Business Leadership Today

The Three Approaches to Employee Motivation


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

Employee motivation is an essential component of high performance and long-term profitability for any company because motivated employees tend to be more engaged, committed, and productive on the job.

Over the years, leaders have tried many different approaches to employee motivation, with mixed success. 

The stick-and-carrot approaches of the past, which are structured around systems of penalties and rewards, are rooted in outdated notions about what motivates employees. 

They either seek to motivate employees by keeping them in a constant state of fear of punishment if they do not comply (stick approach) or place too much emphasis on compensation and extrinsic motivators as primary motivators for employees (carrot approach). 

Most of us have learned at this point that there is much more to employee motivation than the fear of punishment or the promise of financial rewards, and there’s mounting evidence that intrinsic motivators play a significant role in motivating employees. Although compensation is certainly a significant motivator for workers, our employees need things from their jobs that go beyond salary and benefits. 

While we know some of the traditional approaches to employee motivation leave much to be desired in terms of effectiveness, it is still challenging to land on a one-size-fits-all approach, as different employees are motivated by different things and have different needs.

There are three major approaches to employee motivation that are need-based: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, McClelland’s need theory, and Herzberg’s two-factor theory. These theories are focused on the psychological needs that motivate employees and the behaviors that they choose.

In this article, I’ll explore these need-based approaches to employee motivation and how they can serve as a good foundation for an organization’s employee motivation strategies.

Employee Motivation Explained

Employee motivation is the level of energy, commitment, and creativity that employees bring to their roles and describes how invested they are in their job, how engaged they are with the organization’s goals, and how empowered they feel in their daily work to achieve those goals and reach their full potential.

There are two types of motivation:

  • Extrinsic motivation is motivation to participate in an activity based on meeting an external goal, earning praise or approval, winning a contest or competition, or receiving an award or payment. In the workplace, salary and benefits are the biggest extrinsic motivators. 
  • Intrinsic motivation is defined as doing an activity for its inherent rewards rather than for a separable consequence.

A certain amount of both forms of motivation is essential to leading highly motivated teams. 

Three Major Approaches To Employee Motivation

There are three major approaches to employee motivation that are based on needs. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow, this motivational theory is built on the idea that humans have five levels of needs: physiological, safety, social, ego, and self-actualizing. Lower-level basic needs must be satisfied before employees progress up the hierarchy in pursuit of higher-level needs.

Physical: These are the most basic needs—food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep, etc. These are the needs that compensation should satisfy for employees.

Security: These are the needs that must be satisfied for people to feel safe—health, employment, and personal and financial safety. In order to cooperate and collaborate, employees need to feel psychologically safe in the workplace. 

Social: These are related to people’s need for belonging and love—family, friendship, trust, acceptance, etc. Humans are hardwired to form groups and need to feel that they belong in and are valued by the group.

Ego: These are related to our need for recognition, respect, self-esteem, and status. Purposeful work often meets this core need for people. 

Self-actualization: At this level, after lower-level needs are met, people are more focused on growth and reaching their full potential.

McClelland’s Three Needs Theory

Psychologist David McClelland’s “Three Needs Theory” proposed that each person has three basic needs: the need for power, achievement, or affiliation. An individual’s particular need will impact their behavior.

Need for power: These employees are motivated to accomplish group goals, driven to compete, value discipline, and aspire to positions of power. 

Need for achievement: These employees want to excel, like a challenge, and are motivated by accomplishing goals and achieving success. 

Need for affiliation: These employees are team-oriented and thrive in collaborative work environments because they value social interactions.

Herzberg’s Motivation Theory

Herzberg’s theory, also known as the dual-structure approach, was developed by psychologist Frederick Herzberg and grouped workers’ needs into two categories: hygienes and motivators. Hygiene, or extrinsic factors, include pay, job security, and work environment. Motivators, or intrinsic factors, include recognition, achievement, and growth. 

According to Herzberg, if employees aren’t happy at work, it is because of the work environment, but when they’re happy at work, it’s because they are fulfilled by their work and motivated to perform. 

The Best Strategies for Motivating Employees

The key to being a great leader is being able to motivate employees to do great work. It’s not just about ensuring the day-to-day work of the team is done; it’s about inspiring each team member to engage mentally and emotionally with their work and turn that engagement into positive action that is aligned with the organization’s vision.

Leaders motivate their teams by communicating effectively, recognizing contributions, providing autonomy, maintaining a healthy work environment, offering professional growth opportunities, and helping them find meaning and purpose in their work. 

These strategies can help employees meet the needs outlined by Maslow, which will keep them motivated and engaged at work.

Communicating Effectively

To motivate them, leaders need to be able to communicate effectively with their employees. Clearly communicating goals, objectives, job duties, and expectations provides the clarity all employees need to stay motivated to do their jobs well and with self-confidence.

Recognizing Contributions

Because it is such a powerful tool for building engagement, a sense of belonging, and motivation, recognition should always be part of the communication process. When employees’ contributions are recognized, they are up to 10 times as likely to strongly agree that they belong with the organization, and 80% of employees report being more productive when recognition and rewards are utilized to motivate them.

Providing Autonomy

Research has shown that motivated employees are more oriented towards autonomy and independence and are more self-driven than less motivated employees. By giving employees autonomy, you are forging strong, trust-based relationships with them and, at the same time, encouraging them to hold themselves accountable and take ownership of their roles. 

Maintaining a Healthy Work Environment

Creating and maintaining a healthy work environment that is positive, inclusive, and collaborative is essential to keeping employees motivated. Maintaining a positive work environment provides a positive employee experience and the ideal conditions for employees to do their best work. By ensuring the work environment is inclusive, employees have a strong sense of belonging that keeps them motivated and productive. 

Offering Professional Growth Opportunities

To feel motivated in their roles, employees need to be able to grow and develop their skills, build new knowledge, and see a clear path to advancement. When leaders offer opportunities that help employees to grow, it shows them that the organization is committed enough to them to invest in them. 

Finding Meaning

Helping your team members to see a bigger purpose in their work, find meaning in their day-to-day duties, and see the impact of the work they do can have a positive effect on motivation. For many people, work helps them meet their needs to accomplish goals and make a difference in the world. Doing meaningful work can improve performance and keep employees highly motivated.

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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