Do you hate driving to the office every day?

This week in HR, we are looking at motivation and what it takes to help employees find meaning in their work. Positive Psychology says that “all motivation comes from within, whether it is triggered by rewards or endeavors that enhance one’s self-image or simply comes from intrinsically-motivating activities that we engage in for no reward other than the enjoyment these activities bring us.” In this blog, I wanted to give an overview of some of the most famous theories of employee management, motivation, and engagement (had to learn these in grad school and for the SHRM exam). In subsequent posts, I’ll dig deeper into individual theories and what business leaders can do to optimize employee productivity.


Theorists have opined for years about how to motivate workers – what workers need, etc. Frederick Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory of motivation, also known as dual-factor theory or motivation-hygiene theory, concluded that two major factors influence employee motivation and satisfaction with their jobs:

  • Motivator factors that can motivate employees to work harder and lead to on-the-job satisfaction that includes experiences of greater engagement in and enjoyment of the work, feelings of recognition, and a sense of career progression.
  • Hygiene factors that can potentially lead to dissatisfaction and a lack of motivation if they are absent like adequate compensation, effective company policies, comprehensive benefits, or good relationships with managers and co-workers.

He found that motivator factors increased employee satisfaction and motivation, but the absence of these factors didn’t necessarily cause dissatisfaction. Similarly, the presence of hygiene factors didn’t appear to increase satisfaction and motivation, but their absence caused an increase in dissatisfaction. Today, outside of blue-collar industries, especially with the millennials who, according to recent studies, are reportedly looking for meaningful work and growth, Herzberg’s proposition probably wouldn’t work.


Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory proposed that employees become motivated along a continuum of satisfaction of needs from basic physiological needs to higher-level psychological needs for growth and self-actualization. The hierarchy was originally conceptualized into five levels:

  • Physiological needs that must be met for a person to survive, such as food, water, and shelter.
  • Safety needs that include personal and financial security and health and well-being.
  • Belonging needs for friendships, relationships, and family.
  • Esteem needs that include feelings of confidence in the self and respect from others.
  • Self-actualization needs that define the desire to achieve everything one possibly can and realizing one’s full potential.

According to the hierarchy of needs, we must be in good health, safe, and secure with meaningful relationships and confidence before we can reach for the realization of our full potential.


The Hawthorne Effect, named after a series of social experiments on the influence of physical conditions on productivity at a manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, Chicago, was first described by Henry Landsberger who noticed a tendency for some people to work harder and perform better when researchers were observing them.

Although the researchers changed many physical conditions throughout the experiments, including lighting, working hours and breaks, and the employee productivity increased, it was more significant in response to the attention being paid to them, rather than the actual physical changes themselves. Much like my April, 2021 article in New Orleans City Business, "Talent Management in Transition: How HCM Technology Can Help" speaks to the power of management and oversight, the Hawthorne Effect theory notes the same positive impact of observation.

Today the Hawthorne Effect is best understood as a justification for the value of providing employees with specific and meaningful feedback and recognition. It is contradicted by the existence of results-only workplace environments that allow complete autonomy and is focused on performance and deliverables rather than management of employees.


Douglas McGregor proposed two well-known theories describing managerial views on employee motivation: Theory X and Theory Y. These vastly different views of employee motivation have drastically different implications for management.

He divided leaders into those that believe most employees avoid work and dislike responsibility, Theory X managers, and Theory Y managers who say that most employees enjoy work and exert effort when they have control in the workplace.

He proposed that to motivate Theory X employees, the company needs to push and control their staff through enforcing rules and implementing punishments.

Theory Y employees, on the other hand, are perceived as consciously choosing to be involved in their work. They are self-motivated and can exert self-management, and leaders’ responsibility is to create a supportive environment and develop opportunities for employees to take on responsibility and show creativity.

Theory X Managers believe that employees:


  • Need to be controlled,
  • Don’t like work,
  • Need to be pushed to be more productive,
  • Need incentive schemes,
  • Have to be directed to do things that they don’t enjoy.

Theory Y Managers believe that employees:


  • Want to be involved,
  • Can think for themselves and make decisions,
  • Share ownership of tasks,
  • Will find work more rewarding if given responsibility and a variety of tasks,
  • Have good ideas,
  • Can engage in some level of self-management.

Taking the theory X and Theory Y as a starting point, a third theory, Theory Z, was developed by Dr. William Ouchi. The theory combines American and Japanese management philosophies and focuses on long-term job security, consensual decision making, slow evaluation and promotion procedures, and individual responsibility within a group context.

Its noble goals include increasing employee loyalty to the company by providing a job for life, focusing on the employee’s well-being, and encourages group work and social interaction to motivate employees in the workplace.

Theory Z’s features:

  1. Mutual trust and openness,
  2. Strong bond between organization and employees,
  3. Collective decision-making,
  4. Free-form organizational structure,
  5. Role of facilitator and coordinator for management and paternalistic leadership,
  6. Common culture,
  7. Informal controls,
  8. Human resources development.

The bottom line? There’s no one-size-fits-all approach that anyone can stand by as effective. It’s a matter of mystery at times what makes the best employees strong and the worst – weak. What we do have control over are the kinds of assignments dolled out and to whom, as well as the work environment and management style. The real challenge is identifying employee needs and tailoring management approaches to those needs.

In the coming weeks, we’ll discuss within the context of each of these theories how managers can lead employees to higher satisfaction, stronger engagement, and motivation as a product of deliberate steps taken by serious leaders.

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