What is the ultimate theory of motivation?

photo by brianfit

Due to some reading I have done lately, I have been thinking a lot about motivation. Motivation is such a complicated thing. There are so many theories of motivation. A partial list:

The needs hierarchy (Maslow and ERG), Learned needs, Personality approach to motivation, the affect approach, Herzberg two-factor theory, Expectancy theory and Porter-Lawer extension, Goal-setting theory, self efficacy theory, equity theory, organizational justice theories and reinforcement approach.


Which one of them is true? Well, I guess it depends on who you ask. Most of these theories are based on some kind of research and usually on actual surveys or experiments. That means they contain some truth. Some of them are intuitive; some of them are counter intuitive. But the fact that there are so many and that they sometime contradicting, is, well, disturbing.

When I think about it, I guess this makes sense. We are all different. We have different talents, needs and personalities. How can we expect to have one theory that encompasses all of us? That means, that the best way to understand someone’s motivation is… well you just have to ask him/her. And ask again. And offer other options. And ask again. Because motivation is so confusing, that even people themselves don’t really know what they want sometimes. We think we want something, because it seems right or because of social pressure, but after we get it, we understand, that we don’t. Or we just change our preference. The problem is, many times, managers don’t ask, they assume. And many times they are wrong.

The problem companies face is different. They ask themselves how to ask all their employees what they want. Because if you have one or two employees, it is easy to enquire what they want. But, when you have thousands of employees, to understand the aggregate desires of employees and answer all of them becomes much harder. This is where managers become so important. Managers usually have a limited number of people under them. They can ask them what they want constantly. And if the managers are empowered enough, they can make most (or a lot) things happen for their employees.

So, the theory you believe in is less important. What is important is to try to understand real people. Not that motivation theories are wrong or useless. They can help us think and be aware. But if we, as managers, won’t make it our job to proactively deal with by asking people and if our companies won’t empower us to deal with the answers to our questions, it does not really matter which theory is the ultimate theory of motivation and how much we learn them.


One Response to “What is the ultimate theory of motivation?”

  1. Motivation or Vision? « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] can argue with that? After all, just a few days ago I wrote here that I don’t think there is an ultimate theory of motivation. I said I think the most important […]

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