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What is motivation?

Hardly any other psychological research concept has spread so widely into everyday language and speech as motivation. At work, interest in motivation has profilerated in connection to the issues of engagement and employee experience. Peter Drucker is claimed to have said: “we know nothing about motivation - all we can do is write books about it” (Tarant, 2009). But, what is really known about the much talked motivation?

Motivation has been defined in various ways in psychology depending on the particular perspective. Agreement exists over viewing motivation as being concerned with initiation and orientation of behavior. There is also agreement that motivation equals more or less to what is meant by the common word of wanting. Motive is simply a want or desire to do something, to act in some way. At work, it translates into the question what the individual wants to do at work. The most influential theories of motivation can be divided into humanistic and personality focused theories. The figure below displays the most profilic representatives in both traditions.

Theories of motivation

Theories of motivation

Humanistic theories

Humanistic theories of motivation embrace questions of existence and personal growth along broad developmental lines. The most well-known is probably Abraham Maslow’s (1954) theory according to which needs are arranged as a hierarchy from lower order needs, such as need for nutrition to higher order needs, the highest of which is self-realization. Satisfaction of the lower order needs is a precondition for moving into realization of higher order needs and, people have an inner tendency towards growth and development. Maslow’s theory has had numerous heirs. Both Herzberg’s theory (1959) on work’s hygiene factors and motivators as well as Alderfer’s ERG theory represent vivid continuation to Maslow's ideas. The most recent heir, representing the humanistic tradition is the Self Determination Theory by Deci and Ryan (1985). The theory is centered around intrinsic and extrinsic motivation where the former concerns actions which are rewarding in themselves and the latter deals with actions leading to external rewards.

Personality theories

Theories with emphasis on personality focus on the individually variable meanings of such higher order needs, self-realization, competence or intrinsic motivation. In other words, individuals have different intrinsic motives and people realize themselves in their own different ways. Henry Murray and David C. McClelland are the most well-known representatives of this tradition developed at Harvard University. At Harvard Psychological Clinic, H. Murray devised a taxonomy of approximately 30 psychological needs for description and measurement of individual motivation (Murray, 1938). Later, McClelland (1987) and colleagues developed an original content analytic technique for measuring the needs for achievement, power and affiliation (e.g., Niitamo, 1999). This trio has shown to predict success in three broad work categories and have thus been called the “Three Big" motives. Achievement motivation enhances performance in expert jobs, power motivation strengthens success in leadership roles while affiliation motivation is a resource in jobs with emphasis on social interaction such as customer service or if you want, foreign service. One of the most well-known work competency models builds upon this trio of motivations (Spencer & Spencer, 1993). World's premier executive search company Egon Zehnder characterizes the three motivations as work's "renewable sources of energy" to be leveraged by correct matching of people and jobs (Egon Zehnder, 2017).

See Wikipedia: Murray's taxonomy | McClelland's Three Big Motives

Motives have to be discovered

Motives are factors in personality with the characteristic that that they are less visible from the outside than are traits such as extraversion. Motives are neither always fully known to the person him or herself. Instead, they often have to be discovered, with questions as “what do I really want?”. Criminal investigation offers a dramatic example of the search for motives: a motive for the criminal act is attempted to be discovered. The hidden nature of motives means that in contrast to external traits, motives cannot be directly inferred from action. For example, a successful student’s motive can be his or her true desire to achieve but diligent behavior can also derive from the student’s wish to please his or her teacher or parents.

Knowing motives is understanding the person

Personality traits are good for describing individuals' external behavior tendencies. In Dan McAdams’ words (1995), traits give a “first reading” on the previously unknown person. Everyday experience has taught us that the first picture of an individual can change greatly as his or her motivation, desires and life goals become known to us. In fact, getting to know a person in everyday life follows the same pattern: first we draw the new person by his or her visible traits and continue getting more acquainted with the person through knowledge of his or her desires and life goals. Knowing another person’s (or one’s own) motives is understanding another person (or oneself). We then know what makes the person (or oneself) move or “tick”.

Motives have special value in work

Motives are desires or wants and behave accordingly. Realization of motives causes satisfaction and joy while failure in realizing them causes feelings of frustration. Motivation is therefore a valuable driving force for the organization. When the job has been staffed by an appropriately motivated person, work is carried out on his or her own "appetite”. The match between jobs and people is sought either by hiring a person suited to the job, by coaching him or her to better suit the job or by changing the job for a better suit to the person.

Motives in the WOPI concept

The WOPI concept builds on McClelland's and colleagues' three motivations and seven single behavior-specifying motives defined to a large extent on the basis of Murray's earlier taxonomy. Of the three "big" motivations, power and affiliation were renamed into leadership and interaction motivations as simpler descriptors of work behavior, see below. The WOPI concept entails two grand "wheels of competence", motivation or wanting something and thinking, for which a separate lesson is presented.

Achievement motivation

Achievement motivation is about behavior in the world of things. It is a general desire to excel in independent activities, either through focus or competition. Focused achievement (fo) is a single motive or desire to excel by concentrating on the task at hand. It strengthens performance in quality emphasizing, focused, technical and semi-independent jobs. Competition (co) is a desire to excel by competing, surpassing goal lines and breaking of records. It strengthens performance in jobs that emphasize quantitative results, entrepreneurial and multi-tasked action. People with achievement as their strongest motivation at work may be called "Independent performers".

Leadership motivation

Leadership motivation is about behavior in the world of things and people. It is a general desire to lead others, either their action or thoughts. Leadership (le) is a desire to lead other people’s action through direct means, by setting direction, giving orders and exercising power. In addition to supervisory jobs, it strengthens performance in jobs that require exercising one’s own will or enforcing power. Inspiration (is) is in turn a desire to lead others’ thoughts and feelings through indirect means, by stepping forward, attracting attention and inspiring others. It addition to supervisory jobs, inspiration strengthens performance in marketing, sales and promotional jobs. People with leadership as their strongest motivation at work may be called "Leaders".

Interaction motivation

Interaction motivation is about behavior in the world of people. It is a general desire to do things with, or for other people either by creating contacts, guiding others or listening to and serving others. Sociability (so) is a desire to create contacts and communicate with others. Empathy (em) is a desire to guide and support others. Reliance (re) is a bi-polar desire where one pole indicates relying and listening to other people while the opposite pole indicates the desire to rely primarily on oneself and act autonomously. People with interaction as their strongest motivation at work may be called "Collaborators".

Motivation is the driver of all development

Human personality is a complex whole which needs to be described with other factors besides mere personality traits, such as the Big Five (McAdams, 1995). Motivation involves a deeper-delving view into factors underlying observable traits. As drivers of behavior, motives provide a longer-reaching perspective: where the person is on his or her way? As for development, it is by far more important to know what the person wants than what the person "is". In the words of David C. McClelland, the 15th most cited scientist in psychology: "Understanding human motivation ought to be a good thing. It should help us to find out what we really want so that we can avoid chasing rainbows that are not for us. It should open up opportunities for self-development if we apply motivational principles to pursuing our goals in life” (McClelland, 1978).

Leadership of motivation

As mentioned earlier, motives are desires and behave accordingly. That is, motives are not always “on” but need to be aroused into readiness to act. This is called becoming motivated. Motives become aroused spontaneously but they may be aroused externally through environmental incentives. If, for example in a playful exercise people are divided into small groups and urged to compete with each other, some degree of competitive desire will arise in almost everyone. Those with a strong personal competitive drive will become more motivated to compete - although their motivation tends to arise even without external incentives.

The organization has two main launch pads for leadership of motivation and action. The organization's existing culture always arouses motivation and behavior in some direction, e.g., toward focused action, competitive behavior, listening to others etc. etc. Changing the organization's culture enables leadership of motivation and consequent action. More tangible leadership of motivation is attained through the organization's leadership practices, such as setting expectations for focused action, competitive behavior, listening more to others, etc.

Alderfer, C.P. (1969). An Empirical test of a new theory of human needs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, Vol. 4, 2, 142-175.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. NY: Plenum.
Egon Zehnder (2017). Hidden treasures - Five things a leader needs to know about motivation. http://www.egonzehnder.com/the-focus-magazine/topics/the-focus-on-reward/leadership/hidden-treasures.html
Herzberg, F. Mausner, B. Snyderman, B. (1959). The Motivation to Work (2nd ed.). New York: John Wiley.
Maslow, H. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row.
McAdams, D. (1995). What do we know when we know a person. Journal of Personality, 63:3, 365-396.
McClelland, D. C. (1978). Managing motivation to expand human freedom. Amer. Psychologist. 33 (3): 201–210.
McClelland, D.C. (1987). Human motivation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Murray, H. (1938). Explorations in personality. New York: Oxford University Press.
Niitamo, P. (1999). Surface and depth in human personality: Relations between implicit and explicit motives. Published Doctoral Dissertation. University of Helsinki.
Spencer, L.M., & Spencer, S.M. (1993). Competence at work. New York: John Wiley.
Tarant, P. (2009). Drucker: The Man who invented the corporate society. Grand central Publishing.


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