Motivation is a critical factor in the productivity equation. It’s the spark that ignites talent, or the water that dampens it. However, it can be complex and nuanced.

In this article, we will explore the dominant science around how to motivate employees by looking at six common theories of motivation and translating each theory into a practical takeaway for leaders to consider across their own organisations.

Let’s go.

How to motivate employees: six common theories

Leadership and management training professionals, Expert Programme Management (EPM), summarise twelve of the most common theories of motivation.

Content theories are based on understanding employees' needs and the ways you can meet those needs to drive motivation. They focus on what motivates employees.

Content theories of motivation:

  • Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
  • Herzberg's Two Factor Theory
  • McClelland's Three Needs Theory
  • McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y
  • Alderfer's ERG Theory
  • Mayo's Motivation Theory

Process theories are based on understanding the ways motivation happens and exploring which processes optimise motivation. They focus on how to motivate employees.

Process theories of motivation:

  • Equity Theory
  • Vroom's Expectancy Theory
  • Taylor's Scientific Management Theory
  • Bandura's Self-Efficacy Theory
  • Skinner's Reinforcement Theory
  • Locke's Goal-Setting Theory

In this article, we'll explore three common theories from each category. 

What motivates employees? Three content theories

1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow believed employees are motivated by the desire to fulfil five hierarchical needs, which he conceptualised as a pyramid.


For employees to realise their full potential, Maslow believed all five needs must be met in order, starting at the bottom. For example, if an employee is exhausted (physiological need) they won’t be motivated by growth opportunities (self-actualisation need).

Practical takeaway: Prioritise well-being. Many organisations spend big on ‘glitzy’ employee rewards, but it's important to support your employees’ basic needs first. Current challenges like rising burnout and financial insecurity are urgent because they stop workers from progressing up the hierarchy and reaching their full potential. 

2. Herzberg's Two Factor Theory

Herzberg argues that two factors determine whether an employee is motivated: hygiene factors and motivating factors.

Motivating factors increase motivation if they are present — like good team relationships — while hygiene factors decrease motivation if they aren’t, like safe working conditions.

Practical takeaway: Ensure a great work environment. If you don’t get the hygiene factors right, the bells and whistles won't save you. Conduct an employee experience audit to ensure you’re tackling engagement and motivation from the bottom up.

3. McClelland's Three Needs Theory 

McClelland’s Three Needs Theory argues employees have three major needs that can be mapped on a scale: achievement, affiliation (teamwork; belonging), and power.

Practical takeaway: Different employees will find different rewards motivating. Mapping their motivation profile can help guide a personalised approach to management that’s motivating for everyone.

Three process theories of motivating employees: the how. 

4. Equity Theory

This theory argues that what motivates employees is workers' belief they’re treated fairly. When there’s a perceived unfairness employees will adjust their behaviour accordingly.

For example, Office for National Statistics data shows that in 2021, the UK's gender pay gap rose from 14.9% to 15.4%. This means, on average, women earn 15% less than men per hour. Equity theory says this pay gap translates into a motivation gap.

Practical takeaway: Equity is important. If it’s not already, the ‘equity’ part of diversity, equity, and inclusion should be a major focus for your organisation. How do your processes, structures, and policies support equity? And if they don’t, what’s the knock-on cost for motivation and productivity?

 5. Vroom's Expectancy Theory

Vroom’s theory says employees adapt behaviour based on expected results. For motivation, employees must believe three things:

  • If they work hard, they can hit their targets
  • If they hit their targets, they will gain rewards
  • If they gain rewards, those rewards are desirable

Practical takeaway: Examine the organisation's goals and processes for setting goals. Ensure your managers are equipped to set realistic targets that drive the right outcomes. Interrogate your employee rewards and recognition scheme to ensure you’re rewarding employees effectively too. 

6. Taylor's Scientific Management Theory

Known as the father of scientific management, Taylor believed employees are motivated primarily by financial reward, so managers must develop a scientific process for management that creates a win/win situation.

This involves breaking down work into bitesize tasks, training employees to perform tasks in a standardised way, and giving financial rewards based on productivity.

Practical takeaway: Reward performance effectively. Management thinking has evolved beyond Taylor, and most leaders believe motivation is more complex than purely financial.

That said, connecting at least some rewards to performance can be highly motivating, like commission-based sales. Look for opportunities to weave performance-based rewards into your organisation.

The continued popularity of many different theories of motivation is a testament that there’s no simple answer to the question of how to motivate employees. Nonetheless, there are practical lessons leaders can take forward from all these theories, to build a more motivated, engaged, and productive workforce.