Three Theories Influencing Employee Motivation at Work

Employee motivation is impacted by many factors, including reward, recognition, career development opportunities, leadership, work life balance, and work environment (Chadwick, 2019).  There are various theories on employee motivation which describe employee motivation at work, discussing the needs and cognitive processes that affect workers’ choices and behaviors.  Three important theories are Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene Theory, and Adams’ Equity Theory.  Maslow’s theory is a theory that focuses on needs as motivators (Laegaard & Bindslev, 2006, p.53), while Herzberg’s and Adams’ theories focus on cognitive approaches to motivation. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs 

Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a well-known needs model for motivation which has been named Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  This hierarchy puts physiological needs as the base need, then works up through safety needs, love and belongingness needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs at the top (McLeod, 2020). 

At the base, the physiological needs are survival needs such as food, water, and shelter (Laegaard & Bindslev, 2006, p.53), and it becomes the primary focus until these needs are met (McLeod, 2020).  Once physiological needs are satisfied, individuals look for safety, predictability, freedom, and control (McLeod, 2020).  Once safety needs are satisfied, individuals look to satisfy their social needs, needs for relationships (Laegaard & Bindslev, 2006, p.53), needs for belonging, affection, and love (McLeod, 2020).  Next, individuals focus on their esteem or self-worth and reputation.  They focus on developing respect, having achievements, developing mastery, being valuable in the esteem needs level of the hierarchy (McLeod, 2020).  At the top of the hierarchy, once other needs are satisfied, are the needs for self-actualization (Laegaard & Bindslev, 2006, p.53).  Self-actualization is when the individual is focused on reaching their full potential (McLeod, 2020). 

When a need is unsatisfied, it becomes a motivation for behavior (Laegaard & Bindslev, 2006, p.54).  In addition, people can be motivated by multiple needs, such as the needs for esteem and socialization, at the same time (McLeod, 2020). 

Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene Theory 

Psychologist Fredrick Herzberg’s motivator-hygiene theory indicates that factors that influence the degree of dissatisfaction with work are hygiene factors, while factors that influence the degree of satisfaction with work are motivational factors   The satisfaction factors are measured on a scale from satisfied to dissatisfied and the maintenance (hygiene) factors are measured from dissatisfied to not dissatisfied (Laegaard & Bindslev, 2006, p.60).  It is interesting to note that pay, job security, working conditions, benefits, and management are all considered hygiene factors.  In other words, pay will not make someone satisfied with their job, but not enough pay will make them highly dissatisfied with their job .   Hygiene factors are not motivators as much as expectations for employment (Laegaard & Bindslev, 2006, p.61).  Both are important to the overall satisfaction and motivation of the employee. 

Adams’ Equity Theory 

Psychologist John Stacey Adams developed his Equity Theory, which supports the idea that employee dissatisfaction and demotivation occurs when they believe that they are putting in more than they are receiving.  Individuals need to believe that their rewards are fair for the contribution they are making on the job (World of Work Project, 2019).  When people feel that they are treated to their advantage, they tend to be better motivated than if they feel that they are devalued and unfairly treated. 

Inputs are things such as time, education, experience, energy, loyalty, enthusiasm, diligence, and obedience.  Outputs are things such as money, benefits, perks, recognition, advancement, pride, and future opportunity (World of Work Project, 2019).  The degree of equity is the degree to which individuals feel that they are fairly treated, or their inputs are less than or equal to their outputs.  If employees feel that they are putting in more value than they are receiving, they either seek more reward (money, recognition, advancement) or they become demotivated and lower their productivity and level of effort to match their reward.  If they believe the inequity is too large, they may leave (World of Work Project, 2019). 

Motivation Theories in the Work Setting 

In the work setting, all three models are pertinent and should be used.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, for instance, is useful in understanding individual motivators in relation to where an individual is on their personal journey.  A single parent making minimum wage, for instance, is often teetering into survival-mode at the base of the hierarchy, worrying about how to provide shelter, food, and water for their children.  At this level, physiological needs are most important and self-actualization is a distant dream. 

Adams’ Equity Theory needs Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a supplement.  Adams’ Equity Theory assumes that workers have the luxury of being dissatisfied with their position due to being treated unfairly.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is useful because it identifies whether those inequitable factors are even important to where the individual is.  For instance, in Adams’ Equity Theory, recognition and future advancement opportunities are outputs.  If the individual is at the bottom of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and is in survival mode, they may not necessarily care about recognition or future advancement opportunities.  They are worried about how they are going to survive to next week.  The bigger motivators to a person struggling to meet physiological needs would be pay and benefits as outputs in Adams’ Equity Theory. 

In contrast, Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene Theory accounts for many needs of the employee in the model as hygiene or maintenance factors.  They are needs, not great motivators.  Since they are needs, employees will be dissatisfied if they are not there, but not extremely satisfied if they are there.  True motivators create increased satisfaction in the Herzberg model (Laegaard & Bindslev, 2006, p.61).  By incorporating Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into the model, Herzberg’s model is the most relevant and useful multidimensional model in the workforce today. 

On My Own Journey 

In my own life, I was exposed to Maslow early and have use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs heavily in my understanding of motivation.  The theories of Herzberg and Adams are later revelations.  In leading teams, I have structured a lot of my decisions around what motivators are important to an individual based on where they are in their life, whether in survival mode at the base of the hierarchy, building esteem and reputation, or seeking self-actualization.  Personally, I can see clearly where I have been at certain points of my life on the hierarchy.  Sometimes I have been aspiring to self-actualization, while other times I was simply seeking psychological safety. 

In the future, I feel that Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene Theory is the most relevant and applicable in evaluating and determining motivating factors for workers in the workplace.  Considering two dimensions, hygiene factors as well as true motivating factors, helps incorporate the intrinsic motivators as well as the extrinsic rewards into the picture.  Both are important.  For instance, with pay as a hygiene factor, it is important to pay competitively in order to retain the employee and avoid pay being a demotivating factor (Laegaard & Bindslev, 2006, p.61).  Other factors like employee’s true interest in the challenge of the job becomes a true motivator.  This understanding will be useful in leading and compensating my teams in the future. 


In conclusion, there are several theories which describe motivation of individuals in the workplace.  Three of those theories which seem relevant are Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene Theory, and Adams’ Equity Theory.  All of these can and should be used together to understand individual motivation, although the two-dimensional approach of Herzberg’s Motivator -Hygiene Theory make it the most appropriate model on its own.  Needs theories like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs remain relevant in order to understand where employees are in their lives, and how their personal progression affects what motivators may reach them best. 


Chadwick, G. (2019, July 10). 5 Factors that Affect Employee Motivation. Retrieved from 

Laegaard, J. & Bindslev, M. (2006). Organizational theory (1st ed). Ventus Publishing & 

McLeod, S. (2020, December 29). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from 

World of Work Project. (2019, February). Adams’ Equity Theory of Motivation: A Simple Summary. Retrieved from 

Published by Art Ocain

I am a DevOps advocate, not because I am a developer (I’m not), but because of the cultural shift it represents and the agility it gains. I am also a fan of the theory of constraints and applying constraint management to all areas of business: sales, finance, planning, billing, and all areas of operations. My speaking: I have done a lot of public speaking in my various roles over the years, including presentations at SBDC (Small Business Development Center) and Central PA Chamber of Commerce events as well as events that I have organized at MePush. My writing: I write a lot. Blog articles on the MePush site, press-releases for upcoming events to media contracts, posts on LinkedIn (, presentations on Slideshare (, posts on the Microsoft Tech Community, articles on Medium (, and posts on Quora ( I am always looking for new places to write, as well. My certifications: ISACA Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), Certified Web Application Security Professional (CWASP), Certified Data Privacy Practitioner (CDPP), Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), VMware Certified Professional (VCP-DCV), Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE), Veeam Certified Engineer (VMCE), Microsoft 365 Security Administrator, Microsoft 365 Enterprise Administrator, Azure Administrator, Azure Security Administrator, Azure Architect, CompTIA Network+, CompTIA Security+, ITIL v4 Foundations, Certified ScrumMaster, Certified Scrum Product Owner, AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner See certification badges on Acclaim here: My experience: I have a lot of experience from developing a great company with great people and culture to spinning up an impressive DevOps practice and designing impressive solutions. I have been a project manager, a President, a COO, a CTO, and an incident response coordinator. From architecting cloud solutions down to the nitty-gritty of replacing hardware, I have done it all. When it comes to technical leadership, I am the go-to for many companies. I have grown businesses and built brands. I have been a coach and a mentor, developing the skills and careers of those in my company. I have formed and managed teams, and developed strong leaders and replaced myself within the company time and again as I evolved. See my experience on LinkedIn here:

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