Basic Employee Motivation Theories

Employee motivation theories are varied, but a few theories have stood the test of time and are relied upon for encouraging workers throughout the corporate world. Because human beings are unique, employee motivation is a subjective topic. What motivates one person may de-motivate another, making this a difficult topic to master.

Theorists have tried to identify universal human qualities as they develop theories behind motivation in the workplace, but you will have to think about your specific employees to determine which of these theories actually applies to the people in your sphere of influence. Here are three theories to consider:

Carrot and Stick
This theory, credited first to Sigmund Freud, relies on the idea that employees are inherently unmotivated to work and would rather be anywhere but at the job being productive. Many schools operate on this principle, believing that children will not learn unless they are policed, coerced and rewarded or punished with grades and privileges in order to get them to perform.

Likewise, many workplaces operate under this carrot-and-stick motivation practice, with rewards and punishments doled out via managers, performance reviews, benefits, perks and public humiliation or exaltation. In such an environment, strict hours, dress codes, bonuses and reversion of privileges are tightly managed in an effort to prod, poke and lure employees into performing efficiently.

Self-Development
Douglas McGregor's theory is founded on the idea that human beings are inherently motivated to learn and work as long as they see their skills improving and feel they are making a difference in the world around them. This theory purports that employees will perform well if they are given the opportunity to advance their knowledge, create a product or provide a service that brings emotional fulfillment. As a result, the employee will feel productive and proud of himself. This theory suggests that, as long as the work is rewarding, all employees will be motivated to do their very best every day.

Satisfy the Base Human Needs
This theory, developed by Abraham Maslow, puts forth the idea that a person will work to meet her basic needs. These needs may be as foundational as physiological needs (food, water, a place to live) or as lofty as the need to feel one is making a difference in the world. The key to motivating employees, therefore, is to determine which needs the employee is seeking to meet. Is he interested in working just to pay the bills, or does this employee wish to create a product that will better the world? Then the employer would present the task at hand in such a way as to meet the need of that particular employee.

Employee Motivation Theory: How Can You Translate Theory Into Practice?
The key to moving from theory to practice is always to determine how the theory practically applies to the people with whom you are working. Notice what motivates the people in your group. Do they respond best to praise? To relaxed hours and a relaxed dress code? To structure and advertised perks related to performance? You may need to experiment with the translation of these theories into practice before you discover which theory works best for your workplace.

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