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Employee Motivation Theories: From McGregor to Maslow

From the organization's point of view, the employee is the critical component of the machinery which fuels other resources to generate output. Human resource is the heart of the organization. It is the job of the manager to get work done from his employees. Hence we cannot ignore questions about employee motivation, as it is the key to productivity. So let us consider the available theories for employee motivation.

One of the earliest research work done in the field of employee motivation was that of Douglas McGregor who expounded the theory x and theory y model of employee motivation. In this model, he presented that theory x assumes that people dislike work and prefer to be controlled. Theory Y assumes that people are inherently interested in work. They are intrinsically motivated to work without any need for control or punishment.

Another noted scientist in this field Frederick Herzberg contributed the two factor hygiene and motivation theory. The hygiene theory includes the work environment like the organization, the structure and regulations, the culture and interpersonal relations, and the like. The motivation theory includes things that directly pertain to the job such as achievement, growth, recognition, and the like. According to Herzberg, both theories must be applied simultaneously to build employee motivation.

In Elton Mayo's analysis, he concluded that employees are driven by factors like social status, recognition and sense of belonging than the actual nature of the job or the working conditions. He also believed that informal work groups act as a social watchdog to check on employee behavior.

In David McClelland's achievement motivation theory, he studied that people with a high need for achievement set reasonable standards for themselves. They did not set standards that made it too easy nor did they make the goal too difficult for achievement. They set moderately difficult but achievable goals as they are driven more by personal achievement than by rewards that go with success.

However the most noted of all these theories was probably Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. The Needs model was like a downward stepping ladder hierarchy where each need was set on the basis of the strength of the need. The human needs are:
  • Physiological
  • Safety
  • Social
  • Esteem
  • Actualization
The first one -- physiological need was the highest strength as it is essential for survival. They formed the core of every human's motivation. Until this need is fulfilled any other human need is irrelevant. However, as soon as this need is fulfilled, the human being progresses to the next need, which is safety or security needs. He seeks security for his physical needs as well as safety for his physiological needs. The next level of human need is social need. Man is a social being. Hence he naturally seeks social acceptance. Human beings seek social interaction and belongingness. He strives to have a meaningful relation with other members of the society. This is why he participates in group activities, or community work. People who have already met their social needs move on to the next human need -- esteem needs. People like to be judged well by peers and others in society. People like recognition, status and crave for prestige and power. Individuals who have high need of esteem cause them to act in a disruptive behavior. They get into power conflicts and ego clashes with other individuals. At the top of this hierarchy is the need for self actualization. The need for actualization is the need to become what one is competent to do well. At this level, a human being tries to achieve perfection in his performance for sheer pleasure. It gratifies an individual to succeed in his task without any external need for motivation.

Here we have covered some of the famous studies done in the field of human behavior. There have been more studies about employee motivation by many other famous social scientists. These theories have their own merits and weaknesses. What we need to understand is the underlying principle behind employee motivation. It is clear from the above theories that intrinsically the employee is capable of competent work. Such studies have helped us understand the effect of various performance rewards on employee motivation.

In the current business scenario, employee motivation is getting tougher to meet. Organizations are finding it quite a challenge to meet the growing needs of employees. Also the nature of employee needs have changed over time. In this complex business world, it is necessary for organizations to find ways to meet employee needs so that motivation levels are maintained.

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