Do Textbook Motivation Theories Work?

motivational theoriesHave you ever been in a management program / known someone who has been in one? 

Motivation theories are the one of the first things you will study there; the very first semester. A very fat and not very appealing (to most) book would be prescribed to you for the subject ‘Organization Behavior’ which is replete with such theories. That’s a lot of research. But very few professors / courses will make you sit & think – Now! How do I apply them? That too, when for most of the students, an HR subject is like a filler, a soft subject for which you write random shit in the exam and just pass to fulfill the course requirement. No one gives a second glance to these theories, till the time they reach their workplaces after their placements.

Brings me to the question – Do these textbook motivation theories work? 

I would say – not really. Most of the theories discussed in these textbooks are as old as hills. The Maslows and the McGregor’s and the Alderfer’s & the Herzberg’s (the most famous theories have been given by these Gentlemen) – they certainly don’t work in silos. And they most certainly need a lot of contextual updating / research. However, these theories are generally taught in silos only, with the assumption that if we apply one, we are good to go!

One must not forget that each one of these theories have a background of extensive empirical research. There are hypothesis and concepts and prior theories and constructs on which these conclusions are made. The basic premise of behavioral research is that it is done not by proving something to be true but by falsifying something else which could have been true. This means – these motivational theories are all contextual in nature. I would say, go back a sentence and read again – why they are contextual.

But, have these been created with Indian situations in consideration? Would the Indian context fit their premise?

Most managers who have not gone through specific MDPs for motivation & leadership still believe in the older outdated theories. One study says that 95% of the managers believe in money, pressure or praise as the only motivators. That is a little too far-fetched. The idea that pressure will make diamonds and aligning employee objectives with end of year bonuses thereafter – is a bad bad idea. Employees won’t turn up their work ethic for this and become efficient. And there have been far too many studies that reveal that money is just not the ultimate motivator.

And let me not even get started on Maslow’s theory.

(According to Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs, individual’s motivation has a hierarchy of needs which has to be fulfilled in the same order else he / she won’t feel motivated enough. Those needs are – basic needs, social needs, security needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs. An extensive google search will give you good detail about Maslow and his theory.)

Now the problem with this theory is – its extensive and subsequent abuse, when I am not even sure if it is applicable anymore. It is a 70 year old theory and a lot has changed since. Human beings keep evolving as the society and the technologies around them evolve. One of the biggest criticisms of the theory is that motivation doesn’t move one need at a time. We could exist on multiple levels too. For e.g. great food motivates me always ☺ and so does a great work opportunity; at the same time. One can also be stuck in between two stages or it may so happen than the initial levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs become a hygiene factor after a while (referring to Herzberg’s theory of Motivation).

Herzberg’s two factor theory: He says, the opposite of satisfaction is not dissatisfaction. Based largely on workplace motivation, this theory says that there are 2 motivating factors at a workplace: hygiene factors & motivating factors. The hygiene factors are those, the presence of which will not cause any satisfaction but their absence (or poor quality) will cause dissatisfaction to the employees. For e.g. compensation & benefits. On the other hand, motivating factors are those, the presence of which will cause satisfaction. For e.g. Recognition, responsibility

But I am sure managers don’t think of all these before trying to motivate their employees. The problem is – not much is known / discussed about the contemporary theories which take more of the trends and variations into account. The older ones may be easy to understand but are outdated and facile.

There are newer concepts like Adam’s Equity Theory and Dec & Ryan’s Self Determination Theory which are probably more applicable to today’s work scenarios. In fact, Amabile & Kramer talk about the ‘Power of Small Wins’ – a motivator that they recognized after analyzing almost 12000 diary entries of employees. It says that employees are most motivated, highly productive, driven and do their best work when they make daily progress towards a meaningful goal. Doesn’t that make more sense?

(Adam’s Equity Theory: Input in terms of work effort and output in terms of work rewards should be equal in the eyes of an individual employee. If he/she believes that with less / equal input in comparison to them, their colleague has received more benefits and rewards, it will lead to inequity.

Dec & Ryan’s Self Determination theory says that human beings have 3 basic needs which lead to better understanding of self which in turn brings in motivation: Autonomy, Competence & Relatedness.

Sadly, 95% of the managers they talked about regarding this, got their answers wrong. Because we are mostly not aware of the contemporary theories or care least to update ourselves.

In a further study on what keeps the employees engaged at work, most of them conferred with the findings of Amabile & Kramer, highlighting autonomy and belongingness to their teams as an emotion that described highly engaging work for them. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t money. 95% of the respondents didn’t mention their pay at all.

This dovetails the fact that it is not only the weaker employees who need an emotional touch in their interactions. Even the good ones appreciate the touchy-feely stuff to feel belonged and to believe in their ownership of their workplaces.

I am sure there are many new concepts being researched about even as you read this and much more stellar work that has been done in this field but is yet to come to notice of the people who need to put these textbook theories into real life practice.

The problem with these textbook theories is, they have been hardwired in our brains since they have existed for long. Managers often forget to look beyond this. And if they also diagnose the real problem behind an employee’s lack of motivation while trying to use these outdated theories – the poor employee probably won’t stand a chance.

Alongside, a more application based study regime is needed. Having said that, all is not dark and gloomy in this field. The better institutes are doing good work towards the application side of these theories and trying to build management mentalities that are more liberal and autonomy based. It is like a wind of change that has started to blow and with relentless and sincere effort, surely the textbook theories can find their use in corporate boardrooms and cubicles; the place where they actually belong.

3 Responses

  1. Aekansh Kansal

    I think some theories do work.But the things changes over time and they needed to be updated. But You can’t completely disregard them if there is slight problem or If they are taught in books and not also for the reason that they are just crammed to pass examination.
    Also one important thing is this basis of generalizing them is not correct all theories that are taught in books what you did here.Some of them work,some partially work,some worked in past but not now and some of them may not work at all.

  2. Rock

    Yes, I agree with textbook motivation theories work because some will feel that motivation or story they ready So in my point of view they will feel motivated also. Thanks for sharing and keep posting new things


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