Dictionary meanings for motivation tend to be circular insofar each makes reference to the verb "to motivate". A way of adding clarification is by making those meanings more linear, such as “1a: the act or process of providing with something (as a need or desire) that causes a person to act, b: the condition of being impelled by something (as a need or desire) that causes a person to act, 2: a force, stimulus, or influence (as an incentive or drive) that causes a person to act” (Perezgonzalez, 2008 [6].

Theoretical frame

Motivation is another concept easier to understand but difficult to define, namely because of the variety of interpretations of what it conveys. A dictionary entry is no more of a help in this regards, either, as meanings tend to be circular, in the like of those provided by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2005 [4]): “1a: the act or process of motivating, b: the condition of being motivated, 2: a motivating force, stimulus, or influence: incentive, drive”. Thus, an adapted definition that eliminates circularity, such as the one provided above, is more useful.

This linear definition shows that motivation is inherently linked to behavior causation but seems to refer to several things: firstly, to forces, stimuli or influences that cause behaviors; secondly, to processes that provide or activate those stimuli; and, thirdly, to the condition of being or feeling impelled by those stimuli to act.

In perspective, though, those forces, stimuli or influences are normally called motivators, and are understood as triggers of motivation rather than as motivation itself. The act or process of motivating seems to also refer to a trigger in the sense of an initial force or energy that helps quick start motivation or helps maintain it. The condition of being or feeling impelled to act, on the other, seems to reflect better what the commonest meaning for motivation is.

In brief, motivation can be defined as an internal process of being or feeling impelled to act; thus, a process which causes behaviors. This internal process is triggered or initiated by internal or external stimuli, such as drives, desires, goals, incentives or threats. These internal or external stimuli can be managed either by the person or by external forces in order to start, increment, maintain or reduce motivation.

From this understanding, it is possible to make more sense of other authors’ definitions of motivation. For example, when Myers (1996 [5]) defines motivation as “a need or desire that serves to energize behavior and to direct it towards a goal (p.297)”, he is talking about stimuli which trigger the motivation process. When Hawkins (1993 [1]) defines it as “what drives or induces a person to behave in a particular fashion (,) […] the internal force which initiates, directs, sustains and terminates all important activities. It influences the level of performance, the efficiency achieved and the time spent on an activity (p.132-133)”, he is also referring to stimuli that triggers the motivational process. He also identifies properties of motivation such as being an internal process, with different roles in influencing behaviors (such as initiating, directing, sustaining or terminating it), and with different degrees of expression at the level of intensity, quality and speed in which behaviors are carried out. Similarly do Jones, George and Hill (2000 [2]) when defining motivation as “psychological forces that determine the direction of a person’s behavior […], a person’s level of effort, and a person’s level of persistence in the face of obstacles (p.427)”.

By now, you may be feeling that there is a contradiction in perspectives in above definitions. Most authors coincide in defining motivation as motivators, while here we are defining it as an internal process. To disentangle this potential conflict, let’s use a mechanical example, such as an aircraft or a car. Fuel represents a motivator in those systems. Indeed, the aircraft won’t fly or the car won’t go without fuel. However, a fully loaded aircraft or car won’t go either on the premises of having fuel alone. Even if fully loaded, that aircraft will continue sitting on the tarmac. What causes the aircraft to move is not the fuel but the combustion process in the engines, which creates the necessary force for displacing the aircraft. The combustion process is what ‘motivates’, what ‘causes’ the aircraft to move, not the fuel. However, fuel is what the engines need in order to start and maintain that combustion process. In time, alternative fuels may be available (nuclear, electrical, etc) which will produce the same displacement action. Still, it is the process that transforms fuel into mechanical displacement that will ‘cause’ the aircraft to move, not the particular fuel.

Above clarification is necessary because motivation has been studied from different perspectives. However, these can be further categorized into three:

  • Firstly, there are those theories that try to explain what motivates us to behave as we do. These theories try to find the elements that gear our behavior, thus they focus on motivators. These are considered as content theories.
  • Secondly, there are those theories whose main interest is to explain how motivation works. These theories are, thus, interested in finding the specific processes that explain how motivation works, instead of why. These are considered process theories.
  • Thirdly, there are motivational techniques that have proved to be very successful in managing motivation (they actually motivate us, and relatively accurate predictions can be made from them). However, there is no a sound theory able to explain why those techniques work. Thus, these are considered techniques because, although effective, no theoretical framework exists for explaining such success.

1. Content theories

Content theories of motivation as previously said, explain what motivate us or what drive us to certain behaviours

(a) Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Hierachy of needs theory was developeed by Abraham Maslow in 1943. He suggested that poeple are motivated to accomplish their needs in the hierarchical order of physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness needs, esteem needs, and self-actualisation needs. Thus according to this approach, one has to be satisfied with his physiological needs such as food, basic wage/salary, sex, etc. before he is motivated to safety needs. In other words, all the bottom needs have to be accomplised before he is motivated to self-acualisation needs such as competing and looking for higher positions (Samson & Daft, 2005 [7]).

(b) Herzberg's two factor theory

This approach was developed by Frederick Herzberg in 1968 and is more related to work environments. He sggested two basic dimensions related to emplyee motivation - hygiene factors and motivators. Hygiene factors are factors that minimises discomfort and insecurity at work places. For example, emplyee must agree upon the pay, woking peers, working conditions and supervisors. Motivators are those factors that increases employee appreciation, recongnitions, achievement, development and growth. Herzberg stated that motivation is a result of both good hygiene factors and effective motivators. That is, simply with good hygine factors (removing dissatisfaction) emloyees will not be motivated (Hartel, Fujimoto, Strybosch, & Fitzpatrick, 2007 [3]).

(c) McClelland's acquired needs theory

David McClelland suggested that people develop certain needs through their experiences and they are motivated to work towards attainment of these needs. He suggested three major needs. Firstly, need for achievement is wish for attaining high goals, exceed others and carry out challenging jobs, and thus, people having such needs are motivated to be more responsible, look for difficult goals and like to have a close eye at benchmark. Secondly, need for affiliation is the motive to have close relationships and keep away from disagreement and thus, people with such needs look for tasks having more social interactions and companionships. Finally, need for power refers to the desire to have power over others, and thus, people with such needs are motivated to be on high position, and look forward for recognition (Stone, 2008 [8]).

2. Process Theories

(a) Equity Theory

Equity theory which was put forward by J. Stacy Adams in 1963 focuses on explaining how motivation works. Poeple compare themselves with others (generally in workplaces) to see how fairly they are treated. They evaluate themselves on the basis of inputs, which can be knowledge, skills, experience, and ability, to outcomes which are pay, benefits and other compensations. Poeple believe that the ratio of input to outcomes should be equal (equity)to all individuals working in the same environment. Thus, if one feels he is underpaid (inequity), he/she would be de-motivated and would reduce his work effort. The most common ways to reduce the inequity in the organsiation are change inputs, change outcomes, distort perceptions or leave the job (Samson & Daft, 2005 [7]).

(b) Expectancy Theory

This model was theorised by Victor Vroom and suggests that people are motivated for their desires and expectations that are achievable. More importantly, to be motivated one should value the reward of the achievement. In other words, people are not motivated unless they are sure that the compensations is at the same level as the performance. Therefore, according to this approach, until an employee accepts the goal as achievable and reward is worth enough to the effort he/she is going to exert, he is not motivated (Hartel et al., (2007 [3]).

3. Motivational Techniques

Organisations today use several methods to motivate their staff. One of the theories that explains emplyee learning the desired organisational behaviour is reinforcement theory developed by B.F. Skinner in 1953. Skinner (1961, cited in Hartel et al, 2007 [3]) suggests that the behaviour leant by workers are not necessarily permenant, however, when the reinforcement is withdrawn the behaviours tend to cease. Therefore, according to this theory, consistent motivational techniques are essential for continous imporvemnt in performance.

Supporting evidence

Refuting evidence

Way forward (to do list)

1. HAWKINS (1993). Human factors in flight.
2. JONES Gareth R, Jennifer M GEORGE & Charles WL HILL (2000). Contemporary management (2nd ed). McGraw-Hill Higher Education, (Boston, USA), 2000. ISBN 9780072346312.
3. Hartel, C. E. J., Fujimoto, Y., Strybosch, V. E. & Fitzpatrick, K. (2007). Human resource management: Transforming theory into innovative practice. Frenchs Forest, N.S.W.: Pearson Education Australia.
4. MERRIAM-WEBSTER ONLINE DICTIONARY (2005). Retrieved from on 26/08/2008.
5. MYERS David G (1996). Exploring psychology.
6. PEREZGONZALEZ Jose D (2008). Motivation. Class handouts for 190.207 Aviation Psychology, Massey University School of Aviation (New Zealand), 2008.
7. Samson, D. & Daft, R. L. (2005). Fundamentals of management. (2nd ed.). South Melbourne, Vic.: Thomson.
8. Stone, R. J. (2008). Managing human resources. (2nd ed.). Milton, Qld.: J. Wiley & Sons, Australia

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