We all know that employee motivation is a critical part of the success of any organization. Companies invest their valuable resources in developing strategies to motivate employees. They do this with the aim of improving productivity, engagement, and overall job satisfaction. Over the years, there have been dozens of employee motivation theories that have come up. These range from approaches such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to Herzberg’s two-factor theory. 

However, despite these well-known theories, employee motivation is still quite low. Only about a third of employees say they are highly engaged at work. So why aren’t these theories working? How can managers find better ways to motivate their employees? In this blog post, we’ll dive into current employee motivation theories’ shortcomings and explore why they aren’t always effective. We’ll also offer some practical tips on modifying these motivation techniques to better apply to your employees. 

Traditional Theories of Motivation

There are several basic theories of motivation that have developed over the years. These include Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Herzberg’s two-factor theory, and McClelland’s three-needs theory. These theories laid the foundation for how we understand motivation in the workplace.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

This theory was developed in 1943 by Abraham Maslow. It states that humans are motivated by five basic needs. They move on to the next one once the most important need is met. These needs are physical, security, social, ego, and self-actualization. Physical needs, such as food, shelter, and water, are the most basic things every human needs to live. Next is security. This includes physical safety, employment, and health. Social needs are met by friendship and family. Ego or esteem is met by having strength, freedom, and respect. Finally, self-actualization is the desire to become the best version of one’s self.

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Herzberg’s motivation theory suggests that employee motivation comes when two basic needs are met: hygiene and motivators. Hygiene refers to leadership, salary, and workplace relations. Motivators in this context refer to job recognition, promotion, and achievement. This is fairly limiting as those motivators don’t necessarily match up with every individual employee’s personal motivators.  

McClelland’s Three-Needs Theory

David McClelland’s motivational theory states that every person is motivated by one of three specific needs. The first need is power or control. The second is achievement, meaning they meet objectives successfully. The third is affiliation, which is being part of a group. While these are certainly excellent motivators for some people, it doesn’t apply to everyone. Employees might find themselves pigeonholed and limited by one singular motivator. It also fails to recognize many other motivators that are highly important to different people.

Limitations of Traditional Theories

While some of the traditional theories have provided valuable insights into employee motivation, they aren’t comprehensive. Their limitations make them less effective in today’s dynamic work environments. Let’s look at a few:


These theories often oversimplify the complexity of human motivation. They tend to assume a universal set of needs or factors that apply to all individuals. In reality, motivation is a deeply personal and multifaceted construct that varies widely across individuals. These needs or identified motivators are only a fraction of the things people value and need in the workplace. Limiting people to only a few motivators leaves out a large portion of the population who don’t value those things as much as others. 

Lack of Individualization

Traditional theories tend to treat all employees like they’re the exact same. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Failing to recognize the importance of individual differences in what motivates each person is a huge mistake. Every employee has their own unique aspirations, motivators, goals, and values. A one-size-fits-all approach to motivation will always fall short of catering to these diverse needs. 

Changing Workforce Dynamics

The way we work, as well as the people in the workforce, have evolved significantly in recent years. Traditional theories were developed during a time when job security, stability, and intrinsic rewards were the primary known motivators. Today, employees often seek more purpose, impact, and meaningful work experiences. We have found that motivators such as impact, family, and learning are among the top motivators across all age ranges. Traditional employee motivation theories struggle to address these modern needs. 

Contemporary Motivation Theories

In response to the limitations of traditional theories, newer employee motivation theories have started to come out. They attempt to offer a more nuanced understanding of what drives and motivates employees. Two popular theories are the self-determination theory (SDT) and the goal-setting theory. The self-determination theory focuses on intrinsic motivation factors such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The goal-setting theory focuses on, as the name suggests, goal-directed behavior. However, even these theories have their limitations when it comes to practical ways to implement them and their effectiveness. 

Self-Determination Theory

SDT emphasizes the importance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness (friendships) to foster motivation. While this theory acknowledges the importance of personal motivators to an extent, it only works for people motivated by those three things. It won’t work for someone who doesn’t have those motivators very high on their personal list. Another issue with this theory is it doesn’t provide clear ways for organizations to implement it effectively. The challenges associated with aligning personal autonomy with the organization’s objectives and performance expectations can create tension and reduce motivation.

Goal-Setting Theory

The goal-setting theory says that setting specific, challenging goals will enhance motivation and performance. While this theory is easier to implement than others, organizations often struggle with goal clarity, alignment, and the balance between stretch goals and realistic expectations. Unrealistic goals, lack of feedback, and insufficient support can lead to demotivation and lessen an employee’s engagement. Issues also arise when there are too many goals, or the goals are difficult to measure. This theory, applied properly, could be tailored to each individual’s motivators. Goals must be carefully thought out, and employees must feel supported throughout the process.

The Missing Link

These theories all have their place and provide important information on laying the groundwork to motivate employees. If an organization wants to address where these employee motivation theories are lacking, it must adopt a more holistic approach. This means taking into account the unique needs, aspirations, and values of their employees while also aligning them with organizational goals. Here are some key considerations for a more effective motivational strategy:

Individualization and Customization

Recognize that each employee is unique and has different motivators. Find a way to implement a customizable program that allows for the individualization of rewards, recognition, and development opportunities. Encourage managers to have regular discussions with their team members. This will help them understand employees’ goals, strengths, and areas of interest. Have them take the Motivator’s Assessment and compare individual results with the rest of the team. The results might surprise you!

Intrinsic Motivation and Meaningful Work

Foster a sense of purpose and meaning in employees’ work by creating a positive work environment. This could be promoting team connection, autonomy, or social responsibility, among other motivators. Encourage employees to find personal fulfillment in their roles by job sculpting to better match their motivators. Support employee growth and personal development through skill-building opportunities and clear career pathways. 

Continuous Feedback and Recognition

Establish a culture of regular feedback and recognition. Emphasize both constructive feedback and appreciation for a job well done. Encourage managers to provide timely and specific feedback, recognizing employees’ contributions and accomplishments. Don’t limit the celebration to big accomplishments. In the book Best Team Wins, the authors suggest that if you haven’t sent out an email celebrating a small victory, do it today. Any small victory deserves recognition. 

Work-Life Balance

Promote work-life balance by offering flexible work arrangements and supporting employee emotional well-being. It’s important to recognize that employees have responsibilities and interests outside of work. Facilitate an environment that allows them to effectively manage their personal and professional lives. If your employee has a sick child, have an option for them to work from home. Encourage employees to take their paid vacation days. A few times a year, offer employees a “mental health day” to take some personal time to recharge. If an employee has a close tie or interest in a charitable organization, find a way for the team to contribute to the cause. 

While traditional and contemporary employee motivation theories have provided a good framework for understanding employee motivation, they aren’t perfect. They often fall short in addressing the complexities of modern work environments. To overcome the limitations of current theories, organizations must take a more holistic approach. Recognizing individual differences, fostering intrinsic motivation, providing meaningful work experiences, emphasizing continuous feedback and recognition, and promoting a work-life balance are vital. Doing so will help you identify motivation techniques that align with your employee’s specific motivators. By taking these steps, your organization will reach a highly motivated and engaged workforce.

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