Section 6: Motivation in the Workplace

Describe how “motivation” operates in organizational behavior

Motivation is one of three key performance elements. In fact, research suggests that performance is a function of ability, motivation and opportunity:

Performance = Function {Ability × Motivation × Opportunity}

Ability refers to a person’s or a team’s ability to perform a task. Opportunity refers to the timing and situation around the task. For instance, if a hospital sets out to be known for successful heart transplants, it must have a team of surgeons that are skilled in performing transplants (ability), and there must be adequate space and equipment to perform transplants, as well as patients who need them (opportunity). Managers have little influence over ability, and they can only somewhat influence opportunity.

Can managers influence employees to be more productive by understanding their sources of motivation, or even creating sources of motivation for their employees? Most researchers agree that the answer to that is yes. Motivation isn’t a stable state of mind, and what motivates an employee right now might not be the same a year later. But researchers don’t necessarily agree on the best way to accomplish that—and perhaps there is not one best approach.

Motivation is one of the most researched topics in organizational behavior, because a manager’s ability to influence employee motivation can directly affect an organization’s bottom line.

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe motivation
  • Discuss the individual components of motivation
  • Discuss the work components of motivation
  • Discuss the organizational components of motivation

What is Motivation?

People often equate unmotivated people with being lazy. Do you think this is really true? For instance, consider Danny, a student that gets poor grades in history. He’s not interested in his textbooks, doesn’t want to read. He’s intelligent, sure, but he doesn’t do the reading needed to get As or even Bs. You might say Danny is unmotivated about reading or say that he’s lazy. But when the latest comic book in his favorite series comes out, he’s the first in line to purchase it, and he reads it from cover to cover the first chance he gets and then a couple of times more before he finally puts it down. He’s memorized lines, carefully considered the storyline, and messaged friends speculating where he thinks the storyline might be going. Nothing lazy or unmotivated about that!

Motivation results when an individual interacts with a situation. It’s a state of mind where the individual determines the level of desire, interest and energy that will translate into action.1

Motivation = Intensity + direction + persistence of effort

Let’s take that definition a little further. Intensity refers to how hard a person tries to achieve his or her goal. Danny clearly enjoys reading and does a lot of it—his intensity for reading is high, but his intensity around history is low.

Direction refers to the area to which an individual focuses his efforts, and the quality of those focused efforts. The direction of Danny’s reading—that is, reading comic books instead of textbooks—is poor. When he reads his textbooks, the quality of the effort Danny puts into the activity is also poor. He doesn’t commit lines to memory or absorb themes like he does when he reads comic books.

Finally, there is persistence, or the amount of time an individual can maintain the effort to achieve a goal. Danny is an avid reader and will continue to read as long as his favorite authors and artists produce new issues and series. He’s persistent about that, but it remains to be seen if he’ll return to his textbooks and try to read those. Right now, Danny opens up his textbooks and tries to read, but he doesn’t try for very long. His level of persistence is not where it needs to be to consider him “motivated.”

A person’s motivation changes from situation to situation and over time. Perhaps Danny’s motivation to read his text books will change if he finds he’s about to be expelled. Or maybe as the semester continues, he’ll find he’s more interested in history than he originally thought, and those textbooks will become easier to read. He’ll then alter his intensity (reading more history), his direction (focusing on school and setting comic books aside), and he will persist in efforts to learn the material. Motivation will have changed.

In addition to individual attitudes, motivation also considers a person’s needs. Needs are based on personality, values and relate to things that a person desires. In Danny’s case, he values and desires the entertainment of reading a comic book more than he values and desires good grades. Over time, he may risk losing a scholarship because of bad grades. Basic needs, like paying for his dorm room and a meal plan, might be threatened if that scholarship money were to go away. He needs to stay in school and graduate, so his values and desires may shift and cause him to read his textbooks.

So, there seems to be two factors at play in motivation in an individual. One is a behavioral aspect, the intensity + direction + persistence part that a person brings to the table, that’s existing inside him or her. There is also a factor that people are motivated to fill their needs—food, shelter, and more complex needs, too. It’s easy to see how motivation is a very individual thing.

Motivating People at Work

Photograph of a man pointing and smiling encouraginglyNow, let’s take motivation into the workplace. Motivation is important to managers because it leads to action and is one of the three key elements of performance. More importantly, it’s a variable that can be influenced, because motivation is not a stable state of mind. Managers who can influence motivation can increase performance.

We already understand that motivation is very individual, and what motivates one worker will not necessarily motivate another. When a manager adds workplace components, like job design and work environment, and organizational components, such as company culture and workplace politics, it becomes even more challenging to understand how to motivate an employee to produce.

The Expectancy Framework

Yale University Professor Victor Vroom is an authority on the psychological analysis of behavior in organizations and he proposed a basic expectancy framework. We can use this basic framework to understand the components of motivation better.

The expectancy framework assumes that motivation is a cognitive process and considers how workers feel about their efforts and how they’re related to performance and outcome. Yes, you read that right. It’s about how workers feel about these things, not necessarily how they really are, because it’s an employee’s perception of events that’s important here. Managers should understand how their employees feel about a situation if they’re going to motivate them.

The framework is basic in that employees feel their efforts lead to good performance, and good performance leads to outcomes (see Figure 1). This seems pretty simple. Employees who understand that their effort yields good performance and outcomes will be motivated!

A flow chart showing that effort leads to performance, which leads to an outcome.
Figure 1

But what about Danny and his motivation to read? Does he not understand that effort reading his history text yields good performance on a test, and thus the outcome of a passing grade? You’re right, this model doesn’t quite speak to motivation yet. Let’s add in a couple more components.

First, there is expectancy. Expectancy asks, “Will more hard work achieve this goal?” This is the individual’s perception as to how difficult the target goal is to accomplish, or how much effort will need to go into accomplishing it. Next, instrumentality comes into play. Instrumentality asks, “Will the outcome/reward actually be delivered as promised?” Finally, there’s valence. Valence asks, “Is this reward worth the work?”

A flow chart showing that effort leads to performance, which leads to an outcome. Expectance occurs before performance, instrumentality occurs before the outcome is achieved, and valance occurs after the outcome is achieved.
Figure 2

Marija’s Sales Team

Marija, a new sales manager wants to incentivize her sales team to hit its Q4 sales target. She offers a $1,000 reward to whoever is the top sales person at the end of the quarter.

Expectancy: “Will more hard work achieve this goal?”

Talented individuals on the sales staff are excited about that $1,000 bonus, thinking that they only need to add one or two more deals to the ones that are already going to close, and they could be the one to grab the prize. However, Karen, who is closer to the bottom of the pack may decides that the work she would need to do in order to win simply isn’t feasible, and decides it isn’t worth it to put additional work in.

Instrumentality: “Will the outcome/reward actually be delivered as promised?”

Two years ago another sales manager proposed the same bonus plan, and the whole idea was dismissed as Q4 came to a close. One of the highest performing members of the team, David, had achieved the goal for the quarter, but he was not awarded the money, and told that it was due to the fact that he’d been on a performance improvement plan. Marija will need to work with her team to ensure that they trust that the promised outcome can be achieved.

Valance: “Is this reward worth the work?”

Is the $1,000 bonus to the top performer enough? One salesperson might think, “Wow, I can pay off my credit card with an extra thousand dollars” and be very motivated to try for the top spot. However, another salesperson might think, “That’s not a lot of money, really. Only about $650 after taxes.” The reward is not as motivating for that second salesperson.

Adding the elements of expectancy, instrumentality and valance help us understand how individual perception figures into the expectancy framework. Now, let’s use that expectancy framework to help us understand the three components of motivation—individual, workplace and organization.

Practice Question

Individual Components of Motivation

When managers reviews their team members, the biggest difference they may see in each individual is what motivates them.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators

An illustration shows a person’s upper torso. An arrow on the left begins at the person’s chest and curves around to point inside the head; inside the curve of the arrow are the words “intrinsic motivation (from within)” and three bullet points: “autonomy,” “mastery,” “purpose.” An arrow on the right begins in empty space and curves to a point inside the head. Above the arrow are the words “extrinsic motivation (from outside)” and three bullet points: “compensation,” “punishment,” and “reward.”
Figure 1. Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual, while extrinsic motivation comes from outside the individual.

For an individual there are intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) motivating factors.

  • Intrinsic motivation comes from within, and it’s usually driven by individuals’ needs to do something for themselves. Each person has unique desires: they may want to learn a language or skill, or reach a goal of finishing a 5K in a certain amount of time. Intrinsic motivation is the reason why people climb mountains. (It’s not because they’re there!)
  • Extrinsic motivation comes from an external source. People may work a second (or third) job because they need additional money to pay the bills. Children may apologize to another child for not sharing their toys to avoid punishment from their parents.

An individual’s view of these intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors is impacted by previous experience, current needs, gender, and personal and cultural values. For instance, women tend to site “personal satisfaction” and “job security” as motivational factors in their work, while men tend to site “status” and “wealth” as the reasons they get up in the morning. Older workers indicate “company loyalty” as a motivational factor, but Gen Xers and Millennials, who are more likely to job hop, are motivated by “job flexibility” and “challenging work.” Cultural differences can fall into play as well—European countries value vacation time and use quite a bit, while in the United States, workers sometimes don’t even use the days they’ve been given.

Practice Question

Locus of Control and Self-Esteem

An individual’s personality can affect his or her perception of how effort leads to performance. Two personality aspects are particularly important in this scenario—locus of control and self-esteem. Locus of control is people’s perception of who has control over their lives, their environment, and external events. People who have an internal locus of control feel that their successes and failures are largely due to their own efforts, knowledge and choices. People with an external locus of control feel that external factors have an undue influence on the current situation they’re in.

Two silhouetted figures rest above a two-sided arrow. One end of the arrow indicates an internal locus of control and high self-esteem. The person above this end of the spectrum is labelled active, and states that they control their own destiny. The other end of the arrow indicates an external locus of control and a low self esteem. The person above this end of the spectrum is labelled passive, and states that others control their own destiny.
Figure 2. Your locus of control informs how you view your control over your own life.

There’s a spectrum of internal vs. external locus of control, and people can be very high on one end or the other (highly internal or highly external), or fall somewhere in between (Figure 2). People with a high internal locus tend to be more task oriented because they feel they’re in control of their own success. People with a high external locus credit luck, people in higher leadership positions, or divine powers for their successes or failures, and they tend to be more reactive to issues.

Locus of control is a fairly stable personality trait, though significant external factors can influence it (consider this study of Polish students whose locus of control shifted when democracy was introduced in their country).

Self-esteem interacts with motivation in a very similar way to locus of control. People with a high self-esteem tend to feel that their performance is linked to their own efforts. The opposite is often true for people who have lower self-esteem.

Managers need to understand these personality differences in their employees if they’re going to help them build the necessary links between “effort” and “performance” in the expectancy framework, and they can do this via encouragement and regular feedback for those that bring an external locus of control or low self-esteem to the team.

Employee Needs

After considering an employee’s personality traits, a manager must also consider his employee’s needs. Older approaches to understanding employee motivation focused almost solely on needs, and the more we learn the more we find that those early approaches aren’t necessarily accurate. This doesn’t mean that an employee’s needs don’t factor into motivation, because they do. On the expectancy framework, needs tend to influence an employee’s perception of the value of a proposed reward. For instance, a person who has wealth and status may look at a reward differently than a person who has less.

Beyond actual money, there are other needs that a manager can fulfill for his employees. Employees with a high need for achievement might enjoy public recognition, and getting recognized for their achievements can keep their motivational drive high. Some workers appreciate the opportunity to work independently, with less supervision. Others might appreciate the ability to work remotely so they can save money on their commutes and be closer to family that needs attention. Needs are very individual, and they’re not necessarily all filled by a paycheck and health benefits.

Cultural Differences

Finally, managers need to embrace cultural differences in order to understand what motivates their employees. Earlier, we illustrated some of the elements of the expectancy framework by using a scenario where the top salesperson would be offered a $1,000 bonus. We discussed how this may or may not motivate all the employees on the sales team, based on their perception of expectancy, instrumentality and valance. In China, this proposal might not work at all, because their salespeople typically are compensated based on seniority, not on achievement. Cultural differences can often trip us up where motivational theories are concerned—where many of them work in our culture, that doesn’t hold true for others.

If a manager understands the individual component of motivation—the personality traits, needs, and cultural differences that factor into an employee’s willingness to put forth effort toward performance—he or she can tailor motivation for each employee.

Work Components of Motivation

The work an individual does holds tremendous motivational power. But, as we discussed, no two individuals are alike, and no two individuals are motivated by the same things. A manager’s challenge, when it comes to manipulating the work components of motivation, is to assemble work that is challenging and rewarding. He or she can do that by designing jobs that fit employees’ skills and interests, providing training and good working conditions, and setting challenging but attainable goals.

Let’s take a look at each of these areas.

Job Design

“What kind of skills do I need to do this job?” “How important is this job to the success of the organization?”

These are the answers an employee seeks before he or she agrees to accept a job with an organization. Individuals are looking for interesting work—work that will foster positive internal feelings. Those feelings might come in the form of achieving high production, overcoming obstacles, or being innovative and coming up with new ideas that help the organization succeed. The right job design can help a manager get to those intrinsic motivations an individual brings to work each day, rather than just the extrinsic factors, like pay and benefits.

When reviewing Vroom’s expectancy framework, we can see that job design affects both the effort to performance piece and the performance to outcome piece. The question managers look to answer is, “What’s the right balance for the job design?”

Early management theorists suggested that the easier the job, the more motivated the employee would be. Later studies suggested that organizations should make jobs more challenging and interesting. Both of these points of view fail to take into consideration individuals and the factors each person brings that might influence whether a job design is motivating to him or her personally.

Circle indicating the five parts of job design: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback.Richard Hackman and Gary Oldham published the Hackman-Oldham Job Design Model as part of a 1980 study, and it suggested that managers should tailor the job to meet the employee’s individual needs. Where job design is concerned, Hackman and Oldham suggested that a job’s motivating potential can be influenced by skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and feedback.

  • Skill variety refers to the number of skills used to do a job. A traditional assembly line job would have a low skill variety, whereas a nurse would have higher skill variety.
  • Task identity refers to the level at which employees feel like they “owns” the outcome when completing the task. Going back to our first example, workers on an assembly line would have low task identity. Which parts from their lines ended up in which machines? They’re not likely to know, so they would have a low task identity. A nurse, however, can identify with how well a patient recovers, or see immediately that a choice he or she made saved the life of a patient. Thus, a nurse would have high task identity.
  • Task significance indicates the importance of that task to the organization. The job of receptionist, for example, has lower task significance. A temporary employee can be brought in to answer phones and sort mail. But doctors would have high task significance—not anyone can do their job, and they have knowledge of their patients and their situations that others would not have.
  • Autonomy is the degree to which an employee can make independent decisions and not have to check in with a supervisor. Again, clerical work would have low autonomy because the job is repetitious and workers make few decisions on their own. Doctors would have high autonomy, making decisions to medicate a patient a certain way or handle an emergency procedure on the operating table.
  • Feedback is information about an employee’s performance. Most employees who perform a task want to know if they are doing it right, doing it well, and so on.

Hackman and Oldham noted that while the first three components of the job design (skill variety, task identify, and task significance) are very important, the last two, autonomy and feedback, are considered even more so. Thus managers should think a little harder about how to incorporate a little autonomy and feedback into the roles their team members fill.

Practice Question

A good match between employees and their jobs ensures a stronger link between the effort and performance aspects of the expectancy framework. What other work components of motivation can a manager manipulate to drive outcomes?

Training and Working Conditions

Photograph of several individuals sitting around a table while another woman stands at the front giving a presentation.Managers can increase motivation by providing adequate and ongoing training for their employees, letting employees learn new things about their current job and learn new skills that will help them move on to the next level of their careers. Knowledgeable employees feel good about themselves, and their co-workers feel good about working with them. Tasks get done quickly and the team is more productive.

Consider the work environment where there is no training:

  • Amanda has newly been hired, and she can’t ramp up because her managers didn’t spend time bringing her up to speed on tasks. She feels inadequate and doesn’t understand her work. Her co-workers are frustrated because they continue to take on part of Amanda’s workload.
  • Joaquim puts in long hours and a lot of effort but doesn’t get as much done as his co-workers because no one has brought him up to speed on new systems and processes. He’s reinventing the wheel, wasting a lot of his time and everyone else’s time. Co-workers, again, are frustrated because their team member isn’t pulling his weight.
  • Taylor, a long-time team member, enjoyed their job when they started and mastered all the skills they needed to complete their tasks years ago. Now they’re bored and just going through the motions, and they are becoming less engaged because their employer doesn’t provide them with new opportunities to learn and move ahead via ongoing training.

The same idea holds true for working conditions. Working conditions should support—not hinder—the productivity of the organization’s employees. The employees should be safe in doing their work, but beyond that they should have the appropriate equipment, tools and working environment to do their jobs well.

Teacher Success

For instance, let’s compare two grade school teachers:

  • Aislinn is given a class of 35 students. Each of the students has a desk, pens, papers, and text books.
  • Zane has a class of only 15 students. He is given a teacher’s assistant. Each student has a desk, pens, papers, and text books, and each of them has also been provided with a desktop computer.

Which teacher will be more successful?

Aislinn has many more students to teach, and there is no assistant to help her. She has books, but no computers to help the children learn. By work environment alone, Aislinn is more likely to fail. And that’s not very motivating.

Goal Setting

Employees are motivated when they’re set on the path toward a particular goal. Goal setting is essential in the effort-performance link on the expectancy framework. Management by objective (MBO) focuses on setting goals, monitoring progress, and giving feedback and correction. MBO assumes that employees must have clear, challenging, measurable and specific goals to be motivated to perform well.

The idea behind goal setting is that the company goals are cascaded down to the departments, which are then cascaded down to the employees.

Diagram showing how Company Goals filter down into the goals of three departments. In each department, goals filter down into individual goals.

The goals should be achievable and reasonable, specific and measurable. Employees want to understand exactly what’s expected of them, and they want to be able to achieve the goal set. After all, if it’s near to impossible to achieve the goal that’s been set, an employee might not even try. That can be a demotivator.

The goals should also have a reasonable time frame. If it takes a week to build a toy, an employee who’s charged with building 50 toys needs to be given more than six months to do the work. Conversely, that same employee shouldn’t be given two years to make that goal, because the work can be done more quickly than that.

Job design, training and working conditions and goal setting are all equally important parts of the work component of motivation, and a good manager understands how to manipulate these things in order to inspire his employees to work hard and feel good about what they’ve accomplished.

Organizational Components of Motivation

Fortune Magazine counts them down every year: the top 100 best companies to work for. How do they arrive at that list? This is right from their site:

Great Place to Work measures companies on the following characteristics: Great Place to Work for All, executive team effectiveness, innovation, and people-focused programs. In a Great Place to Work for All, employees report high levels of trust, credible and respectful leadership, pride in the work, and camaraderie. We also look to see that employees consistently experience this great workplace, regardless of who they are or what they do.[1]

As we learned earlier, culture encompasses values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of a business. It’s an organization’s “personality.” A good organizational culture might, in itself, not be a primary motivator, but an organization that fosters teamwork and encourages team members to mind their own well-being is certainly planting the seeds for individual motivation.

Photograph of two people shaking hands

Conversely, an organization filled with gossip and negative company politics can be a demotivator for its employees. Employees working for an organization that has this kind of culture might foster distrust for others, and even create an atmosphere that contributes to lack of productivity. This can have an adverse effect on the performance-outcome link of the expectancy framework.

Leadership and Coworkers

“The [owners] and all executives and leaders are engaged, invested and committed to our mission of helping people live healthier, better lives through food, and in doing the right thing.”[2]

“What makes [this] a great place to work for me is the teamwork, cooperation, the overall attitude, but most importantly the people. The people in our organization truly do care for one another as well as the guests coming onto our property.”[3]

These are quotes from employees at two different companies, but they both speak to the same thing: people. Leaders and coworkers can be an important element in the organization component of motivation.

Leaders who support their employees and adopt (or even live) the company’s mission are setting the stage for a strong effort to performance and performance-to-outcome link in the expectancy framework, and at the same time they’re building a supportive organizational culture. Strong leaders also build trust, as an employee needs to trust in his leader to provide feedback and direction in his job.

photograph of six coworkers sitting around a table laughing and chatting.A great team also supports motivation, as indicated in the second quote. Coworkers who support and encourage one another can be very motivating, and team members are often even motivated to do the work for one another. A great set of coworkers means looking forward to going to work each day.

On the other side of that coin, poor leaders and coworkers can be demotivating. A team member might look to a leader or coworker for advice, and he has to trust that the advice will be good and honest. Coworkers who are not trustworthy may be out to sabotage you for their own gain. A poor leader might not give feedback or provide direction, and then tear down an employee who thought he was doing a good job. None of these situations motivates an employee to do good work.

Sense of Equity

Besides the amazing benefits we receive here every day, any time a [team member] or their family member is in need or passes away, the company pulls together to show an outpouring of love and support like I have never seen elsewhere.[4]

The idea of equity in a company, or an employee’s perception of equity, is perhaps the most important element of the organizational component.

For instance, this employee is quoted as saying that all employees have amazing benefits, but if something were to go wrong for a member of the organization, the whole company comes together to show support. That’s not only an illustration of supportive coworkers, but it’s an illustration of equity: everyone gets treated the same.

Equity is an individual’s sense that everyone within the company is being treated fairly. Most of the time, equity appeals to the extrinsic elements of a person’s motivation in that they feel their efforts and skills are being compensated with salary and benefits and other things that the company offers.

When employees feel as though they are putting in more than they're getting, there is a sense of inequity, and that adversely affects the performance to outcome link in the expectancy framework. When perception of inequity exists, a manager has to respond with hard facts and data that support equity. For instance, if people believe they are not being paid fairly for their work, a report showing average salaries for similar jobs in their geographical areas may change their minds and restore their perceptions of equity.

Practice Question

Culture and politics; leaders and coworkers; and equity—while they may not stand alone in motivating employees to do a great job, they certainly build a foundation for great work to happen. Everyone wants to work for one of those Fortune 100 Great Companies to Work For, and that’s because they have the organization component of motivation figured out.

  1. T.R. Mitchell, “Matching Motivational Strategies with Organizational Contexts,” Research in Organizational Behavior, vol 19 (1997)
  2. “Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® 2018.” Great Place To Work United States,
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.

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  • Motivation in Organizational Behavior. Authored by: Freedom Learning Group. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution
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  1. “Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® 2018.” Great Place To Work United States, So just what makes a great company? If you look at employee quotes, a few things quickly rise as common elements of good organizations.
    • organizational culture and politics
    • leadership and coworkers
    • sense of equity
    Let’s take a look at how each of these elements can impact employee motivation.

    Organizational Culture and Politics

    The culture encourages its associates to try new things, push the limits, and go beyond what we know as acceptable in today's marketplace. It fosters healthy work-life balance and consistently encourages associates to live a better life.[footnote]Ibid.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.


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6.2 Motivation in Organizational Behavior Copyright © 2019 by Graduate Studies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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