Popular motivation theories

Did you motivate someone today?

Intrinsic or extrinsic

Broadly there are two ways of looking at human motivation. One view is that motivation is triggered externally by reward or punishment (extrinsic motivation) whilst another view has motivation triggered internally by the impulse to satisfy human needs (intrinsic motivation).  

Economists tend to see humans as primarily rational and thus responsive to tangible rewards like pay and bonuses, whereas psychologists, sociologists and people managers know that humans are very rarely entirely rational and will react dramatically to internal emotions, needs or desires.

It is now widely accepted that intrinsic motivation models are the most useful for looking at employee energy, commitment and engagement.  So a basic understanding of how intrinsic motivation operates is absolutely vital for managers who are charged with the responsibility of motivating their teams.

Motivation and needs

Intrinsic motivation theories talk about human ‘needs and drives' and most mainstream theories classify our needs into three groups. Confusion can arise because each theorist uses different labels and descriptions for these needs.  So trying to understand motivation is often a challenge of semantics rather than theory.

Most theories are based on qualitative empirical research and some, like the work of Deci & Ryan and Hinds, are founded in both qualitative and quantitative research which lends greater scientific validity and weight to their conclusions.

This table is a summary of the most prominent motivation theories.


Click to enlarge


The best theories in brief

Most of the widely accepted and validated motivation theories have their roots in the psychoanalytic ideas from Sigmund Freud who theorised motivation is derived from our fundamental instincts for procreation and survival, for ‘sex and war’. He also recognised that there was another, higher order need that he called the human need for spirituality or creative expression.

Abraham Maslow’s popular ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ theory proposes humans have needs that we seek to address in an hierarchical order, progressing with maturity and success to satisfy our physiological, safety, belonging, then esteem and self-actualisation needs.

David McClelland’s acquired needs theory proposes that individuals acquire needs for Achievement (to excel), Affiliation (to relate) and to have Authority (power) as a result of their life experiences.

Clayton Alderfer’s ERG theory collapsed Maslow’s five need sets into three that he labelled Existence, Relatedness and Growth – giving rise to the acronym ERG.

Joan-Mary Hinds’ investigations into motivational dynamics in organisations approached understanding motivation from examination of its absence (boredom) with extensive research to discover motivation’s organisational triggers. The Tripartite Motivation Theory identifies three intrinsic human needs; affiliation (we), achievement (me), actualisation (it) that respond to organisational characteristics (drivers) which fluctuate by sector, workplace, industry and time.

Edward Deci & Richard Ryan’s Self-determination theory proposes we have three innate psychological needs: for competence (challenge and success), autonomy (choice and action), and relatedness (respect and reliance on others). They prove that work satisfaction and performance are linked to how well these three needs are satisfied.

Lawrence & Nohria developed a model of four drives they believe are at the heart of organisational dynamics and success, namely employees’ drives to acquire, to bond, to learn and to defend.

Another professor from Harvard, Rosabeth Moss Kanter applies needs theory to organisational management with a model stating employees seek mastery, membership and meaning in their work.

And the widely popular Daniel Pink has re framed the thoughts of Deci & Ryan and other motivation theorists to construct his popular three drives model stating humans are driven by the need for autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Whilst popular, this model seems to ignore a need group that all other theories include, namely the human need to relate, connect and bond – our primal human need for love and community.

The best of the best

The Hinds Tripartite Motivation Theory is the easiest for managers to use. It summarises motivation as occurring when an individual’s need for We, Me and It are satisfied. In the context of work, this means employees have sufficient:

  • We: teamwork, bonding, collaboration, and sense of belonging
  • Me: opportunities to achieve, exercise skills and capabilities, succeed and learn
  • It: alignment of personal values, self-expression, a sense of purpose, and meaning

Motivation's secret sauce

So what is the secret to human motivation?  What can managers do to make sure their teams experience enough positive We, Me and It, to motivate them?

According to Deci & Ryan the conditions that support motivation are freedom, choice and autonomy. These ideas are echoed by Hinds who emphasises creating an optimal balance of ‘freedom’ with ‘order’.  This means providing people with freedom and autonomy they need to express themselves, make choices, provide input, participate and be creative; within an environment and leadership that provides order, safety, structure, sensible processes, systems and a purpose that is reliable and valued.

  • Rules without explanation do not support motivation - whilst mutually agreed and well understood rules do.
  • Meetings where nobody other than the manager talks do not support motivation - whilst meetings where people feel free to have their say and provide input do.
  • Managers who only delegate, monitor and discipline do not support motivation - whilst managers who listen, coach, empathise and support individual learning do.

Hinds’ employee research studies over many years investigated workplace conditions that promote motivation including the specific behaviours that make a motivating manager.

The motivating manager

The top five behaviours managers can do to motivate their teams are:

Be approachable: did one of your team ask to speak to you today? how did you respond? how often do you initiate a conversation with your individual team members to ask how they are, how they are going, if they need or want anything? Motivating managers have more than just an open door – they initiate conversations – all the time!

Be a good communicator: do you share information often and easily? do you answer questions or avoid them? do you repeat important messages or assume people ‘get it’ the first time?  Motivating managers communicate often and well.

Be effective at management: do you demonstrate effective time and workflow management? do you initiate and facilitate regular team meetings and work-in-progress reviews? do you help your team achieve work-life balance? Motivating managers are more than experts in their particular knowledge or skill area – they take managing their team seriously and devote time to pure people management tasks.

Develop your people: do you support the training and development needs of the people in your team? do you use innovative ways to give people new experiences and learn new skills? Motivating managers don’t wait for their people to ask for training, they offer it and discuss development regularly.

Coach your people: do you teach your team by demonstration? do you stop what you are doing to assist one of your team when they need it? Motivating managers are coaches, they work beside and with their teams and offer hands-on support at the time it is needed.

the daily motivating manager quiz

You will motivate someone today if you do any of the following.

  • Say yes when a colleague asks ‘do you have a minute to talk?’
  • Speak directly to one or more people in your team to share news about the business, a client or project.
  • Spend time organising or managing an event, timetable or workflow for your team
  • Say yes to a request for training or assign someone to a different task or project
  • Stop what you are doing to demonstrate or answer a team member’s need for help or advice.

If you do any one of these five things today…congratulations you will have motivated someone!


Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000). The"what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

Hinds, J-M., (1994) 'New Directions in Management', McGraw-Hill, Australia edited by A. Kouzmin and L.V. Still. Chapter: Employee boredom in the workplace: a contribution to motivational theory and organisational productivity.

Hinds, J-M., & Vanderkruk, L. (2015). Unpublished manuscript working title ‘We, Me and It'.