5 theories of motivation a leader should know

data: 9 czerwca, 2016
czas czytania: 14 min
autor: Paweł Pustelnik

I must admit that I've wanted to write about motivation for a very long time but I wasn't sure how to approach this subject. Should I describe it extensively, or perhaps be concise and specific, whether to create a series of articles or maybe just one that would help my readers in their own research?

Today, I would like to share content that results from my experience and research in the area of theory of motivation. I hope that it will not only allow you to organize this area, but also be an incentive for further research.

Eventually, I decided that I’ll write one longer article, so you can return to it as needed, without having to save a variety of links.


Sooner or later every leader has to face the subject of motivation – whether it’s because of the people they work with or themselves and their own development. It is a moment in which we begin to ask ourselves about cause and meaning of what we do. We wonder what is important to us, what is necessary and without what we can do. Then, we try to bring our consideration to a more general description, we look for some confirmation in science to make sure that our thoughts are right and allow us to make good decisions.

First models

Few years ago, my research allowed me to compare two models of the reality that surrounds me:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that people are driven by needs of different priority as presented in the pyramid below.

Maslow's hierarchy

It means that, for example, first we want to meet deficiency needs such as security (appropriate remuneration), and then we think about higher level needs (ambitious project). I think that it is pretty well captured by a modern version of the pyramid 😉

Maslow's hierarchy_modernpyramid

Quite often presentation of the „new” pyramid evokes laughter, however there is more than a slight bit of truth in it. For IT people lack of access to the Internet is incredibly troublesome and causes genuine anxiety and decrease in motivation to work. By all means, physiological problems, according to Maslow’s definition, have rather broad scope and an experienced leader should be able to recognize them in a team (e.g. health problems, fatigue, spending too many hours at work, sleep or eating problems, mood swings etc.). Owing to that a leader is aware of „lower” needs and importance of fulfilling them before he/she reaches out for motivational elements from the higher levels of the pyramid.

Examples of deficiency needs are: remuneration, job security, stable position of the company, understanding manager and entire team, lack of conflicts with people in a company or with a client.

To sum up – thanks to Maslow’s theory we notice how many factors (and in which order) can affect our motivation. We also see that many of them may not be directly related to the very job or currently developed project. Also, don’t forget that each team member can be in a different place on the pyramid and individual members’ needs may vary.

On the other hand, McGregor shows two ways of thinking about employees within X and Y theory.

According to theory X people don’t like working and shy away from it, whereas theory Y states that work is an integral part of our lives and people find an intrinsic motivation in themselves.

In practice, theory X approach can be characterised by lack of trust for employees, finding the guilty, control, penalties (employees will do poorly, or not at all, if a leader doesn’t control them).

As stated in theory Y, employees are trusted and encouraged to take on more responsibility. It is assumed that they are ambitious, willing to work; they can make their own decisions, and most importantly – derive satisfaction from their work if you let them be productive and creative. For a leader it means that if we create appropriate work conditions, they will get satisfaction from their work and it will be a motivating factor.
A leader’s task will be removing obstacles that hinder free and creative work among people.

Further research

My observation doesn’t fully overlap those descriptions. I discovered that hierarchy of needs wasn’t as unambiguous as Maslow’s pyramid shows it. For instance, for some people remuneration was very important, whereas for others it was much less important (however, in theory, those people had similar competences and remuneration). There were people who really wanted to work in a quiet room, for others it was not important. Also, it turned out that not always needs from the bottom of the pyramid are more important than those from the top (each person defined differently what safety or belonging mean to them).

On the other hand, seeking the reflection of McGregor’s model in my projects, I hadn’t noticed anyone who would approach work according to the theory X. It didn’t automatically mean that the theory Y worked flawlessly. Taking full responsibility for our decisions didn’t come easily and not everyone was comfortable with this work model.

I decided to consider other theories and models that would more precisely coincide with my experience. Thanks to that I came across Herzberg’s two-factor theory.

Herzberg noticed that we can distinguish two types of factors influencing our attitude towards work:

  • Factors that cause job satisfaction (intrinsic motivators) [Motivation]
  • Factors that cause job dissatisfaction (hygiene factors) [Demotivation]


Image source: Peakon.com

Herzberg showed that each factor can be in both groups to some degree (hygiene and motivation). It means that in practice people can see differently the same areas, e.g. remuneration. On the other hand, we can distinguish factors that quite substantially belong only to the one side of the axis. The last, most essential conclusion from the Herzberg’s study tells us that we generally should perceive motivation through the prism of two separate groups – hygiene and motivation (intrinsic). Deficiencies in a given group may not be supplemented by elements of the opposite one . In order to maintain an appropriate overall level of motivation, it is necessary to provide proper level of each factor in both groups and consider lack of relation/link between those two groups. Therefore, if a hygiene factor has a negative effect (e.g. low remuneration) on the overall motivation, we won’t improve it by boosting a factor from the intrinsic motivators group (e.g. assigning an ambitious task). Similarly, we can say we can’t buy motivation (your work is boring, you lack motivation so I will pay you more). The key is that meeting hygiene factors doesn’t increase the overall motivation, however not satisfying them may strongly demotivate. Continuing the example of remuneration – the lack of adequate salary strongly discourages, but the increase doesn’t affect the long-term positive effect on motivation (and only reduces demotivation). By taking care of the hygiene factors, we create a space for factors increasing satisfaction from work.

satisfaction from work

An example – some years ago, during evaluation period, I decided to create a ranking (the team had over twenty members). In the questionnaire I asked every member to evaluate others in the team. On that basis I created a ranking and informed each person about the results during annual meetings. The intentions might not be bad, but the effect … People who saw themselves better than in the questionnaire, felt very bad after seeing the results. In an instant, with my mistake, I demotivated some people.

To sum up – Herzberg’s theory shows division into two groups of factors influencing motivation. A leader should provide an appropriate level in both groups having in mind that those they are independent.

Broader look on intrinsic motivation

The above-mentioned theories have shown me that the role of a leader is to identify and remove obstacles (on which as a leader I can have an impact). However, I missed the broader look on intrinsic motivation – if we provide people with right conditions, what else can affect their job satisfaction and may threaten maintenance of proper motivation.

Let me start with another example. I had a very good developer in my team, the moment the team started to grow dynamically a need for effective onboarding arose. I decided that mentioned person would take care of training within a certain technology. Obviously, I left him full freedom and assumed that everything would work. However, it turned out that the training went „so-so” or saying a bit more straight – not everyone feels comfortable in the role of a trainer, especially if they don’t have any prior preparation. As a result, we came to the conclusion that presentation in front of a larger group is not a perfect solution, instead we implemented working in pairs. It worked perfectly. In place of using intrinsic motivation of a given person and let him/her do what they do best, I looked for extrinsic motivators and persuaded to prepare a training in a form that worked best for myself.

This kind of cases encouraged me to gain further knowledge that would help me in decision making process. Therefore, I came across two, quite similar, motivation theories – Pink’s one and Self Determination Theory (SDT).

Self Determination Theory (SDT)

SDT is based on many studies carried out through years by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. In their works they strongly focused on why people are motivated (what positively and negatively influences our motivation).

In their research, Deci and Ryan tested different forms of influencing motivation and it is worth paying attention to their key findings.

Can we buy motivation?

Let’s imagine that we do something that makes us happy and we can say that we don’t need any additional external incentives to do it. We find the urge to perform that task ourselves. Unexpectedly, someone starts to pay us PLN 100 for doing it. We think that why it should be something wrong – ultimately, we like doing it and someone pays for it. After some time, the same person offers PLN 200. Even better, we get more than before and we like our work so much. After few weeks we get to know that there is no more money and no one will pay us for our work. What will happen? Will we want to carry it out?

Studies based on similar scenarios showed clearly that motivation can’t be bought (in a long-term). Presented example shows yet another mechanism – through rewards (expected ones, to which we accustom people) we can destroy their intrinsic motivation and build the extrinsic one – expected rewards.

Can we force people to become motivated?

Using rewards/penalties may work in a short term but in the long run it may lead to:

  • Competition and impairment of team work
  • Decrease of intrinsic motivation – if you reward 1 person out of 10, the remaining 9 always feel bad with it
  • Decline of the very work – we work just to win something or to avoid punishment
  • Decrease in quality and creativity – to get reward or avoid penalty we look for a shortcut
  • Cheating – to achieve reward or avoid penalty we can even resort to cheating
  • Additional monitoring – to control the system for action in accordance with the agreed rules

What affects motivation?

Deci and Ryan’s studies showed that people have certain intrinsic needs and if they are met, people will be motivated. They identified three key areas:

  • Competence
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness

In turn, Pink gives a similar version and talks about:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

pink's theory_technicalblog

I think it is worth investigating those two models together as they pretty much overlap. Let’s take a closer look at each of three key areas of self-motivation.

Autonomy is a natural human urge to have control over one’s own life and make autonomous decisions. It means freedom of choice and results in an intrinsic pro activeness. Autonomy can be seen in four main dimensions:

  • Tasks (what we do)
  • Time (when we do)
  • Team (with whom we do)
  • Technique (how we do)

Every one of us sees those dimensions differently (for some people time is more important, for others, for example, technique).

Competence/Mastery should be understood not so much as being competent for the job, but as an inner conviction that we can perform a specific task – we have the necessary skills, but also take up a challenge and not everything will be easy and fun. We treat our skills as something infinite which can be constantly improved.

Relatedness/Purpose is giving meaning to our work. Each of us will want to see a greater sense of their work to know that it can serve others and can improve something. It is natural need to achieve something larger and more enduring than ourselves.

What does it mean for a leader?

In practice, findings in self-motivation quite clearly show leaders what they should do – not motivate externally but remove all obstacles that affect self-motivation. It is worth discerning how each team member understands autonomy, mastery and purpose, and organise the system/work practice of a team in a way it strengthens these areas. For example, at the beginning of many projects for external clients we organise a meeting, during which clients show us their vision of a product, a broader description of whom it will serve and thus we give meaning to the work of an entire team.

Coming back to the previous example with a very good developer – if I had discern areas of Mastery and Autonomy, we would probably have decided together that sharing knowledge while working in pairs is better than a presentation for a group (as a leader I made decision and took away autonomy).

A few words of summary

I believe that I managed to pass along key theories of motivation and their practical application. Summing up my previous deliberation, it can be said that firstly, we should determine and eliminate impact of factors affecting motivation (hygiene factors) for each person, and then, according to self-motivation rules, support intrinsic motivation. It is important to remember that everyone has different abilities and some people need greater autonomy, whereas others require more support from their leader.

I would also like to draw your attention to a certain trend we can observe in the IT industry. Today we can notice that due to the increasing demand for services in this sector, companies are outbidding each other in what they can offer to their future employees. This process, irrespectively to whether organisation has sincere intention or not, makes it more difficult for people to understand the situation. It can be observed that:

  • Every now and then someone offers us a new job
  • We get information about much better remuneration
  • There are new „facilities” that awaits us

As a result, we begin to lose concentration, we wonder whether in fact the present place of work is good enough, and whether we earn properly etc.

In my opinion there is a danger consisting in the fact that on the basis of all these signals we begin to create a picture-perfect job and it is very difficult to find such an ideal one in reality. Suddenly, it may be that the work, which previously gave us so much satisfaction, ceases to please us and we no longer know what we want (we exchanged intrinsic motivators to the extrinsic ones, which are increasingly difficult to meet).

I think it is worth noting that my findings concern the IT industry, to which I am directly related and I can assume that they may be true for other areas that require creative work.

This article was originally published on Paweł’s blog http://www.okiemlidera.pl/.

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Administratorem Twoich danych osobowych jest Future Processing S.A. z siedzibą w Gliwicach. Twoje dane będziemy przetwarzać w celu przesyłania cyklicznego newslettera dot. branży IT. W każdej chwili możesz się wypisać lub edytować swoje dane. Więcej informacji znajdziesz w naszej polityce prywatności.