Current Theories on Understanding Employee Motivation

Current Theories on Understanding Employee Motivation
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Understanding the Basics

Even in a down economy, you can’t simply count on wages to keep your team invested. The paycheck keeps employees present, but in no way does it guarantee motivation. Instead, competitive wages need to be part of a multi-tiered approach that addresses all of the needs of your workforce.

In their book Understanding Management, authors Richard Daft and Dorothy Marcic offer an in-depth look into the human psyche as it relates to employment using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory. As you might imagine, finances do play a part in creating the basis for need fulfillment, but only a part.

Maslow states that physiological needs come first in a hierarchy. By paying your employees you give them the means to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families. According to Daft and Marcic, however, in addition to a base salary you should also provide for the relative comfort of employees, usually by maintaining proper heating and air conditioning. Obviously some employees work outside or in specialized climates. In those cases, you should take measures to make up for this lack in other areas further down the hierarchy.

Safety is Maslow’s second need. Providing this starts with a safe work environment and extends to benefits such as health insurance, as well as job security. These are basics for many positions out there, and in most cases employers already account for these first two levels. When you move up the hierarchy, however, things start to get a bit more complicated.

Meeting the Higher Needs

Level three of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs begins to delve into the more human side of employees. This level is called, “belongingness,” and according to Daft and Marcic, the work side of this need manifests in relationships with coworkers, clients and supervisors. These relationships need to not only exist but also be healthy. Work friendships and good relations with clients serve as motivators, while personal issues with coworkers or supervisors have the opposite effect.

Esteem needs come in fourth according to Maslow. In reference to understanding employee motivation, this means approval. As an employer, you can fill your employees’ esteem needs by recognizing a good job through praise, as well as through more formal forms of recognition such as merit raises, bonuses and promotions. These acknowledgments of appreciation will serve as an excellent motivation for most workers. On the other hand, lack of opportunity for raises and advancement leaves your employees apathetic at best, and looking to get out of a “dead end job” at worst.

Finally, Maslow places self-actualization at the top of the hierarchy. According to Daft and Marcic, you can fulfill this need at work and provide excellent motivation for employees by focusing on the human need to progress as an individual. Many companies fulfill this need by offering continuing education credits, providing for workshop and seminar attendance, or assigning employees to creative projects.

Understanding the hierarchy is only part of the motivation equation, however. To really get the most out of your workforce, you need to offer incentives at every need level, consider your industry’s culture, and build a comprehensive motivation plan to meet the specific needs of your employees.

Modern Motivators

Now that you can see how Maslow’s hierarchy of needs relates to employees, how do you turn that into an innovative plan to get your team motivated? Lawrence J. Gitman and Carl McDaniel offer some suggestions for understanding employee motivation in their book, The Future of Business: The Essentials.

One suggestion that won’t cost an extra dollar but offers a huge return in terms of motivation is flexible scheduling. Your company may already utilize flexible schedules, but the idea here is to allow employees to choose. Although we may live in a nine to five world, people’s internal clocks don’t always cooperate. In some cases, a shift in work schedule forward or back by just a couple of hours might enable an employee to work when he or she is most motivated. A worker who regularly seems tired or sluggish may simply be a night owl. Let this employee come to work a bit later in the day and you might be astonished at the increase in productivity.

Try offering four 10-hour shifts instead of five eight-hour ones, or consider permitting employees to telecommute for at least part of the work week. The more choice you allow your employees, the more you are reinforcing your respect and trust in them, which fills the need for esteem.

In the area of self-actualization, tuition reimbursement is increasing in popularity, but so is another, less well-known practice: sabbatical. According to Gitman and McDaniel, a practice once reserved for academia is gaining traction in the corporate world. They cite the fact that, “about 75% of office employees feel that work has infiltrated their private lives,” and recommend offering sabbaticals at 50% pay to allow employees to pursue personal interests. The additional benefit of this practice for the employer is that since sabbaticals are often used for educational purposes, the employee who returns to work is likely to be more of an asset than the one who left.

Where once the bottom three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy satisfied most workers, understanding employee motivation today must include esteem and self-actualization needs as well. Meet these needs with innovative strategies that emphasize choice and flexibility, and watch your employees get motivated.


Daft, Richard L and Dorothy Marcic (2010). Understanding Management. Cengage Learning. 1439042322, 9781439042328

Gitman, Lawrence J. and Carl McDaniel (2008). The Future of Business: The Essentials. Cengage Learning.

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