Happy people cheering and celebrating

Defining motivation

Now let’s turn our attention to the second key concept of the course: motivation.

One of the oldest questions in psychology is the question of why individuals choose or don’t choose to do something. In other words, what motivates them to act – or not act – in a given situation?

Definitions of motivation

Definitions of motivation are plentiful. For example:

‘The psychological process that gives behaviour purpose and direction’ (Kreitner 1995)


‘An internal drive to satisfy an unsatisfied need’ (Higgins 1994).

A person who does not feel any inspiration to act or complete an action is characterised as unmotivated, whereas an individual who is full of energy and aims to reach a goal is characterised as motivated.

Organisational psychology

Understanding what motivates employees and how has been the focus of many researchers in the field of organisational psychology, particularly following the Hawthorne Studies by Elton Mayo from 1924 to 1932 (Dickson 1973), which led to a shift in the way in which we view our employees, from ‘just another input into the production’ to individuals with different needs and motivations (Lindner 1998).

Work motivation

While there is no single universally accepted definition of work motivation, generally speaking, motivation at work refers to:

Psychological forces that direct a person’s behaviour in an organisation, a person’s level of effort, and a person’s level of persistence in the face of obstacles.

(Jones and George 2004: 404 cited in Steptoe-Warren 2013)

Of course, people can be motivated in different ways. For example, an employee could be motivated to learn a new set of skills because they understand their potential utility or because learning the skills will yield a promotion and the privileges associated with it.

Different approaches have led to our understanding of motivation and individual differences, such as the hierarchy of needs (Maslow and Langfeld 1943), the two-factor theory (Herzberg, Mausner, and Snyderman 1959), expectancy theory (Vroom 1964) and equity theory (Adams 1965). These will be discussed later in the next short course of this program.


Adams, J.S. (1965) ‘Inequity in Social Exchange’. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. ed. by Berkowitz, L. New York: Academic Press

Dickson, W.J. (1973) ‘Hawthorne Experiments’. in The Encyclopedia of Management. ed. by Heyel, C. 2nd edn. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. 298-302

Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., and Snyderman, B.B. (1959) The Motivation to Work. New York: John Wiley and Sons

Higgins, J.M. (1994) The Management Challenge. 2nd edn. New York: Macmillan

Kreitner, R. (1995) Management. 6th edn. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Lindner, J.R. (1998) ‘Understanding Employee Motivation’. Journal of Extension [online] 36 (3). available from https://locate.coventry.ac.uk/primo-explore/fulldisplay?docid=TN_scopus2-s2.0-0008733647&context=PC&vid=COV_VU1&search_scope=Primo_Central&tab=remote&lang=en_US [10th May 2019]

Maslow, A.H., and Langfeld, H.S. (1943) ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’. Psychological Review [online] 50 (4), 370–396. available from https://locate.coventry.ac.uk/primo-explore/fulldisplay?docid=TN_apa_articles10.1037/h0054346&context=PC&vid=COV_VU1&search_scope=Primo_Central&tab=remote&lang=en_US [10th May 2019]

Steptoe-Warren, G. (2013) Occupational Psychology: An Applied Approach [online] Harlow: Pearson. available from https://locate.coventry.ac.uk/primo-explore/fulldisplay?docid=COV_ALMA2137394840002011&context=L&vid=COV_VU1&search_scope=LSCOP_COV&tab=local&lang=en_US [10th May 2019]

Vroom, V.H. (1964) Work and Motivation. New York: Wiley

Further reading

Arnold, J., and Randall, R. (2010) Work Psychology: Understanding Human Behaviour in the Workplace. 5th edn. Harlow: Pearson

McKenna, E. (2012) Business Psychology and Organisational Behaviour: A Student’s Handbook. Hove: Psychology Press

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This article is from the free online course:

Employee Engagement and Motivation: An Introduction

Coventry University