It is easy to talk about theories of motivation and to get an intellectual sense of what they mean.

It is quite another to see how such theories can be applied in practice by managers and supervisors. So let us not only look at the spotlessly clean intellectual walls of the behavioural psychologists but also at how their ideas can be applied in.


Motivation and Commitment

Motivation is about what makes people tick, what makes people act or behave in particular way. On a basic level, people are motivated towards a desired outcome, such as congratulations from their manager for a job well done, or are motivated to avoid an undesired outcome, such as a rollicking from the boss for work being late.

We are not machines.

Our motives for behaving the way we do are many and varied. Whether you stay behind at work to finish a report for your manager will depend on a whole complex of variables:  your predication as to what will happen if you don’t finish the report today; what your mental state is at the time-exhausted or fired with enthusiasm; what arrangements have you made at home for being late, and so on and so on.

Many times a day, consciously or unconsciously, we are making decisions-calculations-as to where to invest our energy.  Some of the factors which affect this calculation lie outside the individual – they are extrinsic. In the above example, where you need to stay back at work to finish a report for your manager, the extrinsic factors are, the pressure from the manager to finish the report, and the arrangements you have made at home. Other factors lie within the individual –they are intrinsic –such as how you feel about the pressure from your manager and the arrangement you have made at home, and how you view   yourself as an employee and as a family member.

Of course, extrinsic and intrinsic factors are not clearly separated from one another there is a complex interplay between them.


The important point is that extrinsic factors affect the way people feel about themselves. How an individual reacts to his or her manager will be in part a function of the trust and mutual respect built up between them.

As a manager, you have some control over the extrinsic factors which affect your employees. Over time, these will influence the way your employees’ respond to you. Your history of communication with them and resultant actions taken will contribute to their commitment, or otherwise, towards you. In their calculations-taken consciously or unconsciously many times a day – they will err on your side or not, at least partly as a result of how they have been treated by you in the past.

Since most of us in the business of generating commitment – of getting people opt in rather than opt out when they do their calculations – we need to begin to understand motivation and the factors affecting it. Let’s see what the psychologists and management theorists have to say.

The ideas of Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist, have had a considerable influence on management thinking since the late 1940s. Like Carl Rogers, another humanistic thinker, Maslow had a positive view of human nature, a belief in the individual’s potential for personal growth –what they called self-actualisation.

One of Mallow’s great contributions was his Hierarchy of Needs, which sees people as having a set of needs which they are motivated to satisfy. These form a hierarchy which can be displayed visually as a pyramid.

Maslow suggested that needs only motivate people when they are unsatisfied.  When applied to his hierarchy lower-order needs (basic physical needs, comfort, safety and security) have to be satisfied before higher-order needs (self-esteem and personal growth) assert themselves.

How does this apply in practice?  If your stomach is protesting loudly that you need food, then you are likely to find reading this article a real struggle. Your lower-order physiological needs are asserting themselves. If you are hungry, your needs for self-development temporarily takes a back seat.

OK, but how does this apply to your workplace?  If you make sure your workforce is getting its basic physical and safety needs met (reasonable working conditions, job security, etc.) what will this mean?

Will this mean that employees will now be ready and willing to work with colleagues to meet corporate objectives? Clearly, life is not as simple as this.  Applying Maslow’s Model, employees are likely to work towards company goals only where these are in harmony with their own personal goals. 

Also, following the hierarchy to its logical conclusion, once a certain set of needs are met, the next level will be achieved. Employees will never be satisfied until they have scaled the heights of the hierarchy.

Various researchers have followed up on Maslow’s ideas as they apply in the workplace. Fred Herzberg’s two-factor theory is based on looking at the main factors which result in either satisfying or dissatisfying experiences at work. The assumption is that if the individual is satisfied in their work, that this will mean good performance, or, at the very least, a willingness to stay on the job.


Factors leading to dissatisfaction were found to do with conditions pf work – company policy and administration, technical supervision, salary, interpersonal relations and physical working conditions. Herzberg called these the hygiene or maintenance factors. These are a necessary minimum for a healthy workplace – they make people come into work and stay there, but they don’t necessarily encourage people to be productive.  It is the other factors, the ‘satisfiers’ or ‘motivators’ – achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement – that encourage people to work harder.  Interpreted in Maslow’s terms, hygiene factors allow us to satisfy our basic needs and avoid pain, while motivators reflect people’s need for esteem and self-fulfillment.

The link between motivation and performance seem to be an obvious one. If individuals are highly motivated, they ill perform better.  In turn, better performance may well lead to a sense of achievement and result in greater motivation.

Thus the relationship between motivation and performance cab be a mutually reinforcing one.

This, however, begs a number of questions to do with perception, ability and stress.


Yes, motivated individuals may do more work, but this will need to be carefully managed if they aren’t going to spend most of their energy on aspects of work they find stimulating, which may be of little or no benefit to the company.

Yes, motivated employees may be more productive, provided they have the requisite skills to do the job and the perception to realize whether they have or not.  It is just as important to take steps to improve ability by means of good selection and training as it is to pay attention to motivation.

Lastly, motivation implies pressure – to move forward, to do more- but too much pressure, in other words too much stress, can be harmful in both the short and the long term. Of course, the answer is balance. In the short-term, we need sufficient pressure to concentrate well and do the job quickly and efficiently, but not so much that panic starts to intrude an concentration becomes difficult. In the medium to long term, we must avoid working to exhaustion.


* Sunila Karan is a Counselling Psychologist