The Art of Understanding Employee Motivation

The Art of Understanding Employee Motivation

We often ask ourselves about what motivates us, and really, there is an abundance of answers to that question. We do something because we like it — but why do we like it? And so the train of questions and answers continues. From a small business and startups point-of-view, we can ask: what is employee motivation and how can we improve it?

In order to ensure the improvement of employee motivation for our businesses, we must first and foremost understand what motivation is and where it comes from.

Understanding Motivation

Motivation, by Pearson Australia‘s definition, is the process by which a person’s efforts are energised, directed and sustained toward attaining a goal. What drives motivation differs from person to person, as well as from situation to situation.

There are a large number of theories that are relevant to learning and understanding employee motivation and the psychology of employees.

Three elements of employee motivation:


Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

American psychologist Frederick Herzberg created a framework that can be applied to employee motivation involving two types of factors: Motivators and Hygiene Factors.

Motivators — things that cause job satisfaction, related to intrinsic factors; e.g. challenges, recognition, responsibility, achievement, growth, involvement, sense of importance.

Hygiene factors — things that do not lead to job satisfaction or employee motivation, related to extrinsic factors; e.g. working conditions, policies, salary and benefits, supervision, status, job security, co-workers, etc.

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McClelland’s Need Theory

Another American psychologist by the name of David McClelland laid out the three key needs for employees from a manager’s context:

  • Need for Achievement — to succeed and excel
  • Need for Affiliation — the desire for closer interpersonal relationships
  • Need for Power — a high value on discipline and accomplishing goals

Expectancy Theory

First proposed by Victor Vroom of the Yale School of Management, this theory involves an employee acting in a certain way depending on:

  • The expectation that the act will be followed by an outcome, and
  • The employee’s perception of how attractive that outcome is

Both of those factors determine whether or not an employee will work to the best of their abilities to complete a task or goal. Basically, the degree of the reward’s enticement, the harder they’ll work.

Goal-Setting Theory

The details of the goals that are set for employees can also determine their motivation in completing them. There are three elements involved in this theory:

  • Goal-commitment — the belief in a goal’s importance or significance
  • Attainability — the belief that they goal is achievable
  • Self-efficacy — the belief in the employee’s self to achieve the goal

Using the SMART goal-setting method, you can further understand how to set Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely goals.

Based on: Robbins et al. (2011). ‘Management: The Essentials’. [online] Pearson Australia. Available at: