Content and Process Theories of Work Motivation

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The work motivation theories can be broadly classified as content theories and process theories. The content theories are concerned with identifying the needs that people have and how needs are prioritized. They are concerned with types of incentives that drive people to attain need fulfillment. The Maslow hierarchy theory, Fredrick Herzberg’s two factor theory and Alderfer’s ERG needs theory fall in this category. Although such a content approach has logic, is easy to understand, and can be readily translated in practice, the research evidence points out limitations. There is very little research support for these models’ theoretical basic and predictability. The trade off for simplicity sacrifices true understanding of the complexity of work motivation. On the positive side, however, the content models have given emphasis to important content factors that were largely ignored by human relationists. In addition the Alderfer’s ERG needs theory allows more flexibility and Herzberg’s two-factor theory is useful as an explanation for job satisfaction and as a point of departure for job design.

The process theories are concerned with the cognitive antecedents that go into motivation and with the way they are related to one another. The theories given by Vroom, Porter and Lawler, equity theory and attribution theory fall in this category. These theories provide a much sounder explanation of work motivations. The expectancy model of Vroom and the extensions and the refinements provided by Porter and Lawler help explain the important cognitive variables and how they relate to one another in the process of work motivation. The Porter Lawler model also gives specific attention to the important relationship between performance and satisfaction. A growing research literature is somewhat supportive of these expectancy models, but conceptual and methodological problems remain. Unlike the content models, these expectancy models are relatively complex and difficult to translate into actual practice. They have also failed to meet the goals of prediction and control

Motivation Theory 1 – Adam’s Equity Theory of Work Motivation

The theory explains that a major input into job performance and satisfaction is the degree of equity or inequity that people perceive in work situations. Adam depicts a specific process of how this motivation occurs.

Inequality occurs when a person perceives that the ratio of his or her outcomes to inputs and the ratio of a relevant other’s outcomes to inputs are unequal.

Our Outcomes < Other’s Outcomes = Inequity (under-rewarded)

Our Inputs Other’s Inputs

Our Outcomes = Other’s Outcomes = Equity

Our Inputs Other’s Inputs

Our Outcomes > Other’s Outcomes = Inequity (over-rewarded)

Our Inputs Other’s Inputs

Both the inputs and the outputs of the person and the other are based upon the person’s perceptions, which are affected by age, sex, education, social status, organizational position, qualifications, and how hard the person works, etc. Outcomes consist primarily of rewards such as pay, status, promotion, and intrinsic interest in the job. Equity sensitivity is the ratio based upon the person’s perception of what the person is giving (inputs) and receiving (outcomes) versus the ratio of what the relevant is giving and receiving. This cognition may or may not be the same as someone else’s observation of the ratios or the same as the actual situation.

If the person’s perceived ratio is not equal to the other’s, he or she will strive to restore the ratio to equity. This striving to restore equity is used as the explanation of work motivation. The strength of this motivation is in direct proportion to the perceived inequity that exists.

Research suggests that individuals engage in illegal behaviors to maintain equity in relationships, either with their employing organization or with other people (Greenberg, 1990).

The theory was later expanded with the concept of “Organizational Justice”. Organizational justice reflects the extend to which people perceive that they are treated fairly at work. It identified three different components of justice: distributive (The perceived fairness of how resources and rewards are distributed), procedural (The perceived fairness of the process and procedures used to make allocation decisions) and interactional (The perceived fairness of the decision maker’s behavior in the process of decision-making). (Copanzano, Rupp, Mohler and Schminke, 2001).


Equity theory is descriptive and it reflects much of our everyday experience. As a theory however equity is only partial in analysis and as a predictor. There are many societal and institutional variables (inequalities) that we all navigate. The theory ignores people’s natural resilience, their competitiveness, selflessness and selfishness, their ethical dilemmas in decision-making and their passions.

It does not adequately explain interactions in close relationships such as marriage or “emotional labor” – where we may provide care to others at a burdensome cost of declining personal well-being and self-denial. Norms of equity and reciprocity are often discounted in close and romantic friendships or where there are deep family bonds.

In the social exchanges of business, causal, or stranger relationships, there may be more of a dominant assumption that inputs are offered with the expectation of a like response. There is more of a formal contract of tangible and intangible reward. A promise unfulfilled, without proper reciprocity incurs a debt of honor. A promise is broken. In our community, obligations of reciprocal response operate. We are expected to apply the Golden Rule and to help where we can – an act ably demonstrated by “the Parable of the Good Samaritan”.

Social exchange theory assumes rational, calculated action involving an expected pay-off. We do not always act rationally. Many will not be as selfish as rational action may suggest. Indeed our reward may be the inner glow of respecting oneself and living to one’s own values. Such altruism, albeit self-referential, does not sit easily under the assumptions of the “rational, economic-person” model.


It is necessary to pay attention to what employees’ perceive to be fair and equitable. For example: In my company, one of my colleagues was assigned to a project that required him to work during non business hours frequently. He worked three days at the office and two days at home in a week for a month and half. This caused others to start working from home during business hours.

Allow employees to have a “voice” and an opportunity to appeal. Organizational changes, promoting cooperation, etc. can come easier with equitable outcomes.

Management’s failure to achieve equity could be costly for the organization. For example: One of my technically team members was not very competent. He took double the time to complete any give work when compared to the others. Management failed to take any action; instead the others were given more work. Eventually, even the competent workers took it easy to restore equity causing project delays.

Motivation Theory 2 – Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of Motivation:

Expectancy theory provides a framework for analyzing work motivation, which is eminently practical. It provides a checklist of factors to be considered in any managerial situation and it points to the links between the relevant factors and the direction, which these factors tend to follow in their interrelationships. (Tony J. Watson, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986).

Expectancy theory holds that people are motivated to behave in ways that produce desired combinations of expected outcomes. It can be used to predict motivation and behavior in any situation in which a choice between two or more alternatives must be made. (Kreitner R. & Kinicki A., Mcgraw Hill, 7th Edition). Vroom gave the following equation of Motivation:

Motivation (M) = Valence (V) x Expectancy (E)

Valence stands for the preference of an individual for a particular outcome. Thus, when an individual desires a particular outcome the value of V is positive. On the other hand when the individual does not desire a certain outcome, the value of V is negative.

The value of expectancy ranges between zero and one. When a certain event will definitely not occur the value of E is zero. On the other hand when the event is sure to occur the value of E is one.

Since its original conception, the expectancy theory model has been refined and extended many times. The better know of all is the Porter-Lawler model. Although conventional wisdom argues that satisfaction leads to performance, Porter and Lawler argued the reverse. If rewards are adequate, high levels of performance may lead to satisfaction. In addition to the features included in the original expectancy model, the Porter-Lawler model includes abilities, traits, and role perceptions.


Vroom’s theory does not directly contribute to the techniques of motivating people. It is of value in understanding organizational behavior. It clarifies the relation between individuals and the organizational goals. The model is designed to help management understand and analyze employee motivation and identify some to the relevant variables. However, the theory falls short of providing specific solutions to the motivational problems.

The theory also does not take into account the individual differences based on individual perceptions nor does it assume that most people have the same hierarchy of needs. It treats as a variable to be investigated just what it is that particular employees are seeking in their work. Thus the theory indicates only the conceptional determinants of motivation and how they are related.

Research studies have confirmed that the association of both kinds of expectancies and valences with effort and performance. The motivated behavior of people arises from their valuing expected rewards, believing effort will lead to performance, and that performance will result in desired rewards.

The expectancy theory explains motivation in the U.S. better than elsewhere and therefore may not be suitable for other regions.


This theory can be used by the managers to:

Determine the primary outcome each employee wants.

Decide what levels and kinds of performance are needed to meet organizational goals.

Make sure the desired levels of performance are possible.

Link desired outcomes and desired performance.

Analyze the situation for conflicting expectations.

Make sure the rewards are large enough.

Make sure the overall system is equitable for everyone.

Motivation Theory 3 – Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchy of Need:

Maslow believed that within every individual, there exists a hierarchy of five needs and that each level of need must be satisfied before an individual pursues the next higher level of need (Maslow, 1943). As an individual progresses through the various levels of needs, the proceeding needs loose their motivational value.

The basic human needs placed by Maslow in an ascending order of importance can be summarized and shown as below:

The desire to become what one is capable of becoming.

These are the needs to be held in esteem both by oneself and by others.

These are the needs to belong and to be accepted by various groups.

These are the needs to be free of physical danger. The safety needs look to the future.

These are the basic needs for sustaining human life itself, such as food, water, warmth, shelter, and sleep.

Maslow in his later work (Maslow, 1954) said:

Gratification of the self-actualization need causes an increase in its importance rather than a decrease.

Long deprivation of a given need, results in fixation for that need.

Higher needs may emerge not after gratification, but rather by long deprivation, renunciation or suppression of lower needs.

Human behavior is multi-determined and multi-motivated.


Part of the appeal of Maslow’s theory is that it provides both a theory of human motives by classifying basic human needs in a hierarchy and the theory of human motivation that relates these needs to general behavior. Maslow’s major contribution lies in the hierarchical concept. He was the first to recognize that a need once satisfied is a spent force and ceases to be a motivator.

Maslow’s need hierarchy presents a paradox in as much as while the theory is widely accepted, there is a little research evidence available to support the theory.

It is said that beyond structuring needs in a certain fashion Maslow does not give concrete guidance to the managers as to how they should motivate their employees.


The need hierarchy as postulated by Maslow does not appear in practice. It is likely that over fulfillment of anyone’s particular need may result in fixation for the need. In that case even when a particular need is satisfied a person may still engage in the fulfillment of the same need. Furthermore, in a normal human being, all the needs are not always satisfied entirely. There remains an unsatisfied corner of every need in spite of which the person seeks fulfillment of the higher need.

A person may move on to the next need in spite of the lower need being unfulfilled or being partly fulfilled.


No single motivation theory can suffice in today’s workplace. Each motivational theory has its pros and cons. A theory may get the highest performance from an employee but may not from another employee.

The organization’s workplace has changed dramatically in the past decade. Companies are both downsizing and expanding (often at the same time, in different divisions or levels of the hierarchy). Work is being out-sourced to various regions and countries. The workforce is characterized by increased diversity with highly divergent needs and demands. Information technology has frequently changed both the manner and location of work activities. New organizational forms (such as e-commerce) are now common. Teams are redefining the notion of hierarchy, as well as traditional power distributions. The use of contingent workers is on the rise and globalization and the challenges of managing across borders are now the norm. These changes have had a profound influence on how companies attempt to attract, retain, and motivate their employees.

Yet we lack new models capable of guiding managers in this new era of work. As management scholar Peter Cappelli notes, “Most observers of the corporate world believe that the traditional relationship between employer and employee is gone, but there is little understanding of why it ended and even less about what is replacing that relationship” (Cappelli, 1999). I believe that the existing work motivation and job performance theories are inadequate to cater to the present era of such diverse workforce. New theories of motivation are required to commensurate with this new era.

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