How motivation theory can help managers improve morale

8 minutes

How motivation theory can help managers improve morale

Providing your people with a sense of purpose and fulfilment can build highly motivated teams

In an age of rising attrition in businesses, could theories of motivation be key to retaining the best talent?

Keeping the best talent within a company is vital for business success. Business leaders understand this, especially those with a finger on the pulse of the market in which they operate. However, simply understanding the problem is not enough.

The rise of motivation theories

Over the past one hundred years, a number of management theories have claimed to offer winning formulas when it comes to motivating people, improving productivity and keeping team members motivated.

Many leaders engage with multiple theories on this theme, but ultimately, there’s no silver bullet, because increasing morale and engagement is not an exact science.

Completely controlling motivation is, after all, impossible. A motivated person on a Monday morning could well be the least motivated team member come Friday lunchtime. But there are some universal factors that can be implemented to improve working environments; keeping people engaged and making a place of work more attractive to potential new hires.

The theories that underpin such methods are still valuable, especially when the soundest parts of each are applied concurrently. As such, we’ve put together this guide to help managers get a better handle on what these theories are, as well as how they can be applied to improve morale and ultimately reduce attrition.

1. Daniel H. Pink’s Motivation 3.0


Daniel H. Pink is one of the most instantly recognisable stars of motivation theory alive today. His books have appeared on New York Times bestseller lists, he’s a prominent TED contributor and a widely recognised business influencer.

Pink’s 2009 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, sets out a vision for workplace motivation, called Motivation 3.0, which is profoundly relevant to contemporary business management.

Pink calls for a new way to approach business, believing that most corporate companies are still built upon a culture of reward and punishment which he refers to as Motivation 2.0. Though this is not always the case, Pink argues that this traditional carrot-and-stick approach to management is outmoded.

Rather than extrinsic motivation, it is intrinsic motivation that drives most of the current workforce. People need to feel in control of their own freedom and autonomy instead of being told what to do. These factors allow a business to be creative and innovative and are only possible through people being allowed to do work that provides them with a sense of purpose and fulfilment.

The era of hierarchical structures in which tasks are vertically delegated is over. For businesses to retain their best talent, their people need to be given the space to be creative, fail and come up with solutions that can’t necessarily be found in a how-to handbook.

Take a look at the flat management structures of successful startups and big tech corporations like Google and Apple, and you’ll see structures that align flawlessly with the work of Pink’s Motivation 3.0.

2. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs is still as relevant today as it was when it was developed in the 1940s and 50s.

In fact, it’s possible to argue that it is more relevant than ever. Maslow’s ideas about creating a work environment that promotes “self-actualisation” (commonly called personal development today) fully align with the ever-present notion of the “growth mentality”.

Maslow argues that we are all motivated by our intrinsic needs, which are innate and have developed over thousands of years. These needs are split into five categories: biological and physical needs (oxygen, food), safety needs (protection, security), belongingness and love (family, relationships), esteem (achievement, status) and self-actualisation (realising personal potential, personal growth).

When it comes to the workplace, managers and leaders should look to facilitate an environment that is conducive for learning, personal development and subsequently, job satisfaction. If an individual feels like they are growing in their role and satisfying Maslow’s needs, morale will likely grow as a result. With greater morale among people, attrition rates inevitably fall.

3. Frederick Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory

Frederick Herzberg (1923-2000) was one of the principal thinkers on motivation theory. His work was the first to highlight that satisfaction and dissatisfaction at work almost always derive from different factors.

Herzberg’s schema falls under two terms: hygiene factors, and true motivators. Often, poor management focuses too heavily on the former, and too little on the latter.

Hygiene factors include company policy, salary or even something as material as a company car. While these produce short-term increases in company confidence and personal contentment, the effect is rarely long-term. Convoluted company policy, meanwhile, can be wholly demotivating.

On the other hand, true motivators are the key to increasing morale over a longer stretch of time. These are more emotional states driven by achievement, recognition and professional advancement. When a person continues to grow in these ways, their attachment to a business and their role increases — especially within high-skilled industries.

Ultimately, business leaders need to understand that to increase morale, create an engaged workforce and reduce attrition, the core focus should be on true motivators rather than hygiene factors. A company car may offer the illusion of growth, but recognition and personal development are both far stronger motivational factors.

To sum up

The world of work is changing rapidly, and the last decade has seen rapid technological growth. Although our context is very different from the days of Herzberg and Maslow, their teachings are as relevant as ever, especially as retaining talent is more and more crucial to a business’ ability to adapt to a rapidly changing world of work, and leaders within the business have a massive impact on employee engagement, happiness and health.

Of course, no theory will wholly solve the challenge of keeping people motivated and engaged. However, we all have intrinsic motivations, and providing your people with good work, and a sense of purpose and fulfilment, as well as developing a more nuanced understanding of these theories can allow business leaders to build highly motivated and productive teams.

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