Theories of Motivation – An Overview

There are many motivation theories. Each motivation theory attempts to describe what human beings are and what human beings can become. For this reason, it is customary to say that a motivation theory has content in the form of a particular view about people. The content of a motivation theory helps us understand the world of dynamic engagement in which organizations operate by depicting managers and employees engaging in organizations every day. Since motivation theories deal with people’s development, the content of a motivation theory also helps managers and employees wrestle with the dynamics of organizational life.

Frank Landy and Wendy Becker observe that motivation research is still a vigorous contest for finding “one best way” to think about motivation. Thus, one of the major themes is that you will encounter different motivational practices in your life. We encourage you to think of this as a sampler of ideas about what motivations involves.

Early Views of Motivation:

Motivation was one of the earliest concepts with which managers and management researchers wrestled. A so called traditional model is often associated with Frederick Taylor and scientific management. Managers determined the most efficient way to perform repetitive tasks and then motivated workers with a system of wage incentives – the more workers produced, the more they earned. The underlying assumption was that managers understood the work better than workers, who were essentially lazy and could be motivated only by money. A legacy of this model is the practice of paying salesperson on a commission basis.

A so called human relations models is often associated with Elton Mayo and his contemporaries. Mayo ad other human relations researchers found that the boredom and repetitiveness of many tasks actually reduced motivation, while social contacts helped create and sustain motivation. The conclusion is that managers could motivate employees by acknowledging their social needs by making them feel useful and important. Modern day legacies of this model include suggestions boxes, company uniforms, organization newsletters, and employee input in the performance evaluation process. We see this at Wal-Mart.

Under the traditional model, workers had been expected to accept management’s authority in return for high wages. Under the human relations model, workers were expected to accept management’s authority because supervisors treated them with consideration and allowed them to influence the work situation. Note that the intent of managers remained the same: to get workers to accept the work situation as established by managers.

A so called human resources model is often associated with Douglas McGregor. McGregor and other theorists criticized the human relations model as simply a more sophisticated approach to the manipulation of employees. They also charged that, like the traditional model, the human relations model oversimplified motivation by focusing on just one factor, such as money or social relations.

McGregor identified two different sets of assumptions about employees. The traditional view, known as Theory X holds that people have an inherent dislike of work. Although workers may view it as a necessity they will avoid it whenever possible. In this view, most people prefer to be directed and to avoid responsibility. As a result, the work is of secondary importance and managers must push employees to work.

Theory Y is more optimistic. It assumes that work is as natural as play or rest. In theory Y, people want to work and can driven a great deal of satisfaction from work. In this view, people have the capacity to accept – even seek – responsibility, and to apply imagination, ingenuity and creativity to organizational problems.

The problems according to Theory Y, is that modern industrial life does not fully tap the potential of human beings. To take advantage of their employees’ innate willingness and ability to work, managers using Theory Y should provide a climate that gives employees scope for personal improvement. Participative management is one way to do this.