How to motivate your team (there’s more to know than Maslow!)

Most managers I work will, 9 times out of 10, refer to Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ when I ask them about motivation and motivating their teams. This isn’t a surprise as it’s perhaps the most well-known of the various motivation theories. However, it’s a real shame as there are several other motivation theories worthy of note that could really help those of you in leadership roles to take your team to the next level.

Motivation theories are split in to two camps. Those in the ‘needs’ camp and those in the ‘process’ camp.

Needs theories of motivation stem from the basis that every human has a variety of needs they need to satisfy. Meet these needs and a person is more likely to be motivated to achieve more. 

HIERARCHY OF NEEDS – Abraham Maslow (1954)

In this model, it’s assumed that a person’s needs are activated in a sequential manner. In other words, fail to meet the preceeding need and you can’t expect someone to be pumped up to achieve the next level. The hierarchy of needs is as follows:

  1. Physiological: such as hunger, thirst or sex
  2. Safety: protection against danger, threat of deprivation
  3. Social: belonging, association, acceptance, giving and receiving friendship/love
  4. Esteem: (a) self-esteem – self confidence and independence; and (b) esteem from others – status, recognition, appreciation, deserved respect of others.
  5. Self-actualisation: realising true potential, continued self-development

Maslow’s model assumes that when a need is satisfied it decreases in strength, ceasing to dominate behaviour. A word of caution though, a satisfied need is not a motivation (this only applies to the first three). Satisfaction of four and five leads to immediate desire for more “higher” experiences – which is when you can start to see dissatisfied high potential employees.

TWO-FACTOR THEORY – Frederick Herzberg (1959)

Herzberg’s theory is built around the notion that there are specific factors in the workplace that lead to job satisfaction. The theory focuses largely on satisfaction as an outcome, as opposed to any productivity itself being an outcome.

  1. Motivators (a.k.a. satisfiers): these satisfy the higher needs – creating satisfaction – and stem from the intrinsic content of the job, e.g. challenge, meaning in one’s work etc.
  2. Hygiene factors (a.k.a. dissatisfiers): these satisfy the lower needs – creating dissatisfaction if not met – and stem from extrinsic job context, e.g. pay, quality of supervision, lunch allowance etc

Critics of Herzberg’s theory say the emphasis on satisfaction/dissatisfaction means that behavioural criteria such s performance, absenteeism, turnover etc is largely ignored. Nonethless, it’s a simple model to use and helps managers understand what’s important to people in a work context.

THREE-NEEDS THEORY – David McClelland (1961)


This theory focuses particularly on those in managerial roles. McClelland identifies three areas of motivation:

  1. The need for achievement – people who score highly on this need tend to like feedback on their efforts tackling work of moderate difficulty. They are more likely to thrive in organisations with a clear hierarchy where there is a clear prospect of promotion i.e. working one’s way up the ladder.
  2. The need for power – people who score highly on this need enjoys competition, winning, influencing and prestige. They may struggle to work collaboratively in a team or collaborative context as they tend towards a win-lose mentality. Status is key here.
  3. The need for affiliation  – people who score highly on this need are motivated by building and maintaining relationships. They tend to be the ones who enjoy working as part of a team or on collaborative projects. They may not challenge ideas from leaders for fear of causing upset.

McClelland subsequently found that those in leadership positions tended to have a high need for power and a low need for affiliation. This clearly has implications for those of you leading a senior management team where collaboration is needed and can provide a helpful clue as to why there might be a silo-mentality in a leadership team.

Process theories of motivation focus on behaviour, looking at how certain behaviours can be started, changed or stopped in order to achieve a specific outcome.

EXPECTANCY THEORY – Victor Vroom (1964)


Vroom’s theory states that motivation (M) is a function of the expectancy (E) of achieving a certain outcome in performing a certain act, multiplied by the value (V) of the outcome for the performer. In other words, M = E x V

The theory recognises that people have different types of needs, desires and goal and suggests that people are decision making creatures and continually (though not necessarily consciously) make decisions about life and work-related factors.  Ultimately, any decisions made will be based on people’s individual perceptions of the degree to which a given behaviour will produce any specific outcomes.

The amount of effort a person will put in depends upon:

  • Expectancy: whether the effort will produce better performance
  • Instrumentality: whether performance, when achieved, will pay off in terms of outcomes e.g. promotion
  • Valence: the extent to which the possible outcomes are attractive for the person e.g. promotion brings more pay

This means its vital that managers communicate clearly and explicitly what an employee can expect to get at the end of achieving a project, or set of targets. Reiterating this at subsequent one-to-ones is also key.

EQUITY THEORY – J Stacy Adams (1965)

Adams’ theory suggests that employees balance what they put into a job with what they receive from it. This takes the form of two notions of fairness:

  1. Distributive fairness: concerned with the distribution and allocation of outcomes, dependent upon an individual’s input. Motivational aspects include (i) the person needs to feel they are getting fair treatment at work in terms of their input; and (ii) the person needs to feel they are being treated fairly in comparison to others.
  2. Procedural fairness: this relates to perceptions about procedures used in organisations to make decisions concerning outcomes. For example, how pay rises are given based on performance appraisals. Perceived unfairness can lead to poor performance, working to rule, and increased turnover.

In my experience of working with managers to resolve team conflict, more often than not it has been a perceived unfairness that has been at the heart of the issue. This is why I think this is such an important motivation theory for managers to understand in more depth.

GOAL SETTING THEORY – Edwin Locke (1968)

Whilst lots of managers talk about SMART objectives, they may not be aware that this originated from Locke’s research in the 1960s.  The theory states that realistic, hard, specific goals produce better performance than easy, ambiguous or no goals.

Locke found that goals affect performance by:

  1. Directing a person’s energy/attention on the right things and reducing the likelihood they focus on irrelevant work
  2. Mobilising energy to push just that little bit harder, e.g. handling eight customer queries in an hour, as opposed to six.
  3. Focusing expenditure of effort as the person can clearly see the outcome to be achieved i.e. the end goal.
  4. Prolonging effort over time as the outcome will lead to recognition and reward of some kind.
  5. Motivating the individual to develop and change their behaviour in the longer term

Just under 20 years’ later, Locke and his colleagues found that self-efficacy (a person’s belief that they can achieve a goal) is positively related to how committed the person is to the goal and how well they achieve it. In other words, those team members who have low confidence will need more patience, time and clarity from managers if they are to achieve the goal that has been set.

With all of these theories there is a simple message for all those who lead teams – take the time to get to know each individual employee. What makes them tick? What do they like? What don’t they like? And then you, yes you, need to adapt to them. Not the other way round!

Which of these theories resonated with you? Have you used any (either consciously or subconsciously)? And if so, what impact did it have? Share your stories in the comments box below so that others might learn from your experience.


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  1. Thanks for sharing, Hayley! I was led here from your blog-post from today.. Curious why self-determination theory isn’t mentioned here as it’s one of the most valid models in the workplace and has instrumental validity over other models of motivation (I’ve got some reviews buried somewhere if interested). Thanks again, Carl 🙂


    1. Thanks Carl. I’m not as familiar with self determination theory as I am with the others. Perhaps you’d be up for writing a guest post, about SDT, for this blog. If you’re up for that then drop me a line at Thanks again for sharing some new learning.


  2. Good spread of theories here! I studied these a lot during my PgDip in Careers Guidance. I love the science behind motivation and wish it was used more in work places rather than the very basic carrot and stick approach.


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