Could motivation theories be your key to better employee productivity?

Understanding what drives a person to work towards a particular goal is ultimately the best way to help them achieve it. If you can get to grips with what makes your employees tick – whether that’s the promise of a bonus or a knack for people pleasing – you can work out how to motivate them.

Company Culture

⋅ min read

Understanding what drives a person to work towards a particular goal is ultimately the best way to help them achieve it. If you can get to grips with what makes your employees tick – whether that’s the promise of a bonus or a knack for people pleasing – you can work out how to motivate them. While everyone is different, research has found that many motivation theories are widely successful. Let’s take a look at what motivation theories are out there and how you can tap into them to boost employee morale and output.

What is a motivation theory?

Motivation is what inspires someone to work hard to achieve a certain outcome. At its core, it’s the driving force behind our actions. For an Olympic athlete, it might be the hope of a gold medal, or for a new business owner, it might be becoming profitable next year. A motivation theory, then, is when you look at what motivates a person and how it influences them. It’s an especially useful study when it comes to business and managing people.

The importance of employee motivation 

Of course, motivation is linked to higher productivity, as the more energy and enthusiasm people put into their work, the better the outcome. That’s good news for your business, as more work of a higher quality is likely to boost profitability.

But keeping employees motivated isn’t just important for your bottom line. It’s also key to staff happiness and loyalty. Research has found that employees who feel engaged are 87% less likely to resign from their company, as they have more emotional ties to their employer making them more reluctant to jump for a better offer. Similar studies into workplace productivity have also shown that highly engaged teams experience 41% less absenteeism

So if motivation goes hand in hand with higher productivity, lower churn and reduced absenteeism, it’s in your best interests as an employer to keep your staff striving for their goals.

Types of motivation theory 

There are a number of motivation theories out there, so it’s worth doing some digging to find the theory that works best for your organisation. These are a few of the most popular concepts out there.

  1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, believed that there are five fundamental tiers of human needs, which he arranged like a pyramid or ladder. These are listed in order of importance, with the most essential needs at the bottom, getting progressively less vital towards the top.

At the bottom are a human’s most basic biological and physiological needs, like air, food, shelter and sleep. Basically, the things we need to live. Then come our safety needs, such as protection, law and security. These are followed by our psychological and social needs – things like family, affection and relationships. Closer to the top of the pyramid are our esteem needs, like achievement, status and reputation. Finally, at the top are our self-actualisation needs. In other words, our desire for personal growth and fulfilment.

Maslow thought that any unfulfilled needs lower down the pyramid would prevent a person from reaching the next stage. Businesses, for example, can prevent this by providing things like filtered water, office snacks and heating to fulfil employees’ basic needs. As an employee progresses up the pyramid, health and safety policies can help them feel protected and secure, and rewards and promotions can help them feel a sense of achievement.

  1. McLelland’s need theory

Another American psychological theorist, David McLelland, thought differently to Maslow. He argued that not all needs are applicable to everyone as some have to be learned or acquired through social interactions. For example, achievement and the need for power and affiliation.

McLelland believes that all of us have at least one of these desires and they will influence our motivation in different ways. Managers should try to identify which of these needs their employees align with so they can help to motivate them accordingly. Individuals with a strong need for power might prefer to be promoted to a leadership position more than those with a need for affiliation, for instance. Similarly, people with a need for affiliation might be best placed in customer-facing roles where they can reap the rewards of social interactions.

  1. Equity theory

This theory, developed by John Stacey Adams, proposes that employees make comparisons of their job inputs and outcomes relative to others. Any inequities felt will then influence the degree of effort people put into their roles. Essentially, Adams believes that the biggest motivator for employees is that they’re paid and treated fairly.

If this is the case, one of the best ways you can improve employee performance is to increase their perception of equity. That might be through making salaries to all employees, so people know what level they’re at and what they need to work towards. Or, it might be through offering annual bonuses on top of salaries, so that people feel appropriately compensated for their work.

Identifying the motivation theory that works best

Understanding your employees as individuals is key, as what motivates one person won’t necessarily work for another. And while you must be fair when it comes to workplace perks and rewards, bear in mind that offering a standard package might not yield the same enthusiasm and productivity from every employee.

For many people – 70%, in fact – salary is the number one motivator at their job. This is likely to be even more prevalent now thanks to the cost of living crisis, but for those remaining 30% for whom it’s not a big driver, it’s important to consider other benefits that will work for them. 

Another 72% say that recognition for strong performance has a positive influence on their motivation, so you might want to present an award in your monthly Town Hall or offer incentives like extra days off for high performers. 

For others, being given challenging work is the best way to motivate them, with 33% of employees admitting they’re job hunting because they’re bored. For these individuals, why not give them more responsibility or offer training opportunities to drive their career forward?

As a manager, it’s part of your job to understand the intricacies of each of your employees, to give them the best experience possible and to help them produce the best quality work. If you’re not sure what people want, ask! You’ll probably find your team is likely to be honest about what makes them tick if they feel their opinions will be taken into consideration. So, something as simple as unlocking your team’s core motivations could be the key to a promising future for your business.

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