Theories of motivation

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Motivation is defined as a hypothetical construct used to describe the internal and/or external forces that produce initiation,  direction,  intensity and persistence of behaviour. (Vallerand & Thrill, 1993)

If motivation drives behaviour, and behaviour drives change, then organisations who wish to adapt must have a deep understanding of employee motivation.

I am trying to list all the theories of motivation which is aimed to both educate (this was a steep learning curve for me!) and create a resource to draw some practical themes from academia into the business world.

This is an ongoing project so please feel free to add theories you thinkI have missed or recommend changes in the comments box below and I will add them.

There are some interesting themes:

Simple to complex – The broadening of theories from functional psychology (considering how the mind affects behaviour) to behavioural (behaviour is simply a learned response to an external stimulus) to cognitive (considering how the mind processes information) to social cognitive theories (how the role of cognitive processes in social interactions). 

Thrive to die v dormat to rediscovery.  Some theories thrive and then die (like Drive Reduction Theory) whilst others become dormant and are then rediscovered (such as Intrinsic Motivation).

30 year lag – Our analysis shows that there is about a 30 year lag between publication of a new theory and adoption of theories by practitioners in the business world.  This is the change process which EbbnFlow aims to speedup 🙂

Dominance to deconstruction  some theories become so complex such as Self Determination Theory that the actual practical application is lost.  For example  Keegan argues (2014) there is no comprehensive evidence relating to how the behaviour of key social agents impacts upon an individual’s psychological needs.  He has suggested going back to using qualitative research to build a taxonomy of motivational influencers (behaviours) which is assumed in SDT e.g. autonomy supporting behaviour.

Key theories on motivation since 1900

Classical  Conditioning – 1920’s – Watson & Pavlov

Originally the behaviourist movement led by Watson (after discovering Pavlov’s experiments with dogs) denied the existence of conscious thought (cognition).  He believed that any new behaviour can be learned through a process of association between a stimulus and response.  For example a loud noise (stimulus) associated with a toy would cause a child to become distressed (response) by that toy.

Intrinsic Motivation – 1925 – Dashiell

Although Woodworth conceived the concept of intrinsic motivation in 1918, it wasn’t until Dashiell (1925) and Nissen (1930) proved that rats will ignore food when hungry to solve problems that proof of intrinsic motivation started emerge.  This concept challenged the Classical Conditioning and later Drive Reduction Theory because is suggest that stimuli can come from conscious thought rather than just external.   The concept of intrinsic motivation was largely ignored until Allport’s 1955 Functional Autonomy of Motives theory.

Law of Effect – 1927 – Thorndike

A contemporary of Pavlov (the famous Pavlovian dog response) Thorndike ran trial and error experiments on cats. Thorndike found that reward is a much more effective motivator than punishment. He also emphasized that the satisfaction must come immediately after the success, or the lesson would not sink in.   Future behaviour is determined by the consequences of current behaviour.  He was writing at the transition point between functionalism and behaviorism.

Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The law of effect. The American Journal of Psychology39(1/4), 212-222.

Work on Incentives – 1935 – Mace

Mace’s work  on goal setting shows that conscious goals can be a powerful performance driver. Mace was also one of the first psychologists to question whether money is the primary incentive for worker motivation.

Carsona, P. P., Carsona, K. D., & Headya, B. R. (1994). Cecil alec mace: The man who discovered goal-setting. International Journal of Public Administration, 17(9), 1679–1708.

Need for achievement (N-Ach) – 1938 – Murray

Murray is credited for developing the need for achievement theory of motivation on which the foundations of Goal Setting Theory.  He showed that those with high achievement levels are more likely to succeed in a task.

Murray, H. A. (1938). Explorations in personality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Operant Conditioning – 1938 – Skinner

Originating from Thorndike’s Law of Effect, Skinner thought motivation is a function of the consequences i.e. behaviours with positive outcomes (recognition by a manager) are repeated and behaviours with negative outcomes (disapproval by a manager) are suppressed.

Drive Reduction Theory – 1943 – Hull

Individuals are driven by the need to reduce the discomfort associated with filling biological and physical needs e.g. eating to reduce the feeling of hunger.

Hierarchy of Needs – 1943 – Maslow – 23,512

Motivation is a 8 stage hierarchy of needs starting with physiological needs and safety needs (basic needs), then belonging and esteem needs, cognitive needs (psychological needs) and the higher level needs – aesthetic needs, self actualisation and transcendence. Tay & Diener (2011) validated these universal needs but found there is no hierarchy – we need to satisfy all the needs to flourish. Also the theory doesn’t explain how social contexts affect motivation.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review50(4), 370.

Stimulus Organism Response (SOR) – 1954 – Woodworth – 643

It wasn’t until 1954 when Woodworth published his SOR theory which established that there is conscious thought between a stimulus and response.

Woodworth, R. S. (1918). Dynamic psychology. Columbia University Press.

Woodworth, R. S. (1958). Dynamics of behavior.

Functional Autonomy of Motives Theory – 1937 – Allport – 8,696

Allport, G. W. (1937). The functional autonomy of motives. The American Journal of Psychology50(1/4), 141-156.

Allport, G. W. (1937). Personality: A psychological interpretation.

Motivation Hygiene Theory –  1959 – Herzberg – 8,980

Individuals can only be motivated once dissatisfaction (hygiene) factors are eliminated (e.g. poor work conditions or salary) then the conditions for job satisfaction (motivators) can be created (e.g. growth and recognition).

Herzberg, F. I. (1966). Work and the nature of man.

Theory X & Theory Y – 1960 – McGregor’s – 163

Employee motivation is determined by their manager. Theory X is an authoritarian management style and assumes employees are work shy and need motivating. Theory Y is participative management style and employees are intrinsically motivates and want to satisfy their need for achievement.

McGregor, D. (1960). Theory X and theory Y. Organization theory, 358-374.

Theory of Needs – 1965 – McClelland – 944

Employee motivation depends on the individual’s specific needs acquired over time and shaped by life’s experiences. Needs are universal and can be categorised as Achievement, Power and Affiliation.

McClelland, D. C. (1965). Toward a theory of motive acquisition. American psychologist20(5), 321.

Equity Theory – 1963 – Adams – 7252

Employees are motivated when their inputs (e.g., effort, knowledge, skill, loyalty) are matched by outcomes (e.g., pay, bonuses, benefits, recognition), which creates a sense of equity or fairness.

Adams, J. S. (1963). Towards an understanding of inequity. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology67(5), 422.

Expectancy Theory – 1964 – Vroom

Employees are motivated by the expectancy of an outcome (rather than needs satisfaction as Thorndike proposed) which is driven by how much an individual wants a reward, how likely they feel their effort will lead to expected performance and the belief that the performance will lead to the reward.

Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and motivation. 1964. NY: John Wiley &sons45.

Goal Setting Theory (GST) – 1968 – Locke & Latham – 14,810

The idea of conscious goal setting as a performance enhancer has been around since the 1930’s.  In 1968 Locke & Latham summarised the prevailing theories and integrated them into GST.   40 years and 400 lab and field studies 1 later GST has been robustly tested by around 70 academics.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American psychologist57(9), 705.

Social Learning Theory – 1969 – Bandura – 1,755

Bandura builds on Operant Conditioning and the Classical Conditioning (Stimulus and Response)

Bandura, A. (1969). Social-learning theory of identificatory processes. Handbook of socialization theory and research213, 262.

Job Characteristics Model – 1975 – Hackman & Oldman – 8,287

Employees are motivated by the meaningfulness of the task (which is determined task variety, ability to complete the task and the impact of the task on others), autonomy (discretion over the task) and extent of feedback on task performance.

Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory. Organizational behavior and human performance16(2), 250-279.


Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB) – 1985 – Ajzen – 21,014

Employees derive utility not only from personal outcomes (as Vroom describes), but also from social rewards that convey approval (such as respect and acceptance) and social punishments that convey disapproval (e.g. disrespect, and alienation).

Ajzen, I. (1985). From intentions to actions: A theory of planned behavior. In Action control (pp. 11-39). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Achievement Goal Theory – 1984 – Nicholls
Implicit Theories of Ability – 1988 – Dweck

Employees are motivated through mastery goals (intrinsically motivated and judge their performance internally) or performance goals (performance is judged in comparison to others).  Elliot & Dweck (1988) modified Nicholls theory.  They suggested that the pursuit of mastery goals led to challenge seeking behaviour (adaptive response) whereas performance goals led to a vulnerability to helplessness (maladaptive response).  Dweck later explains the reason behind this in her Implicit Theory of Abilities. She found that if individuals (school children in her studies) pursue competency goals their perception of their own ability becomes largely irrelevant.  However, when performance goals are pursued children who perceived their competence to be high choose challenging goals and those who perceived their competence to be low choose easier goals.  Later Dweck (2000) defined these two personality types as entity theorists (they believe that their ability is fixed) or incremental theorists (they believe that their ability is malleable).

Nicholls, J. G. (1984). Achievement motivation: Conceptions of ability, subjective experience, task choice, and performance. Psychological review91(3), 328.

Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of personality and social psychology54(1), 5.

Dweck, C., & Molden, D. C. (2000). Self theories. Handbook of competence and motivation, 122-140.

Self Determination Theory (SDT) – 1985 – Ryan & Deci – 35,754

SDT has been popularised by Dan Pink in his book Drive and subsequent TED talks.  SDT was born out of an interest to explain intrinsic motivation 1 and is defined as a theory of optimising well-being through the pursuit of goals2.  SDT is also supported by a huge body of research stretching over 40 years. Our poll showed  SDT was one of the theories Change Practitioners were least familiar with.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist55(1), 68.

Learned Industriousness – 1992 – Eisenberger – 570

Explains how, when employees are rewarded for effort over time, hard work can take on secondary reward properties, such that employees naturally enjoy the very experiencing of expending effort.

Eisenberger, R. (1992). Learned industriousness. Psychological review99(2), 248.

 Motivational Climate – 1992 – Ames – 8217

Motivational climate is created by the motivational influence exerted by key social agents (e.g. managers, peers, significant others etc).  The term originated in achievement goal theory (Ames, 1992; Nicholls, 1989).  Ames argues that emphasising effort, improvement, cooperation, and self-referenced mastery goals creates a climate of hard work, selection of challenging tasks and persistence . Emphasis placed on performance goals creates a climate of social comparison, winning competitions where individuals often adopt maladaptive achievement strategies, particularly when perceptions of competence are low.  The acronym TARGET (design of Task, location of Authority, distribution of Recognition, manner and frequency of Groupings, Evaluation of performance,  Timing – pace of learning) is used in education to help develop a mastery oriented climate.

Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of educational psychology84(3), 261.

Social Goal Theory – 1995 – Urdan & Maehr – 863

The theory proposes that in addition to Mastery and Performance goals individuals may choose goals to gain acceptance by social agents (e.g. manager, peers, significant others etc).  These goals are called Social Goals.  They define three types of social goals: social approval goals (for a sense of belonging), social solidarity goals (to be conscientious), and social welfare goals (benefit the larger society by becoming a productive member of society).

Urdan, T. C., & Maehr, M. L. (1995). Beyond a two-goal theory of motivation and achievement: A case for social goals. Review of educational research65(3), 213-243.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation – 1997 – Vallerand – 3,066

Like Self Determination Theory (SDT) Vallerand considers motivation to be multidimensional.  Motivation is considered to be a continuum not simply a dichotomy between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  SDT distinguishes between 5 levels of extrinsic motivation: integrated, identified, introjected, external regulation and amotivation. Vallerand also distinguishes between three levels of intrinsic motivation :  to know ( the pleasure of engaging in learning),to accomplishment ( the pleasure of getting better at something) and stimulation (engaging in an activity for sensory and aesthetic pleasure).  He also suggests that motivation has three levels of hierarchy – global, contextual and situational.  Individuals could be at different levels of motivation within the hierarchy depending on the context.  For example, at a global level I am  extrinsically motivated by my organisation’s goals, at a situational (task) level I might be intrinsically motivated.

Vallerand, R. J. (1997). Toward a hierarchical model of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Advances in experimental social psychology29, 271-360.

Vallerand, R. J. (2000). Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory: A view from the hierarchical model of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Psychological Inquiry11(4), 312-318.

Trichotomous Goal Theory – 1997 – Elliot & Church – 3637
2×2 model – 2001 – Elliot & McGregor – 5527

These theories integrate Achievement Goal Theory and Implicit Theories of Ability with the approach-avoidance goal distinction to create three achievement goals: a mastery goal focused on the development of self-referenced competence and task mastery, a performance-approach goal focused on the attainment of favourable judgments of normative competence and a performance-avoidance goal focused on avoiding unfavourable judgments of normative competence. The existence of these three achievement goals has also been demonstrated. The trichotomous model suggests that the approach-avoidance distinction is critical element to understanding the relationship between achievement goals and investment in learning.


Elliot, A. J., & Church, M. A. (1997). A hierarchical model of approach and avoidance achievement motivation. Journal of personality and social psychology72(1), 218.

Elliot, A. J., & McGregor, H. A. (2001). A 2× 2 achievement goal framework. Journal of personality and social psychology80(3), 501.

Integrated control theory model – 1989 – Klein – 609

Klein, H. J. (1989). An integrated control theory model of work motivation. Academy of Management Review14(2), 150-172.

Self-concordance model – Sheldon & Elliot – 1999

This model demonstrates that goals that are consistent with an individual’s values and interests produce well-being, one manifestation of which is engagement.  This only occurs when goals are integrated with the self and pursued because of felt ownership which may not occur when goals
are imposed. Achieving goals that are not integrated with the self does not promote well-being (Sheldon & Kasser, 1998) and is not likely to promote engagement.

Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: the self-concordance model. Journal of personality and social psychology76(3), 482.

 Regulatory Focus Theory – 2001 – Higgins – 606


Brockner, J., & Higgins, E. T. (2001). Regulatory focus theory: Implications for the study of emotions at work. Organizational behavior and human decision processes86(1), 35-66.

Integrated model of employee commitment and motivation – 2004 – Meyer, Becker & Vandenberghe – 1,554

Meyer, J. P., Becker, T. E., & Vandenberghe, C. (2004). Employee commitment and motivation: a conceptual analysis and integrative model. Journal of applied psychology89(6), 991.

Psychological capital – Luthans – 2006

Not so much a theory of motivation but a theory of the conditions that create positive motivated psychological state  that is characterized by:

  • having confidence (self-efficacy) to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks
  • making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future
  • persevering toward goals, and when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order to succeed
  • when beset by problems and adversity, sustaining and bouncing back and even beyond (resiliency) to
    attain success

Luthans, F., Avey, J. B., Avolio, B. J., Norman, S. M., & Combs, G. M. (2006). Psychological capital development: toward a micro‐intervention. Journal of organizational behavior27(3), 387-393.

Motivational Atmosphere – 2010 – Keegan – 177

Motivational Atmosphere originates from Ames (1992) work on achievement goal theory. Ames suggests that a motivational climate is created by the motivational influence exerted by key social agents (e.g. managers, peers, significant others etc).  However, Keegan argues (2014) there is no comprehensive evidence relating to how the behaviour of key social agents impacts upon an individual’s psychological needs.  Using qualitative research Keegan (2014)  has started to build a taxonomy of motivational influencers (behaviours).  A central finding of the paper is that there was no discernible one-to-one correspondence between specific behaviours and their impact on motivation. Instead, the findings suggest complex contextual interactions  between the immediate behaviours of social agents and the impact on the athlete’s motivation.  He terms these complexities a ‘Motivational Atmosphere’.

Keegan, R., Spray, C., Harwood, C., & Lavallee, D. (2010). The motivational atmosphere in youth sport: Coach, parent, and peer influences on motivation in specializing sport participants. Journal of applied sport psychology22(1), 87-105.

Keegan, R., Spray, C., Harwood, C., & Lavallee, D. (2011). From ‘motivational climate’to ‘motivational atmosphere’: A review of research examining the social and environmental influences on athlete motivation in sport.

Keegan, R. J., Harwood, C. G., Spray, C. M., & Lavallee, D. (2014). A qualitative investigation of the motivational climate in elite sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise15(1), 97-107.

Progress Principle – 2011 – Amabile & Kramer – 349


Amabile, T., & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Harvard Business Press.


Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (Eds.). (2013). New developments in goal setting and task performance. Routledge.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current directions in psychological science15(5), 265-268.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. American psychologist57(9), 705-717.

Gagné, M., & Deci, E. L. (2014). The History of Self-Determination Theory in Psychology and Management. In The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation, and Self-Determination Theory (pp. 1–12).

2 Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “ What ” and “ Why ” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268.

3 Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological review95(2), 256.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. American psychologist57(9), 705-717.

Van Yperen, N. W., Blaga, M., & Postmes, T. (2014). A Meta-Analysis of Self-Reported Achievement Goals and Nonself-Report Performance across Three Achievement Domains (Work, Sports, and Education). PLoS ONE9(4), e93594.

Sheldon, K. M., Boehm, J. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). Variety is the spice of happiness: The hedonic adaptation prevention (HAP) model. Oxford handbook of happiness, 901-914.

Lee, F. K., Sheldon, K. M., & Turban, D. B. (2003). Personality and the goal-striving process: The influence of achievement goal patterns, goal level, and mental focus on performance and enjoyment. Journal of Applied Psychology88(2), 256.

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: a meta-analysis of research findings.

Baard, P. P., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Intrinsic need satisfaction: A motivational basis of performance and weil‐being in two work settings. Journal of applied social psychology34(10), 2045-2068.

Stone, D. N., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Beyond talk: Creating autonomous motivation through self-determination theory. Journal of General Management34(3), 75-91.

Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. (2001). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry. Public administration and public policy87, 611-630.

Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior  – By Edward L. Deci, Richard M. Ryan