Theories of Motivation: Content theories & Process theories

Motivation refers to encouraging individuals to direct their actions toward the realization of organizational goals. Numerous researchers and theorists, such as David Clarence McClelland, Abraham Maslow, and Douglas M. McGregor, provided their views on motivation.

Theories of Motivation

Some of the theories of motivation provided by eminent theorists are as follows:

  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
  • Theory X and Theory Y
  • Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory/Motivation-Hygiene Theory
  • McClelland’s Theory of Needs
  • Goal Setting Theory
  • Equity Theory
  • Vroom’s Expectancy Theory
  • ERG Theory
  • Cognitive Evaluation Theory
  • Cognitive Dissonance Theory
  • Behavior Modification Theory

These motivational theories can be broadly classified into:

Content Theories

The “what” aspects of motivation are included in content theories. In other words, content theories deal with “what” motivates individuals. Therefore, content theories are concerned with individual needs and goals. Maslow, Alderfer, Herzberg, and McClelland studied motivation from a “content” perspective.

Process Theories

The process theories deal with the “how” of motivation. In other words, the process theories deal with how motivation occurs. Vroom, Porter and Lawler, Adams, and Locke studied motivation from a “process” perspective.

Motivational theories are important in OB because they help in managing people. An organization is in a better position to motivate and retain employees if it is aware of the process and factors of motivation.

For example, if an organization is aware of the various factors that motivate or demotivate its salespersons, it can take necessary steps to create a conducive working environment for its employees.

Content Theories

Content theories investigate what motivates people. Naturally, content theories take into account the needs and goals of individuals. Maslow, Alderfer, Herzberg, and McClelland are some of the proponents of the content theories.

These theories explain why an individual’s needs change with time. Moreover, these theories explain the specific factors that motivate behavior. None of these theories have been conclusively shown to be valid. However, they provide a contextual framework for dealing with individuals.

Let us discuss some of the content theories in the next section.

Maslow’s Need Hierarchy Theory

The most famous need hierarchy theory of motivation has been given by psychologist Abraham Maslow. He classified human needs into five categories.

Following are the levels of human needs:

  • Physiological Needs: These include needs for hunger, thirst, shelter, sex, and other physical needs.

  • Safety Needs: Include the need for safety and protection from physical and emotional harm.

  • Social Needs: Include the need for affection, belongingness, acceptance, and friendship.

  • Esteem Needs: Include the need for internal esteem factors, such as self-respect, autonomy, and achievement; as well as external esteem factors, including status, recognition, and attention.

  • Self-actualization Needs: Include the need for the drive to realize one’s potential, self-growth, and self-fulfillment.

All these needs of an individual must be satisfied in a hierarchical manner.

In Figure, the upward arrow shows that the hierarchy of needs works upwards from the bottom of the pyramid towards the top. After the fulfilment of one set of needs, the next one becomes dominant, so individuals keep moving up in the steps of the hierarchy.

Maslow divided the five types of needs into two categories. He considered physiological and safety needs as lower-order needs; whereas the social, esteem, and self-actualization need as higher-order needs. Higher-order needs are satisfied by internal factors, such as growth and development; whereas, lower-order needs are satisfied by external factors such as salary or work tenure.

Often, physiological, safety, and social needs are considered deficiency needs, because they are concerned with the needs that the individual lacks. Similarly, esteem and self-actualization needs are considered growth needs, because the individual works for their development by satisfying these needs.

However, it should be noted that the lower-order needs should be fulfilled for an individual to move to the higher-order needs. For instance, if managers follow Maslow’s hierarchy for satisfying their employees, it is essential for them to know the current state of the desire of their employees.

Maslow’s theory became popular among psychologists, but it has some drawbacks:

It is now always possible to follow a hierarchy because an individual’s needs might fall into two levels of needs simultaneously. For example, an individual’s physiological and social needs may be dominant at the same time.

Measuring some needs, for example, the self-actualization needs, remains difficult.

However, in spite of the preceding drawbacks, this theory is assumed to be the most famous one and is useful for modern managers.

Herzberg Two-factor Theory

This theory was proposed by psychologist Frederick Herzberg, who was one of the most influential names in business management. The Herzberg two-factor theory investigates people’s expectations from their jobs. Herzberg asked people to describe the situations in their jobs; when they felt good or bad.

From the responses, Herzberg arrived at the conclusion that the following two factors are related to job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction:

  • Intrinsic Factors/Motivators: These factors represent people’s perceptions of their jobs. Some examples of intrinsic factors are the sense of responsibility and desire for growth and advancement, which increase the job satisfaction of employees.

  • Extrinsic Factors/Hygiene Factors: These are the factors that absence of which dissatisfaction is created among employees. Some examples of extrinsic factors are rules and regulations and supervision

According to Herzberg, people feel good about their jobs because of intrinsic factors; whereas, they feel bad about their jobs because of extrinsic factors. Thus, Herzberg named the intrinsic factors ‘motivators’ and the extrinsic factors ‘hygiene factors’.

Extrinsic factors should be regulated to keep employees motivated. An appropriate combination of motivators and hygiene factors leads to better employee satisfaction.

The limitations of Hertzberg’s two-factor theory are as follows:

  • Determining the reliability of the two-factor theory is difficult due to a lack of clear understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

  • Using the two-factor theory is inflexible.

In spite of all the criticism, the Herzberg two-factor theory is an extensively used and well-known theory of motivation.

Alderfer Erg Theory

This theory was proposed by Clayton Alderfer to address some of the limitations of Maslow’s need hierarchy theory.

The letters ERG stand for three levels of needs, which are explained as follows:

  • Existence: Existence needs correspond to the physiological and safety needs of Maslow’s hierarchy. Existence needs include the physiological and physical needs of individuals, such as needs for food, shelter, and safe working conditions.

  • Relatedness: Relatedness needs correspond to Maslow’s belongingness needs. Relatedness needs include a person’s need to mix and interact with other people, be publicly recognized, and feel secure among people.

  • Growth: Growth needs correspond to Maslow’s esteem and self-actualization needs. Growth needs involve a person’s self-esteem through personal achievement as well as the concept of self-actualization presented in Maslow’s model.

The ERG theory says that, unlike Maslow’s theory, every individual has multiple needs to satisfy simultaneously. Therefore, one may try to satisfy the growth needs even though the relatedness needs are not completely satisfied.

This theory is an extension of Maslow’s theory, thus, it has many things in common with the latter. One of the similarities between these two theories is that both follow the satisfaction-progression process. Thus, a need level dominates the motivation of a person more than other needs levels.

However, there are a number of differences as well. Unlike Maslow’s model, the ERG theory includes a frustration-regression process, in which individuals being unable to satisfy a higher need become frustrated and regress to the next lower need level.

For example, if an individual is able to satisfy the existance and relatedness needs, but the growth need fulfiment has been blocked, the individual becomes frustrated and the relatedness needs start dominating his/ her motivation.

Mcclelland Needs Theory

David McClelland was the proponent of this theory. According to this theory, every individual is driven by the following three motivators:

  • Achievement
  • Power
  • Affiliation

These three motivators exist in all individuals to varying degrees. However, most people are not aware of what drives them. Let us discuss these motivators as follows:


People who are driven by achievement are driven by complex challenges, and they want to find solutions of problems. In addition, they are goal-oriented and desire feedback to improve further. These people are motivated by standards of excellence, precise goals, and clear roles. They are concerned about achieving excellence through individual efforts.


These people want to have control over a situation, and they are very influential. It has been observed that executives are strongly motivated by power. Power motivation is also strong in the case of influential leaders.


Affiliation-oriented people have a strong desire to belong. They are deeply concerned about relationships, and they strive to reduce uncertainty. In addition, they are good team players. Affiliation-oriented people tend to be less assertive and depend on others. These people are motivated by what they can accomplish with people they know and trust.

Process Theories

Process theories explain the mechanism through which human needs change. Process theories address the limitations of content theories. One of the major weaknesses of the content theories is the assumption that motivation can be explained by one or two factors, such as job atmosphere or the content of a job.

However, human motivation is a much more complex phenomenon. In most cases, motivation is a result of the interaction of a number of factors. Process theories take these complex aspects of motivation into consideration.

The focus of the process theories remains on the cognitive processes in which people engage to influence the direction, intensity, and persistence of their behavior.

Let us study some of the process theories.

Goal Setting Theory

The goal-setting theory, propounded by Edwin Locke, explains that specific and difficult goals lead to higher performance. It constantly motivates employees by helping them to keep their goals in mind and improve their performance.

According to this theory, feedback and commitment lead to higher performance and bridge the gap between the actual and expected performance of individuals. In addition, it suggests that for self-improvement, an individual should have goals that are specific (S), measurable (M), attainable (A), relevant (R), and time-bound (T), known as SMART goals.

The goal-setting theory is based on five basic principles, which are as follows:


Implies that the goals of individuals should be measurable and unambiguous. Goals should also be communicated clearly so that employees know what is expected from them.


Implies that goals should be somewhat difficult to attain. However, goals must not be so challenging that they sound unrealistic. Goals should also not be non-challenging, because that can demotivate employees. Therefore, an optimum level of challenge is required for goals.


Refers to the dedication of employees to achieve their goals. When goals are challenging, they increase the commitment of employees. High commitment levels ensure improvement in the performance of employees.


Helps employees understand goals clearly and overcome the obstacles in achieving these goals.

Task Complexity

Refers to the level of difficulty involved in a task. A challenging task keeps employees motivated. However, a highly-challenging task may be burdensome for employees.

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory

This theory is one of the most widely-accepted theories of motivation. It was given by Victor Vroom, who has studied organizational behavior with a focus on motivation, decision-making, and leadership.

The expectancy theory suggests that employees are motivated to apply effort when they believe that their efforts will result in performance appraisals and rewards such as bonuses, incentives, and promotions. The theory focuses on the following three relationships:

Effort-performance Relationship (Expectancy)

Refers to the perception of an individual that a particular amount of effort will lead to a certain level of performance. For example, an individual may expect that working extra hours in the office may increase his/her performance by a significant margin.

Performance-reward Relationship (Instrumentality)

Refers to the perception of individuals that if they perform in a particular way, they might get certain rewards. For example, an employee may expect that he/she may have a better salary increment if he/ she increases her performance level.

Rewards-personal Goals Relationship (Valence)

Refers to the perception of individuals regarding whether the rewards provided by the organization are able to fulfill their personal goals or not. For example, the personal goal of an employee is to increase his/ her wealth. Thus, if the employer rewards him/her with some cash, then the award will be able to fulfill his/her personal goals.

Porter’s Performance Satisfaction Theory

Since the very beginning of the study of organizational behavior, there has been a significant amount of debate regarding the relationship between performance and satisfaction. It has generally been accepted by content theorists that satisfaction leads to better performance.

However, Herzberg`s theory of job satisfaction does not provide any explanation of the relationship between satisfaction and performance. In addition, Vroom`s model also does not explain the relation.

Lyman Porter`s performance satisfaction theory is an extension of Vroom`s expectancy theory. The theory postulates that motivation does not equate with satisfaction and performance. In other words, motivation, satisfaction, and performance are all separate variables.

In addition, the theory states that effort does not directly lead to performance. However, performance is mediated by abilities and role perceptions. According to this theory, the reward that is followed by performance determines satisfaction.

Therefore, this theory is a multi-variate model. It is based on the following four assumptions:

  • Multiple factors in the individual and in the environment determine behavior.

  • Individuals make conscious decisions about how they are going to behave in an organizational setup.

  • Different individuals have different needs, desires, and goals.

  • The behavior of an individual depends on the expectation that the behavior will bring certain rewards.

The elements of the porter’s performance satisfaction are explained as follows:

  • Efforts: It refers to the amount of energy put by a person into his/ her job.

  • Value of Reward: It refers to the worth of the rewards received by an individual because of his/her efforts.

  • Perceived Effort-Reward Probability: It refers to the perception of an individual regarding the rewards associated with a level of effort.

  • Performance: It indicates that efforts lead to performance.

  • Reward: It refers to the benefits received because of the efforts put into work. Intrinsic rewards lead to self-actualization, and extrinsic rewards lead to working conditions and other tangible benefits.

Equity Theory

This theory was proposed by John Stacey Adams. The theory calls for a fair balance to be struck between the inputs of an employee, such as hard work, skills, tolerance, and enthusiasm, and the outputs such as compensation, benefits, and recognition.

According to this theory, a balance between the inputs and outputs creates a strong and productive relationship between employees and employers.

Following are some of the inputs considered in this theory:

  • Hard work
  • Commitment
  • Loyalty
  • Effort
  • Adaptability
  • Skill
  • Flexibility
  • Ability
  • Tolerance
  • Determination
  • Enthusiasm
  • Trust in superiors and colleagues
  • Personal sacrifice
  • Trust

Some of the outputs considered in this theory are:

  • Salary
  • Benefits
  • Reputation
  • Recognition
  • Praise
  • Sense of achievement
  • Responsibility
  • Job security

The theory recognizes that various factors influence the perceptions of individuals about their employers. If employees think that their inputs are greater than their outputs, the employees feel demotivated.

In such cases, employees may start putting less effort into work. On the other hand, if employees feel that their inputs are lesser than their outputs, they feel motivated and start putting more effort into their work.

Reinforcement Theory

This theory was proposed by B.F. Skinner and his associates. This theory proposes that an individual’s behavior is a function of its consequences. In other words, an individual’s behavior follows a “law of effect”, i.e, behaviors with positive consequences are repeated, and behaviors with negative consequences tend not to be repeated.

This theory overlooks the internal state of an individual, i.e., the inner feelings and drives. The main focus of this theory remains on what happens to an individual when he/she takes some action.

According to Skinner, the external environment of an organization should be designed in a way that motivates employees. This theory does not focus on the causes of individual behavior.

This theory proposes the following methods for controlling the behavior of employees:

Positive Reinforcement

It implies giving a positive response when an individual shows positive and required behavior. For example, if an employee is immediately praised for arriving early to a job, the probability of the employee repeating the behavior will increase.

Negative Reinforcement

This involves rewarding an employee by removing negative or undesirable consequences. This method can be applied to increase the frequency of a desired behavior.


It involves removing positive consequences to lower the probability of repeating undesirable behavior in the future. In other words, punishment involves applying undesirable consequences for undesirable behavior. For example, deducting an employee’s salary for late coming.


It is the absence of any kind of reinforcement. In other words, it involves lowering the probability of undesirable behavior by removing rewards for that kind of behavior.


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