a half. Albeit in less detail.

For me, this works; it described what motivation is for me. I am a very self-motivating kind of person; I think you’d struggle to find a more motivated person in my line of work – even if I do complain about it. However, this perhaps demonstrates my naivety at managing others. After all, “we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are” (Anais Nin), and perhaps I need to understand better what motivates the members of my team, rather than me personally.

Bloisi et al (2006), went a little further, they defined motivation in terms of three elements:

1. A process that directs the choice of action

2. Some need, motive or goal that triggers action

3. A level of effort intensity that is applied to the chosen vocation

Bloisi et al (2006)

This I also find very useful. Bloisi attempts to identify factors that go into the process of motivation and recognises that there are levels of motivation, rather than the state of being motivated or not.

There are several other definitions of motivation I could go into ad infinitum, but I (and you) don’t have to infinity to study them all…

Well, that’s great… so how do I motivate employees?

So what do we do about this?

There are several theories as to how to motivate people. There’s the popular Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs (1970): Alderfer‘s Existence, Relatedness and Growth (ERG) needs (1972) and; McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y Managers (1989). All of which are very interesting and useful.

The most enlightening theory I stumbled across in my studies has been Herzberg‘s Dual Factor Theory (1964), shown below and helpfully stolen from my Open University text book (thank you OUBS! p.s. I’ll take it down if you want):

Herzberg's Dual Factor Theory
Herzberg separated Hygiene Factors from Motivational Factors. You can’t motivate without providing the underlying hygiene factors first

Herzberg was a psychologist that studied what motivated employees in the workspace in Pittsburg in the 1950s and 1960s, specifically of accountants and engineers. He theorised that while some factors would motivate staff (motivating factors), there were others that would cause dissatisfaction (hygiene factors) and that these work independently of each other.

Similarly to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the hygiene factors need to be in place before you can embark on motivating your staff. If the hygiene factors aren’t in place, dissatisfaction increases and motivation can’t take place.

What I really like about Herzberg’s theory is how it links together corporate policies and arrangements to operational management responsibilities in motivating individual members of staff.

Looking at hygiene factors it starts to become clear just how important company/ organisational policies and strategies are to the motivation of employees. Many of these, including working conditions, pay and job security and company policies are out of the control of individual managers. Senior Management and Human Resources are central to building these foundations of satisfaction.

Summary – Establishing the foundations for motivation

What’s also really interesting is that Herzberg’s research appears to show that money and pay is not a motivator… Interesting, huh? Apparently it doesn’t motivate to earn more, but not earning enough for the job will demotivate.

I’m not shirking responsibility here – there’s plenty individual managers can do to affect these Hygiene factors. We can fight the employees corner to improve the foundations of employment, badger influential senior managers and work together as managers to improve the lot of our staff.

Once these hygiene factors are in place and embedded into the organisations, it’s then down to operational managers to drive through activities that actually motivate our staff through recognising achievement, giving the opportunity for achievement, recognition, development and responsibility.

What Herzberg’s theory doesn’t show is whether a motivated member of staff is a productive member of staff. Do you really need to motivate a member of staff to deliver the required standard of work? Or is there another way of squeezing the productivity out of them? Although it sounds pretty obvious to me, we’d have to look elsewhere for confirmation through research.


  • Rollins, D, 2008, Organisational Behaviour and Analysis: An Integrated Approach (4th Edition), Pearson Education, Edinburgh (Organisational Behaviour and Analysis: An Integrated Approach – Derek Rollinson – Google Books)
  • Mullins, L.J., 2008, Management and organisational behaviour, sixth edition, London, Financial Times Prentice Hall
  • Bloisi, W., Cook, C.W. and Hunsaker, P.L. (2006) Management and organizational behaviour, Berkshire, McGraw-Hill
  • Maslow, A.H. (1970) Motivation and personality, New York, Harper and Row.
  • Maslow, A.H. (1989) ‘A theory of human motivation’ in Leavitt, H., Pondy, L. and Boje, D. (eds) Readings in Managerial Psychology, fourth edition, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, pp. 20–35
  • Alderfer, C.P. (1972) Existence, relatedness and growth, New York, Free Press
  • Herzberg, F. (2003) ‘One more time: How do you motivate employees?’ in Harvard Business Review on Motivating People, Boston, Harvard Business School Press


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