Theories of motivation: a critical evaluation of what they offer to practice.

Published: 2019/12/11 Number of words: 2818


The term ‘motivation’ in this study encompasses three separate concepts. Arnold and Silvester (2005) usefully characterise these as direction, effort and persistence. Direction relates to what an individual is trying to achieve, effort describes how hard a person is trying, and persistence examines how long a person will persevere at a task.

Assumptions about people need to be taken into account when studying motivation theories. McGregor (1960), Argyris (1972) and Schein (1988) have identified three ‘common sense’ approaches: Theory X, Theory Y and Social Theory. Theory X states that people cannot be trusted. They need to be controlled. Theory Y suggests that people seek independence and creativity in their work. They have morals and work hard. Therefore harsh controls are not needed. The third is Social Theory. This puts forward the idea that social aspects largely affect behaviour.

This paper looks at need theories: Expectancy Theory, Equity Theory and organisational justice, including citizenship behaviour and psychological contracts. It goes on to argue all the theories are relevant and can be used to understand a breach of psychological contract.

Types of motivation theory

Two types of theories exist in regard to motivation: content theories and process theories. Content theories attempt to explain the specifics of what motivates an individual at work. Theorists try to identify what each person is seeking and how these needs can be met. Process theories are concerned with the actual process, including how behaviour is initiated, directed and sustained. In addition to this, psychological contracts and their breach, play an important factor.

Content theories

Need Theories

The work of Maslow (1943) is the obvious place to start when looking at content theories. His hierarchy of needs has received much attention and his ideas have been transferred to the work setting by others, as shown in Figure 1 below. The pyramid is read from the bottom, so the most basic need is physiological. Once this need is met in the individual’s opinion, it is no longer the driving force. The next need, safety, becomes most important to a person at that time. The person then strives to satisfy this need and so on, until the level of self-actualisation. The needs do not necessarily need to be met in a fixed order.

Figure 1 Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (For more information, see Maslow 1943)

In terms of work motivation, the theory would suggest that whilst at work, people work to satisfy lower needs and strive to always gain more and improve their situation. As Maslow did not design this model for the work situation, what are the implications? For example, is it not possible that people have their needs met in other areas of their lives? Are some of these not met in their personal life? Managers trying to use this theory may find they need to know about their employee’s personal life. Leading on from this, some rewards or incentives may satisfy more than one need. The lack of definition of when a need is met, may raise questions such as how we know when the employee is ready to move on to the next need. These flaws in the theory are supported by evaluative research by Wahba and Bridwell (1976); Salancik and Pfeffer (1977), and Rauschenburger et al. (1980).

In summary, the concept that people are driven by needs, seems to still be valid in terms of motivation at work, although only in specific areas. Content theories fail to explain the actual process of motivation. People may have these needs. However, what actually makes them get up and do something? This leads us onto our next set of theories – process theories.

Process theories

Expectancy theory

Vroom (1964) presented Expectancy Theory, also called Valence, Instrumentality and Expectancy (VIE). This theory aims to explain what a person will do when faced with a few possible choices. This is seen as a cognitive review of three factors for each of the actions being considered: 1. Expectancy – how much individuals believe they can achieve; 2. Instrumentality – do individuals believe that the process will result in the desired outcome; 3. Valence – how much the individual values the outcome. Vroom suggests that the force to act depends on VIE as a whole. It can be calculated by multiplying the separate components. Therefore if a person has zero for any of the scores, their overall score would also be zero and they would not act. In addition to this, social exchange theorists view the relationship between employee and organisation as an exchange of loyalty and effort in return for organisational inducements. These can be financial rewards, benefits, nature of the job and working conditions (Armeli et al. 1998).

In terms of applying this to practice, managers need to ensure that their employees feel they are able to do the job, that employees understand that if they do their job well, they will receive the expected outcomes, whether this be material or verbal rewards; and finally, that the rewards are attractive to the employee.

On the face of it, this theory has high face validity. However, there are concerns about the exactness of the formula and the methodological issues, especially as studies have not shown empirical support. Van Eerde and Thierry (1996) and also Schwab et al. (1979) have shown that VIE can be used in various ways and can be a better predictor. For example, behaviour can be predicted by adding them together, as well as by multiplying them. In terms of the actual model, self-measures can be influenced by high subjective bias. In addition, further research could aim at identifying the strength of values people hold, as well as why they hold them.

However, this is not to say that this theory does not add something to motivation at work. It is still useful to have the separate components of motivation at work even if they don’t exactly correlate to the formula.

Equity Theory

So far, the theories have not really taken into account the environment in which the employees work. Equity Theory, derived from Adams (1965), focuses on how fairly people think they are being treated in comparison to how others are being treated. It is based on Exchange Theory. Huseman et al. (1987) believe that ‘people expect certain outputs as a result of their inputs’. If inputs/outputs are considered to be unequal, or do not tally with that of others, then inequity exists. The greater the inequity felt, the greater the distress to the individual. The greater the distress an individual feels, the harder they work to find a balance. This may include a reduction in the amount or quality of work produced. Pritchard (1969) supports this in his laboratory studies. The research of equity theory in terms of an individual achieving more output than input, is not as supported (Mowday 1991).

Again this theory is vague. What degree of inequity is needed to evoke such reactions? Is it the same for everyone or are there individual differences? In addition, equity theories do not specify what restoration device will be used (Greenberg 2001).

Organisational Justice Theory and OCBs

Equity Theory has been broadened into Organisational Justice Theories. Folger and Konovsky (1989) make the distinction between distributive justice and procedural justice. The former relates to the allocation of rewards and whether or not this is fair. The latter refers to the fairness of the process. If an individual experiences a feeling of injustice, they will be less willing to be good citizens at work. This has become known as Organisational Citizenship Behaviour (OCBs) (Moorman 1991).

In terms of relating these to practice, an effective organisation needs to have employees who are willing to do core tasks to assist other employees as and when required. The individual has the choice whether or not they perform OCBs. OCBs include the following:

Altruism – helping colleagues

Conscientiousness – going beyond what is expected of them

Civic Virtue – involvement in the organisation

Courtesy – being polite and well mannered to colleagues, considering others

Sportsmanship – to be willing to tolerate circumstances that are not ideal without complaining

There is some reason to question whether the use of OCBs should be considered as being over and above the job. Kam et al. (1999) suggest that many employees see them as part of their job. There are differences in cultures, too. Courtesy and sportsmanship are more expected in Japan and Hong Kong than in Australia and the United States. Another assumption is whether or not OCBs are beneficial. Surely a person could be so involved in such behaviours that their ability to do their job is affected? Perhaps this is an area for further research.

Organisational change can increase the likelihood of an injustice and cause problems. The psychological contract may be broken causing employees to reduce the level of OCBs. Rousseau (1995) illustrates this and suggests that the perception of why an organisation falls short of the individual’s expectations is important.

Psychological Contracts

Psychological contracts are linked to exchange theories and OCBs. These are unwritten expectations and the satisfaction of needs arising from the relationship between the employee and the organisation. Examples include being treated with respect, being safe and secure, being treated fairly or be assisted to develop (Mullins 2002). In addition to this, psychological contracts are established on perceived promises, where a promise means any communication where future action is intended. Problems occur when there is a breach of this contract (Rosseau 1989).

A variety of trends in the workplace, such as downsizing, restructuring, temporary contracts and outsourcing, are having an effect on employees’ psychological contracts (Morrison and Robinson 1997). Studies have shown that breaches of psychological contracts can result in lower employee well-being, negative attitudes towards the job and organisation, less commitment, lower performance, fewer citizenship behaviours and increased withdrawal of behaviours such as resigning or taking sick leave (Conway and Briner 2005). Perhaps moving to a new organisation or taking sick leave could relate to equity theory; the employee is attempting to regain a balance. It further relates to Maslow’s theory as described earlier. If, for example, safety and security are not met, the person’s immediate goal will be to seek this safety perhaps by leaving. Further, it relates to the organisational justice theory: employees who feel they are being treated unfairly, will be dissatisfied.

However, at what stage is the psychological contract believed to have been broken? Are small breaches considered to be important or merely dismissed? Does the importance of the breach have an effect? Research suggests this is indeed the case (Conway and Briner 2002). Further questions are raised about to what extent the breach is intentional and the subsequent impact. Robinson and Morrison (2000) suggest the extent of an intentional breach does not have an effect on the impact. When a psychological contract has been broken, it can be difficult to mend. Offering a clear and honest explanation can reduce its effects, although the person involved may fail to accept the explanation. Therefore, we need to concentrate on minimising breaches. This can be done in a variety of ways such as providing clear job descriptions, exercising caution when making promises, trusting employees, maintaining high self-esteem and communicating with employees. This communication can include involving them in decisions, being transparent about the current situation and explaining decisions (Robinson and Morrison 2000).

The universality of psychological contracts is rarely mentioned. Do the effects of breach have different impacts across cultures or genders? Hui et al. (2004) studied psychological contracts in China and confirmed the universal use of some elements of the psychological contract.


In conclusion, Need Theories, Expectancy Theory, Equity Theory, organisational citizenship behaviours and psychological contracts all interact with one another. The study of breaches of psychological contracts is likely to incorporate the effect of employees’ expectations not being met, their perception of being treated unfairly and whether their needs have been met. The extent to which the employee is exhibiting OCBs, can help to detect any breach in the first instance. All the approaches have their limitations so by using them together will helps to create a better overall understanding of the situation. Future research could further assess the importance of contextual issues. For example how these theories are considered in various cultures and across genders.


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