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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.


Motivation is the key, December 23, 2007, 2D.

Motivation is “that which arouses, directs, and sustains behavior.”  Understanding motivation is critical to managers and those responsible for bringing about performance from others.  Performance arises when people “want to” perform a task and when people are “able to” perform the task.  In other words, performance is a function of motivation and ability—if either is missing, performance will not occur.

Theories are explanations for how things work and are derived using the principles of the scientific method.  Theories of motivation give explanation to why people “want to” do things and come in two types—content theories and process theories. 

Content theories focus on the things that energize and direct behavior that are internal to individuals.  They focus on needs and how needs drive behavior.   Maslow’s Need Hierarchy, Alderfer’s ERG Theory, Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, and McClelland’s Learned Needs Theory describe that human behavior is driven by the desire to satisfy personal needs—such as survival, safety, social, esteem, growth, achievement, and power needs.  Organizational designers and policy makers can use content theories to create motivating work places through job design, pay and compensation schemes, social structure policies, and through opportunities for employee growth and development.  Knowledge of the content theories gives decision makers the power to establish long-run motivating environments by fulfilling worker needs.

Process theories give explanation to short-run and individual performance.   These theories focus more on cognitive processes and conscious choices of workers.  Goal setting theory, reinforcement theory, equity theory, and expectancy theory are some of the more popular process theories.  In these theories, individuals consciously choose to act and willfully pursue courses of action because the decisions make sense to them.  Rewards that come from performance, avoidance of unpleasant consequences that come with non-performance, actions to maintain or restore equity with referent others, and confidence that performance can be attained and that performance will be rewarded, form the foundations of these models.  Process theories can be used to bring about individual performance in the here and now.  Getting employees to speed up their productivity could be induced with rewards for success or reprimands for non-compliance.  Boosting a worker’s belief that he or she can do the task at hand and that desirable rewards will be returned for successful completion are other ways of applying process theories in organizations.

Organizations are made up of people—it is people who give them life and people who perform their work.  Successfully guiding and directing workers to the attainment of individual and group goals is a big part of a manager’s job.  To most effectively do that, managers should be aware of why people do the things that they do.  Managers should invest time learning and implementing the concepts of both content theories, with their attention on the satisfaction of human needs, and cognitive-focused process theories.   Additional information about these concepts is readily available on the web or it can be found in common management, leadership, and organizational behavior textbooks—or you can give me a call.


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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved