Theories of Employee Motivation to Increase Productivity

There are different theories about motivating employees to work more productively.
There are different theories about motivating employees to work more productively. (Image: Andersen Ross/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Employee motivation and productivity have been studied since the days of Aristotle, whose theories included delegation of authority, departmentalism and leadership selection. Many management theories of employee motivation were developed in the 1940s and '50s and led to the management and employee theories of the '60s, '70s and '80s that are the basis of employee motivation today.

Motivation Theory

Morris S. Viteles wrote “Motivation and Morale in Industry” in 1953, explaining that performance is affected by motivation and motivation is affected by the fulfillment of needs. He believed that industrial psychology needed to be studied objectively to be understood.

Need Hierarchy Theory

Abraham Maslow, a psychology professor in the 1950s, proposed a theory about human needs and the order in which they influence motivation. He developed his theory, called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, by studying successful people. He theorized that basic needs necessary to sustain life, such as air, food, water and sleep, must be met before any other motivations occur. Other successively influential needs for safety, love and acceptance, esteem and self-actualization follow with increasing levels of motivation after basic needs are met. In industrial and work settings, the need hierarchy applies to management techniques, employee programs and perks and benefits. Maslow’s need hierarchy theory claims that the happier and more fulfilled employees are in their work and work environments, the more productive and successful they will be, translating to more profits for the company.

Theory X and Theory Y

Theory X and Theory Y are management theories regarding employee motivation developed by Douglas McGregor in the 1960s. Theory X managers believe that employees can’t be trusted to work for the employer’s interests unless closely supervised and forced to perform the work. Theory Y managers believe that employees are self-motivated and that managers must provide the optimal work environment and resources for employees to perform successfully. These two theories represent opposite management attitudes about employee motivation for productivity.

Scientific Management

Frederick W. Taylor believed management’s role was to motivate workers through supervision to avoid the natural human tendency to take it easy as much as possible at work. He wrote “The Principles of Scientific Management” in 1911, explaining his theory that training the best employees in the best work methods, including rest periods, yielded the greatest productivity. He redesigned work to increase productivity by performing time and motion studies, and he believed in scientifically studying work to better understand not just work but the employees performing it.

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  • “Intrinsic Motivation at Work: What Really Drives Employee Engagement”; Kenneth Wayne Thomas; 2009
  • “Work Motivation: History, Theory, Research, and Practice”; Gary P. Latham; 2006
  • “Work Engagement: A Handbook of Essential Theory and Research”; Arnold B. Baker and Michael P. Leiter; 2010
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