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Popular Psychological Theories on Work Motivation

By Andrej Kovacevic

October 2020 - The world is full of flash-in-the-pan theories that work for a very short space of time, and then fade out of existence as they become less and less useful. Yet, there are clearly many people who are highly motivated in their careers without really truly understanding why, so we should try to figure out what motivates some people to work harder than others.

The search for a secret, or the "Key to success" is a fool's errand. There is no single secret, and that is the primary take-away from this article. Each theory in this article is just as right and applicable as the last, since there is no single answer to psychology of work motivation.

Maslow's Theory of the Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow puts forward the idea that satisfied needs do not motivate. The idea is that if you have certain needs and desires, then said desires may motivate you to action, even if the action will not fulfill your desire or need.

As a contradictory point, this theory plays into what hack motivationalists say in how you have to be uncomfortable in order to remain motivated. The fact is that very happy and very satisfied people can be highly motivated at work and may in fact work better if they are happy and satisfied. Yet, other people are motivated by a sexual desire, ambitious desire, and sometimes by the fear of poverty to the point where their desire is what motivates them to work so hard.

Read more about Maslow here.

Maxwell's Beat The Grind Theory

Ashley Maxwell's theory is based on the idea that motivation is not something you create or stoke, but is something that you manage over a long period of time. Motivation at work is not something that is inspired by quotes, or through affirmations, or through positivity. Instead, motivation is managed more like a steam train - not getting to hot, too cold, not overworking, not coasting, and so forth.

This sits in contradiction to prolific workers who seem to do their best work during manic episodes, and then burn out for however long before starting the process again. On the other hand, there are many jobs where high peaks and deep troughs are not possible, so the notion that you manage your motivation in the same way you may manage your weight, is not without its merits.

Read more about the Grind Theory here.

Alderfer's Existence (E), Relatedness (R), and Growth (G) Theory

Clayton Paul Alderfer took the Maslow Hierarchy Model and changed it with the notion that if you satisfy your lower needs, then your higher tier needs become more powerful. In other words, a hungry, horny, sleepy, thirsty, lonely person is less likely to feel motivated at work.

This stands in stark contradiction to the many times we have seen highly motivated workers in developing countries achieve massive amounts while most of their lower needs are unfulfilled. Yet, even common sense says that somebody who is lonely, hungry, sleepy, etc., is going to be a more distracted and less motivated worker under most circumstances.

Read more about ERG here.

Hanin's Optimal Functioning Hypothesis

Yuri Hanin's work is often unfairly pigeonholed into essays about sports motivation. The optimal/optimum functioning hypothesis claims there is an inverted U arousal-performance relationship, which also applies to anxiety-performance, desire-performance, enthusiasm-performance, and so forth.

Let's use an enthusiasm-performance example. Let's say you could measure something like your enthusiasm for a job, where 1 is very unenthusiastic, and 10 is hyper-enthusiastic. Hanin claims that an enthusiasm level of 5 is the best, claiming you would perform best at 5 for the longest period of time. The idea is that nearer number 1 would be too unmotivated, and nearer 10 would be so motivated that you would burn out quickly and stall.

Contradicting this theory is the fact that no matter how aroused you are, how much desire you have, how much anxiety you feel, etc., it is often impossible to maintain such emotions over the long term. Asking people to keep it at "5" would be no different than asking people to "Not" be hungry when they haven't eaten.

Yet, the Yerkes-Dodson law seems correct when it states that people with higher anxiety/desire/enthusiasm/etc., are less likely to perform well at complicated tasks. Ergo, aiming to temper your feelings into a middle ground area is probably your best bet if you want long-term motivation and productivity.

Read more about Hanin here.

Final Thoughts - Contradiction After Contradiction

"Reinforcement theory," based on Skinner's operant conditioning theory was left out of this article, not because it is wrong (though it may be), but because positive reinforcement is not in your hands, it is in the hands of your employer. The theories noted in this article are all ones you can use to affect your own work motivation, whereas the reinforcement theory is not something you can control in order to affect your motivation.

Do not be afraid to take a few mental health courses in which you may learn about how self-determination and a feeling of control contributes to a healthier state of mind. The very fact that you are free to determine your motivation may be a motivating factor in itself. Learn a little about mental health, and you will also see that people who feel they have no control will often slip into a depressive state, which is often fraught with motivation problems.

A key point made in this article was to point out how each theory is both right and wrong. So, the key take-away from this article is that if you hold true to a single motivational theory, then you are probably just as right as you are wrong. The best thing you can do is to learn more about the theories behind work motivation, and learn a little more about mental health, since it also plays a big role in a person's motivation.

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