Misconceptions are prevalent among managers regarding how to motivate employees. Many managers believe that motivation is a personality trait, such as extroversion or agreeableness, and that people either have it, and so are driven, or they don’t, and so are lazy. Indeed, many managers believe that employees are inherently lazy, and must be watched closely for mistakes and “slacking off” on the job. Such inaccurate beliefs result in micromanagement and mismanagement of employees. Managers should formulate their understanding about what motivates employees by becoming familiar with the sizeable amount of evidence about what motivation actually is – instead of a personal trait, motivation is more accurately described as the result of the interaction between the person and the situation. For example, an employee may struggle to read through a dry technical manual, but if they enjoy reading detective stories, will devour the newest fictional book within hours.

The concept of motivation has been studied for nearly a century, and a great deal of knowledge has been generated about what truly motivates employees. Of course, as with any concept, the current state of knowledge reveals complex answers, and further knowledge is still being researched. However, there are three complementary theories of motivation that have been considered valid in explaining employee motivation. These theories are the ERG Theory, the model of Intrinsic Motivation, and Expectancy Theory. Managers should reflect on the evidence produced from the study of these theories when seeking to motivate employees.

The ERG theory states that individuals have three groups of core needs: existence, relatedness, and growth.


Existence needs are those basic material requirements humans need to survive – physiological and safety needs such as food, shelter, air, among others.


Relatedness needs describe the desire people have for establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships.


Growth needs describe the intrinsic desires humans have for personal development and mastery.

ERG Theory

The ERG theory demonstrates that more than one need may be operative at the same time and that if a higher-level need, such as a growth need, is stifled, then a person may compensate by increasing a desire for a lower-level need, such as economic security.

The model of intrinsic motivation holds that people genuinely care about their work, will continuously seek to improve it, and are energized while working. This motivation comes not from external rewards, but from the work itself. However, intrinsic motivation is only achieved when employees experience choice, competence, meaningfulness, and progress regarding their work. Employees seek to make decisions about what tasks to work on and how to work on them and will feel competent if they can perform the tasks they have chosen at a high standard. The tasks employees choose need to represent a connection to a greater purpose than just the task at hand to be meaningful, and as the work is being accomplished, employees need to feel they are making progress towards an end goal. If these four components are experienced, employees will be more motivated by intrinsic needs than external rewards.

Intrinsic motivation plays a heavy role in expectancy theory, and this role is of utmost importance for manager understanding. Expectancy theory states that employees are motivated to act a certain way because they expect that the act will be followed by a given outcome, and that outcome will be considered an attractive one. Therefore, this theory focuses on the relationships inherent in motivation: effort-performance, performance-reward, and reward-personal goals. In other words, an employee put forth effort expecting a positive performance appraisal as a result, and that appraisal would result in a reward such as a bonus or promotion, and that reward would satisfy that employee’s personal goals.

Expectancy theory provides an excellent explanation as to why many employees aren’t highly motivated and only accomplish the minimum work required. If an employee feels their efforts will not be recognized properly, or if they are appropriately recognized, the recognition will not lead to the desired reward, they will not see the point of exerting discretionary effort in accomplishing the task at hand.

If managers want to properly motivate their employees, it is critical that they understand the driving needs of the employees, how those needs translate into personal goals, and how to link effort, performance, and rewards to those goals. Not every employee will be motivated by the same needs; therefore, the better the managers understand their individual employees, the more likely they will understand what truly motivates them.

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