Motivation is a well-known topic for organisations who are interested in getting the maximum results from staff.  However, understanding motivation not only profits businesses; there are also benefits for individuals. Understanding the psychology of motivation can help a person to utilise their time, money and energy in the most efficient way so they are able to achieve their life goals. There are many approaches to understanding the concept of motivation and it is worth reviewing the theories to gain a conceptual understanding of the psychology behind motivation. This article will define motivation, provide a summary of motivation theories and look at strategies for how to apply these theories in practice.  

What is motivation?

Before we delve into the theories of motivation, let’s first understand its meaning. Motivation is something we all need to accomplish goals, but what drives motivation? Motivation is defined as ‘the need or reason for doing something’ or the ‘willingness to do something’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2021). In effect, it is the “psychological forces that determines the direction of a person’s level of effort and a person’s level of persistence in the face of obstacles.” Furthermore, motivation is what prompts human beings’ reaction to fulfil their needs or expectations.  Motivation is also understood as the reason for our behaviour, or the ‘what’ and ‘why’ we do something (Oxford Review, 2022). In simple terms we can understand motivation as being the reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way and the drive we have to accomplish goals. When a person is self-motivated, they are less likely to need or expect external encouragements to complete a task, even if the task is complex. In contrast, negative motivation is governed by expectation and possibly the fear of not being able to achieve an outcome. For example, fear is a powerful motivator when we are concerned about maintaining our survival or future. Motivation is important in life as it provides goals to work toward, and helps to solve problems, change habits, cope with challenges and access opportunities.

Theories of motivation

Motivation is a well-researched topic with many theories explaining the concept. Presented here are some motivation theories from a variety of theorists to gain some understanding.

A popular and foundational motivation theory is Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs which posits five levels: physiological, safety, social, ego and self-actualisation. At the bottom of the hierarchy are basic physiological needs for survival, including food, shelter, air, warmth, sex and sleep. Without these basic physiological needs the human body cannot function at its best. Once these needs are satisfied, we then move to the next level of needs which is safety. At this level, people are motivated by the need to feel safe and secure which includes emotional security, financial security, law and order, social stability, freedom from fear, property, health and wellbeing. The third level is love and belongingness, the emotional need for interpersonal relationships, connectedness, being part of a group, receiving and giving affection and love. The fourth level is esteem needs of dignity, achievement, mastery, independence, the desire for reputation or respect from others such as status and prestige. Finally, when all other needs have been met, the fifth level s is the need for self-actualisation which includes self-fulfilment and seeking personal growth and realising one’s best potential. Maslow’s theory argues that people may move through the different level of needs according to the person’s circumstances.

Vroom’s expectancy theory provides a contrast to Maslow’s theory by focusing on the process of motivation and argues that a person’s motivation is determined by the value they place on different motivations (Vroom, cited in Lee & Raschke, 2016). This results in the person choosing to behave in such a way that will give them the best outcome. In Vroom’s view, motivation is based on three variables of expectancy, instrumentally, and valence. Expectancy refers to the person’s belief that when they raise their efforts then rewards will also be raised. Instrumentally refers to rewards being based on performance and the more you have control over when, how, and why you will receive the rewards which increases motivation. Lastly, valence is the value placed on the expected outcome and in turn effects the motivation. 

Lawrence and Noria’s motivation theory is a cross disciplinary perspective that combines traditional and new perspectives of psychology, neuroscience and biology. Lawrence and Noria’s theory is known as the human drives theory and argues that motivation is driven by a person’s will to acquire, bond, comprehend and defend. The person’s will to acquire is fulfilled by reward systems, bond is driven by culture, comprehension is driven by job design and the drive to defend is fulfilled by performance management and resource allocation processes. When these drives are fulfilled, motivation and organisational performance is maximised (Lawrence & Nohria, 2002 cited in Lee & Raschke, 2016).

Deci’s cognitive evaluation theory explains that intrinsic motivation is an internal driver that utilises internal tendances to motivate behaviour and overcome challenges (Deci, 1971; cited in Deci & Ryan, 1985). People are motivated based on their internal needs and behave in a certain way due to internal rewards and satisfaction. Deci argued that people should be intrinsically motivated to minimise the effects of external factors. Intrinsic motivation is also an important motivator for developing knowledge, adaptation and growth capacity which are all essential for human development.

Herzberg’s theory categorises motivation into either motivators and hygiene. Motivators refer to intrinsic factors such as achievement and recognition, leading to job satisfaction. Hygiene, or extrinsic factors, refers to factors such as pay and job security as leading to dissatisfaction. According to Herzberg, extrinsic factors cannot motivate people, but they can minimise dissatisfaction if used appropriately; motivators can fulfil a person’s needs and satisfaction for having meaning and personal growth. According to Herzberg, once hygiene factors are addressed, the motivators will lead to job satisfaction and increased production (Herzberg, Mausner, & Snyderman in Weiner, 1990).

A simple theory of motivation is Skinner’s reinforcement theory which states if a person is displaying behaviours that lead to positive outcomes, then the person will repeat those behaviours (Lee & Raschke, 2016). If a person’s behaviours lead to negative outcomes, then the behaviours won’t be repeated. Extrinsic rewards can also be used to positively reinforce a person’s behaviour and performance feedback and/or punishment can be used to negatively reinforce or discourage a person’s negative behaviour.

Strategies for motivation

After reviewing these theories of motivation, it is evident there is none that can provide all the answers and understandings. It is more about finding the best approach that suits you and your situation, or combining multiple theories and aspects of theories that resonate to you and your situation. Whilst the theories provide us with tools to understand the drivers of motivation, it is also important to consider the practical application of motivational theories.

Posing the following questions and reflecting on the answers will put the motivation theories into practice and help you understand your internal drivers:

  1. What are my career and life goals?  Ensure goals are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and set a Timeframe) and break goals into smaller goals and smaller sub goals.
  2. How much do I value my career and life goals?
  3. Do my goals align with my purpose in life?
  4. What are the barriers to achieving my goal?
  5. What can I do to overcome the barriers?
  6. Be mindful of internal barriers and self-limiting beliefs, for example fear of failure, lack of self-esteem and not believing in yourself. Then transform these internal barriers by having a positive mindset e.g. instead of saying “I can’t do this” say “I can’t do this yet, but I will keep working on it until I can.”
  7. What are my strengths? 
  8. How can I maximise my strengths to help achieve my goals?
  9. What are my areas of development?
  10. What can I do to improve my areas of development so they don’t become a barrier in achieving my goals?

As motivation theories tell us, people have fundamental psychological needs to be met on an ongoing basis to develop and function at an optimum level.  The following questions address the need for satisfaction in the workplace and asks questions concerning your feelings toward your job.  On the scale below, indicate how true each of the following questions are for you given your experiences at work (Psychological Scales, 2022).

1 (not at all true)     2     3     4     5     6     7 (very true)

  1. I feel like I can make a lot of inputs to deciding how my job gets done.
  2. I really like the people I work with.
  3. I do not feel very competent when I am at work.
  4. People at work tell me I am good at what I do.
  5. I feel pressured at work.
  6. I get along with people at work.
  7. I pretty much keep to myself when I am at work.
  8. I am free to express my ideas and opinions on the job.
  9. I consider the people I work with to be my friends.
  10. I have been able to learn interesting new skills on my job.
  11. When I am at work‚ I have to do what I am told.
  12. Most days I feel a sense of accomplishment from working.
  13. My feelings are taken into consideration at work.
  14. On my job I do not get much of a chance to show how capable I am.
  15. People at work care about me.
  16. There are not many people at work that I am close to.
  17. I feel like I can be myself at work.
  18. The people I work with do not seem to like me much.
  19. When I am working, I often do not feel very capable.
  20. There is not much opportunity for me to decide for myself how to go about my work.
  21. People at work are pretty friendly toward me.

Once you have answered these questions and you find there are some areas that aren’t satisfying your needs, you can then develop a motivation plan. In your motivation plan focus on what you can control and do to help your situation. Remember, motivation is a skill that needs to be practiced and learnt so don’t feel like you need to be a master in the beginning. Having a positive attitude and commitment to improving your motivation skills is the key to success.  

Sometimes it can be challenging to find the motivation to start working toward your goal.  Here are some tips to help get motivated and stay motivated:  

  1. Make your goals specific and achievable.
  2. Think about the best way you can achieve your goal.
  3. Think of a time when you felt especially good about your job.  Why did you feel that way?
  4. Think of a time when you felt especially bad about your job.  Why did you feel that way?
  5. Break your goal into smaller goals.
  6. Get support from family and friends, perhaps tell them about your goals so they can encourage you.  
  7. Make your goals part of your daily routine.  Use a diary or app to set a reminder and set milestones that need to be achieved by a certain date.  
  8. Reward yourself when you have completed a milestone or goal.
  9. Regularly review goals and progress.
  10. Keep your goals up to date.
  11. If you lose motivation then review your goals, remember the ‘why’ for your goal.
  12. Take a break when feeling fatigued to recharge yourself and your motivation (Health Direct, 2020).

Remember you are an individual with unique circumstances, background and experiences. What motivates one person might not work for another. It is important to make an effort to understand both your internal and external motivators and choose the theory and practice that best suit you and your circumstances. 


  1. Cambridge Dictionary, 2021.  ‘Meaning of motivation in English’.  Accessed on 9/2/21 at website.
  2. Deci, E.L & Ryan, R. M, 1985. Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior, 43-85.
  3. Health Direct, 2020. Motivation: how to get started and staying motivated.  Accessed on 14/02/22 at website.
  4. Lee, M. T & Raschke, R. L. 2016.  Understanding employee motivation and organizational performance: Arguments for a set-theoretic approach, Journal of Innovation & Knowledge, Volume 1, Issue 3, Pages 162-169,ISSN 2444-569X.
  5. Maslow, A.H. 1943, A theory of human motivation.  Psychological Review, 50 (4), pp.370-396.
  6. Oxford Review, 2022. Motivation definition-explanation. Accessed on 10/2/22 from website.
  7. Psychological Scales, 2022.  Basic psychological needs scales. Accessed on 12/02/22 at website.
  8. Shkoler, O., & Kimura, T. 2020. How Does Work Motivation Impact Employees’ Investment at Work and Their Job Engagement? A Moderated-Moderation Perspective Through an International Lens. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 38. Vol. 82, No. 4, 616-622, Journal or Educational Psychology,
  9. Syptak, J.M, Marsland, D. W, & Ulmer, D. 1999. Job satisfaction: putting theory into practice. Fam Pract Manag. 1999 Oct;6(9):26-30. Access at website.
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