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Classical Theories of Motivation

Updated on October 31, 2014

Classical Theories of Motivation

There were three main categories of motivation developed around the 1950’s era. These classical theories are as listed below:

  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory
  • Herzberg’s Two factor theory
  • Theory X and Theory Y

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory

Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs theory illustrates human motivation. This theory indicates that there are five needs of hierarchy within each person. The importance of the needs is varied. The five needs are as listed as below-

Physiological need: Physiological needs are essential needs such as air, food, water, clothing and shelter. Basically, these are needs related to the basic essentials in life.

Safety needs: Safety needs comprise of emotional safety, environmental, physical and protection. Some examples are monetary gains, Job security, family security, protection from animals, health security, etc.

Social needs: Social needs comprise of friendship, affection, care, the need for love and a sense of belonging.

Esteem needs: Esteem needs are sub-classified as internal and external esteem needs. Examples for external esteem needs are power, fame, appreciation, attention and position. Examples for internal esteem needs are self-esteem, confidence, ability, achievement and a sense of freedom.

Self-actualization needs: Self-actualization needs comprise the need to achieve what you can with your capabilities or potential. It also consists of the need for self-satisfaction, growth, the need to gain knowledge, to do social service, be creative and artistic. These needs are seldom completely satisfied because as we grow psychologically, prospects to grow further continually arise.

Limitations of Maslow’s Theory

  • It is important that all employees do not have the same types of needs. Different people could have different needs that motivate them at any given point in time. The most dominant unsatisfied need is the one that motivates the most.
  • Maslow’s theory is not practically supported.
  • Maslow’s theory is not supported in the case of the starving performer, since his essential needs are not met and he will still strive for appreciation and success.

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory of Motivation

Herzberg states that there are certain work aspects that result in satisfaction and certain work aspects that avoid dissatisfaction. He also states that the opposite of “Satisfaction” is “No satisfaction” and the opposite of “Dissatisfaction” is “No Dissatisfaction”.

Herzberg has categorized work aspects into two categories:

Hygiene factors: Hygiene factors are those work aspects that are vital for the prevalence of motivation at work. But these are not for long term satisfaction. If these factors are absent or do not exist at a work environment, then they may lead to dissatisfaction. Simply put, hygiene factors imply sufficient or sound factors at work that satisfy the employees and make them content. These factors are called dissatisfiers / maintenance factors since they are needed to evade dissatisfaction. Hygiene factors are not inherent to work. They explain the work environment or work scenario. These factors represent physiological needs that are wanted and expected by people. Some hygiene factors are status, job security, interpersonal relations, physical work environment, fringe benefits, compensation, administrative policies and company policies.

Motivational factors: Herzberg states that the hygiene factors cannot be viewed as motivators. Motivational factors give rise to optimistic satisfaction and are intrinsic with respect to work. Motivational factors inspire the employees to achieve better performance and are called satisfiers. They are factors that revolve around work output. These factors are viewed by employees as naturally rewarding. Motivators represent emotional needs that were seen as added profits. Some examples of motivational factors are a Sense of achievement, Responsibility, Purpose of work and Recognition and Growth and promotional prospects.

Limitations of the Two-Factor Theory

  • Herzberg’s two-factor theory does not consider situational variables.
  • Herzberg believed in a relation between productivity and satisfaction. His research focused on satisfaction rather than productivity.
  • The reliability of Herzberg’s theory is found to be uncertain. Raters would need to investigate this theory. They may hamper the research by investigating similar responses in a different style.
  • This theory does not use any all-inclusive measure. Employees could regard their work as acceptable even if they may despise or object to a part of their work.
  • This theory is based on the employee’s natural reactions when they are asked about their source of satisfaction or dissatisfaction levels at work. Hence the theory is not unbiased. Employees blame their dissatisfaction on the external factors namely company policies, interpersonal relations and salary structure. Employees credit themselves for the satisfaction level at work.
  • This theory does not consider blue-collar employees. Herzberg’s Two-Factor theory is widely accepted in spite of these limitations.

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Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor devised Theory X and Theory Y in the year 1960. These theories refer to the two aspects of human nature at work / two different viewpoints of people, such as negative (called as Theory X) and the other is positive (called as Theory Y). McGregor states that the viewpoint of managers with respect to the nature of people is based on several assumptions.

Assumptions of Theory X

  • Average employees do not normally like work and try their best to avoid it as much as possible.
  • As employees do not like work, they must be forced, pushed or warned with consequences so that work can be completed and targets can be achieved. Mangers need to supervise closely as part of their work and may need to adopt a more dominating profile.
  • Most employees perceive job security on the top and are devoid of ambition or passion.
  • They mostly dislike responsibilities.
  • Employees are resistant to change.
  • Average employees have to be officially directed.

Assumptions of Theory Y

  • Employees can view their work as regular and relaxing. They apply their mental and physical efforts in a natural manner at work.
  • Apart from force, external control and warning, employees can also use self-motivation and self-control if they wish to achieve the organizational targets.
  • Employees are loyal and committed if they find their work rewarding and satisfying.
  • Average employees learn to identify and take responsibility to the extent that they can obtain it too.
  • Employees are skilled and capable and their logical abilities must be utilized completely. Simply put, employee’s creativity, potential and resourcefulness can be used to solve work issues.


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