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Why motivation matters

Academic thinking around motivation has developed considerably over time. Here Stuart Pritchard, winner of the HR magazine and Roffey Park research competition, explores how the major theories have been shaped.

The dictionary defines motivation as “motivating force, incentive” and motive as “an incitement of will; a consideration or emotion that excites to action”. So a motive involves turning will into action, and motivation is the force that achieves this. Sometimes this is a conscious process; for example, my motivation for going to work is to pay my bills. Sometimes, however, our motivation is unconscious – away from work I have long been motivated to write music, but I have no idea why. 

In the beginning: Jung

Carl Jung believed that our motivation flows from a sort of collective unconscious, which he categorised into two aspects. The “instinct” is our natural impulse to fulfil our needs, while the “archetype” is what forms our awareness, intuition and self-understanding. Jung thought both processes were unconscious and related to a collective unconscious beyond the individual, providing an innate or “natural” path to action appropriate to that person.

Jung’s visits to America promoted interest in psychoanalysis there and helped spark the humanist movement. A catalyst figure in the movement was a New Yorker – Abraham Maslow – who was influenced by Jung’s ideas on transcendence, spiritual development and self-actualisation. Although Maslow carried out much research of his own, it seems likely that his ideas on self-actualisation, and its place at the top of his hierarchy of needs, were influenced by Jung’s thinking. 

And then...Maslow

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a staple of management courses. A pioneer of motivation research, Maslow suggested that humans are motivated to satisfy many needs. These range from basic physical needs for food and shelter, through to safety, and the need for love, esteem, and self-actualisation (see below). His theory arranged these needs in a pyramid or hierarchy, with physical needs at the base, moving up through psychological and spiritual dimensions.


Maslow believed that self-actualisation was the top of the hierarchy, the pinnacle of all motivations. Similarly to Jung’s ideas regarding the natural purpose of an individual, Maslow believed we all have an intrinsic purpose that motivates us, known as self-actualisation: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be.”

Maslow suggested it was unnecessary for one level of the hierarchy to be fully satisfied before progressing to the next. Rather, most people experience decreasing levels of satisfaction as they progress up the hierarchy, for example one might be 85% satisfied in physiological needs, 70% in safety needs, and 50% in love needs.

With regard to gratification of a need, Maslow is clear: a satisfied need is no longer a motivator and effectively ceases to exist. As we shall see, this is a contrasting view to Herzberg who maintained that the desire for what he called “hygiene factors” tends to increase.

Some have criticised Maslow’s work for its reliance on questionable research methods. They also point to his view that hierarchies were not just relevant to motivation, but to wider society – those who had satisfied more basic needs forming democracies, while more primitive societies were lower down the evolutionary pyramid (I sense the influence of 1950s America strongly here).

Maslow himself was well aware of the potential shortcomings of his theory, and describes it as a “suggested” theory. He also notes that it is much easier to criticise aspects of a motivation theory than to remedy them. 

McGregor’s ideas

Douglas McGregor was a contemporary of Maslow’s and was influenced by him. He observed in his consulting work that there were differences in approach between managers, which appeared to be based on differing assumptions about workers. McGregor described these as “theory X and theory Y” assumptions: 

Theory X

  • Workers are lazy by nature, working as little as possible
  • They dislike responsibility and prefer to be led
  • Workers are indifferent to organisational needs, focusing only on their own
  • They resist change 

Theory Y

  • The potential for development and responsibility is naturally present in workers
  • Workers are willing to direct their behaviour towards fulfilling organisational goals
  • They are not by nature resistant to change 

McGregor’s work was not directly a theory of motivation, he was more interested in management approaches than personal motivations. It is pertinent to such theories however, because of the different approaches likely to stem from the theory X or theory Y beliefs managers hold.

McGregor describes how the assumptions a manager has, and the way they manage as a consequence, can result in workers manifesting the behaviours that the manager assumes.

In other words, if you treat someone as though they are lazy and dislike responsibility that is how they will tend to behave. In this respect, McGregor addresses one of the main criticisms of Maslow’s work – that it ignores the effect of socialisation. Since humans are social creatures, motivation is at least in part a function of our interactions with others. 

Don’t forget Herzberg

Basing his work on a major study of accountants and engineers in Pittsburgh, Herzberg developed the motivation-hygiene theory. Its key feature is that it separates factors that prevent demotivation (adequate salary, pleasant environment, fair treatment) from those that actively motivate workers (personal growth, sense of contribution, opportunity for advancement).

Herzberg points out that motivation-hygiene theory reflects the tension between two basic human needs – avoiding pain and seeking growth. Ideas dating back to Jung (of human psychological growth and higher purpose as motivators) are strong in his work. He introduces the idea that motivation is more than the absence of demotivation, and can be driven by irrational needs as well as rational ones.

In general however, he remains silent on the social aspects of motivation, the systemic interactions that compose our working systems, and their impact on our motivation. 

Social aspects of motivation

Organisations are systems, and as such have characteristics that can’t be found in each of their component parts. So how does the motivation of each person combine to affect the organisation as a whole?

While some see teams as positive motivators, others identify several important motivational drawbacks. In teams workers subjugate some level of personal mastery to the needs of the team as a whole. Flexibility requires interchangeability in team roles, with mechanisms such as cross-functional training reducing workers’ sense of autonomy and individuality – with consequent negative impacts on their motivation.

Additionally, the Ringelmann effect has demonstrated that people do less as part of teams and that “social loafing” can be a motivational downside of teamwork. In social loafing some team members put in less effort, relying on colleagues to make up the shortfall. The closeness of social relationships seems to be key here. Research suggests social loafing is associated with groups of acquaintances and that teams composed of close friends don’t do it. It appears the influence of teams on motivation is a complex area, and depends to a significant extent on how people choose to identify with the group. These ideas strongly suggest a social aspect to motivation. They also suggest that a combination of task value, group interaction and self-identity has a significant impact on individual motivation. 

Self-identity and motivation

Some suggest that motivation is at its heart an issue of self-identity. For example, we may identify ourselves as separate to others and focus only on our own needs, but where we identify ourselves with a group or organisation we are also motivated to comply with its norms and meet its needs.

From this perspective the ability of a leader to create a sense of shared identity is an important determinant of their ability to energise others to action. The implication is that where leaders and followers have a shared sense of identity followers are motivated as a result of that commonality, and that motivation is less conditional than where shared identity does not exist. Where there is no shared sense of identity motivation depends more on specific rewards and leader behaviour.

Leaders who have an identity that is too separate from the group find it harder to motivate people than those who share some common identity. For example, empirical research has demonstrated that differences such as large bonuses for leaders have a negative effect on follower motivation, by differentiating them from the social identity of the rest. 

Does motivation matter?

Herzberg describes the KITA – or Kick In The Pants – which achieves compliance but not commitment. It gets the job done – not as well as true motivation – but enough to allow the manager to move on to the next more pressing priority, in an endless cycle of partial attention and compliance.

Most organisations will be familiar with this approach to some degree. The more complex and diverse the organisation however, the more necessary skilful otivation seems to become – because it is harder to use command and control approaches, individual networking and initiative become crucial to success.

The creative industries in the UK are worth around £70 billion, or 6% of the nation’s GDP, and growing. As countries move towards the ‘knowledge economy’ the creativity of what is produced becomes the value generator, not simply the efficiency with which it is created. As such, organisations that facilitate motivation and inspire creativity may well have a competitive advantage.

Some even suggest that the availability of capital is no longer the limiting resource for businesses. For many developing economies the ability to absorb capital is more of a problem; that is, the ability to apply capital to useful spending. Even in developing economies creativity and invention are as important as capital in producing useful outcomes. This suggests that motivation is important to all economies, not just ‘knowledge’ ones. 


Early work on motivation rested to a significant extent on the idea that people are rational creatures, who work to maximise their returns. Later theories take aspects of socialisation and self-concept into account, suggesting that motivation can operate at different levels simultaneously, in contrast to the traditional view that motivation is a single entity or sequential hierarchy.

Sometimes we are not motivated simply by success, but rather by a sense of challenge. In sport for example, if all we wanted to do was win we’d just play people much worse than us, but we don’t. We compete against the best opposition we can, because we find overcoming challenges motivating.

Motivation is a complex area that is difficult to understand fully since it springs from many wells. It is partly psychological, partly physical. It contains aspects of our emotion, our cognition, and our social interaction. Part of it is conscious, part of it unconscious, it is partly proactive and partly reactive. As such, it mirrors the complexities of us as organisms, and is at the core of who we are both as humans and as individuals.

So what changes in practice as a result of this knowledge? The main change is moving more towards socialisation and self-identity as motivational factors. Creating a sense of inclusion and trying to ensure that everyone has a stake in team success might be time consuming, but it can provide opportunities to incorporate team membership into member self-identity, which will help motivation. Lastly, motivation is complex, contextual and individual. Even the world’s best leaders cannot always influence it so we should understand there are limits to what we can do to create it.