How to Use Motivation Theory as a Team (Theory + Application)

Motivation theories explore the foundation of what drives people to achieve a particular outcome.

We hope you find these frameworks as useful as we have in fostering a productive environment for your team based on the psychology behind human motivation.

“Theory” is great, and can be incredibly important to know…

…but, it can equally be dangerous to introduce what, in isolation, are abstract concepts.

So, in this practical guide we cover both the foundational concepts as well as how you can put them into practice in your team. 

Alright, let’s get straight to it.

5 Motivation Theories & Frameworks You Can Use To Drive Your Team and Company Forward 

1 – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

If you’ve done any previous reading into motivation (as well as happiness in general) – it’s very likely you’ll be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. 

It’s by far the most well-known one we’ll cover today.

The hierarchy of needs was published by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”

The “TL;DR” (too long; didn’t read) summary for the busy leaders out there…

The hierarchy of needs depicts five levels of human needs: 

  1. Physiological needs: Food, water, shelter, air, sleep, clothing.
  2. Safety needs: Personal well-being, employment, resources, health.
  3. Love and belonging: Family, friendship, intimacy, a sense of connection.
  4. Esteem: Status, recognition, self-esteem, respect. 
  5. Self-actualization: Even if all of the above needs are satisfied – a new discontent and restlessness can develop. Maslow described this as achievable when the individual is doing what they are suited for – i.e., a musician must make music, etc. In its simplest form, some boil this down to “achieving your full potential”. 

Of course, the theory is based on the premise of a hierarchy – as is self-evident from the actual levels. People tend to seek out their basic needs first (starting with 1 and approaching 5 once they have achieved the others).

That said, I think I can speak on behalf of everyone reading this article in saying that the pursuit of these needs is, without a doubt, not always sequential

Fortunately, this is something Maslow also clarifies in his original paper. You don’t have to fully satisfy the needs of one level in order to proceed to the next level. It would be somewhat idealistic to think that humans work this way – they often mix priorities based on what they feel is more relevant to them personally.

“No need or drive can be treated as if it were isolated or discrete; every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other drives.”

– Abraham Maslow

In fact, the whole premise of the hierarchy being depicted as a pyramid wasn’t even created by Maslow himself. And, to this day, many (including myself) find it to be a misleading representation as it implies that each level must be completed before someone can begin the pursuit of the needs of the next level.

Which, as described above, is simply not the case.

Note: Everything you read about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs today is an adaptation – including this very post – to make it more suitable and applicable to modern-day workplaces, leadership, team building, etc. 

So, what’s the takeaway from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Perhaps the only takeaway from this for you as a leader is that you need to have the basics in place before you can worry about the details

So at the most fundamental level, if you hire a full-time employee but don’t pay them a salary that allows them to fulfill their needs to a reasonable degree – you can’t expect them to give work at your organization their “all”. Pay indexes are your friend, but discussing compensation openly, as well as what progressing to higher compensation would involve before you hire someone, is crucial. 

Use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to question whether you are providing working conditions that are conducive to people delivering their best work. 

And continuously consider this approach. Has a family member recently passed away? Is there a situation that genuinely affects their ability to focus? It’s your job as a leader to account for circumstances beyond their control. Again, all within reason, of course.

None of this is to suggest that you can’t have high standards for your team – as long as you do whatever you can to maintain the best working conditions possible – even if they aren’t always ideal. The best hires will recognize the efforts & intentions made by a leader.

And they’ll be fully aware that no company they ever could work at – even the ones they dream of getting into (yes, you’re probably not Apple or Google) – is ever going to be perfect for them either. There will always be something missing. 

2 – Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory

The Motivation-Hygiene Theory was created by Frederick Herzberg, a behavioral scientist, in 1959. 

The theory was based on the results of interviews that asked two questions: 

  1. Think of a time you felt good about your job.

    What made you feel that way?
  2. Think of a time you felt bad about your job.

    What made you feel that way?

From these interviews, Herzberg identified that there are two mutually exclusive factors that influence employee satisfaction or dissatisfaction. 

  • Hygiene in this context, this means the fundamental things at work. Examples include how good the working conditions are, how much people get paid, how they are supervised, and the rules of the company.

    When these basic things are done right, employees usually stay happy with their jobs. But, if these things are not provided and are outright missing, then employees start to become unhappy with their jobs.
  • Motivators are special extras at work. Think of things like benefits, praise, and the chance to move up within the company. When these things are offered, they help to make employees more eager to work, more productive, and more dedicated to their jobs.

In short, hygiene issues will cause dissatisfaction that will directly hinder motivation. Motivators, on the other hand, can improve satisfaction and motivation – but only when good hygiene is in place to begin with.

So, how does Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory apply in practice? 

As you can tell, from a big-picture view, much of human behavior is fundamentally simple. This is almost an abstraction of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – in the sense that basic needs need to be satisfied before moving to extras that can be used to increase motivation further. 

The only difference is that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as you’d expect from the original theory, was more descriptive. Herzberg’s theory, on the other hand, focused specifically on the takeaways as applicable to the workplace – with the goal of giving managers a simple, two-part framework they can use to sense-check the presence of hygiene factors before looking at motivators. 

This is something that you can actively ask in 1:1s with your team. Don’t ponder in private – publicly question how you operate, and involve your team – at least, your senior leadership team. Assuming they are bought in, they are going to care about how they can contribute to improving the company as a whole. 

Sidenote: Most companies I’ve come across in my career (as an advisor) have not achieved the basic hygiene needs to an extent that would warrant any interest in motivators. It’s quite difficult to achieve even the basic hygiene needs as an early-stage company.

3 – Vroom’s Expectancy Theory

Vroom’s expectancy theory, created by Canadian psychologist Victor Vroom in 1964, is easy to understand: we choose how we behave, and we make these choices because we expect certain things to happen. 

Put even simpler: We do things to feel good and avoid feeling bad.

Vroom found that different people care about different things. He looked closely at two ideas that affect why we want to do well:

  1. Instrumentality: People think that if they do well, they will get a reward.
  2. Expectancy: People believe that if they try harder, they will get a better reward.

Vroom’s theory says that people need to believe that their actions will lead to a result they care about. If you want to motivate people, they have to be interested in the results of their actions.

So, how does Vroom’s Expectancy Theory apply in practice? 

First off, take into consideration that not everyone on your team likes the same rewards. Find out what matters to each person. 

That way, you can make decisions that connect with what would be indicative of “doing well”. For some team members, buying a book could be viewed as you requiring them to learn, because they’re not good enough. 

This is similar to what a career development plan does. But not everything we do at work comes with a reward – sometimes, we do things simply because it’s our job.

Vroom’s theory is about trying to feel good, and not bad. When a reward isn’t possible, it’s important to let employees know what will happen if they don’t meet expectations. Not everything can or should be rewarded, as this would also set misaligned expectations for the entire team.

And you can’t let the fact that some people require more motivation than others affect the way you treat them, as you risk creating a significant disparity in working conditions for the people who – in theory – work harder and keep their heads down. 

4 – Reinforcement Theory

Reinforcement theory is part of a bigger idea called ‘operant conditioning’. 

This idea comes from psychologist B.F. Skinner. He built on the work of Edward Thorndike, who created the Law of Effect in 1898.

The main point of this theory is simple: whatever happens after we do something affects what we do next. If doing something works out well for us (positive reinforcement) or stops something bad (negative reinforcement), we’re likely to do it again.

This theory is about what happens outside of us, not what we feel inside. It’s like when you learn not to touch a hot stove because you got burned before.

So, how does Reinforcement Theory apply in practice? 

Because this idea is so natural to us (like the example of learning from the hot stove), it works well for managing a team. When someone on your team does something good, give them a reward. This could be a compliment, taking away a task they don’t like, or something special (like a book or other gift that is a suitable gesture for the company to offer).

5 – Self-Determination Theory

In 1985, Psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci first introduced the Self-Determination Theory in their book – which focused on finding motivation within yourself.

They raise what some view to be a contrarian point, which is that motivation shouldn’t be introduced in the way that many others consider motivation to work – i.e., controlled motivation, where people base their motivation on external factors that are largely beyond their control.

Instead, they advise shifting the focus to something that is (perhaps) far more effective – autonomous or intrinsic motivation. This is the concept that people are motivated because they’re doing something that matches their own personal goals or desires and that this comes from within themselves. 

Simply put, it’s when people feel motivated because they’re actually choosing to do something on their own. 

Despite this, you can’t foster intrinsic motivation in isolation – it requires three other psychological needs to be met: 

  1. Need for Autonomy: The psychological need to feel that one has choices and ownership over our actions.
  2. Need for Competence: The psychological need to feel skilled, knowledgeable, and capable.
  3. Need for Relatedness: The psychological need to feel connected, and belong to a social group.

So, how does Self-Determination Theory apply in practice? 

There’s no other way to put this: achieving this in a workplace is difficult.

Why? This is largely because most companies aren’t huge self-organizing systems as they’re led by a leader or leadership team.

It’s difficult to create this as a company and team. For some organizations, depending on how they work, I’d argue it would be an impossible feat to achieve intrinsic motivation. 

Your ability to create this depends on so many things, including (but not limited to) your business model, the caliber of the talent that you’re attracting, who your customers are, and the mission you serve. 

However, here are some places where most companies should be able to make progress, and which are worth focusing on: 

  • Autonomy: Empower employees by allowing them to have flexible schedules – the freedom to choose their optimal working times and locations.
  • Competence: Enhance their skill sets by providing access to ongoing training and learning opportunities.
  • Relatedness: Foster team bonding and personal connections through dedicated communication channels, such as Slack, or by organizing team outings.

After Action Report – Motivation Isn’t Guesswork, Don’t Let It Be

Motivation is volatile for most of us. 

Even as leaders, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s something that we sometimes achieve when all the conditions just happen to be right. 

And even then, how long can that realistically stay completely level? 

Your responsibility as a leader is to do as much as you can to contribute to the conditions being “just right” for your team, and to maintain the consistency of those conditions. This doesn’t require a degree in psychology or the ability to read the minds of everyone on your team – it requires being open, and communicating so that you ultimately lead with transparency & candor. 

If you have any questions or things you’d like to contribute, feel free to Tweet us at  @atarim_io. 👋

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