Trends in HR management come and go, and over the years many of us have seen the impact this has had on the role and practices of managers and HR teams, says Tricia Palmer, a consultant in HR, interim director and leadership trainer.

In the past, employees have been seen as resources, treated as a cost to be reduced and kept down at every opportunity. Whereas more recently there has been significant discussion about people as assets to be tended and nurtured, so they blossom and as a consequence are more self-motivated and productive. Overlay the impact of technology and the changing world of work and it is clear that some of our “old” ways of thinking around how people develop and achieve, and therefore should be managed, are no longer fit for purpose. This article considers the various trends in approaches to what is now known as the employee experience and the impact it has on motivation and productivity.

The theory

We are all familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and have used it in many circumstances to explain human behaviour. It is a commonly held belief that the needs in the lower part of the hierarchy (hygiene factors) all have to be satisfied before we can move up to the higher levels of growth and full satisfaction. The basic hygiene factors of the environment and feeling safe are satisfied at work through pay and the working environment. While the psychological needs of belonging and esteem, including the need to achieve, are met through being part of a team and achieving goals, it is only when these needs are satisfied that we move onto self-fulfilment and start achieving our full potential and becoming truly creative. Maslow argued that the hygiene factors were deficiency needs, and that only the highest level of self-actualisation was a growth need. The significance of this is that the deficiency needs arise due to deprivation and are thought to motivate people when they are unmet. When a deficit need has been more or less satisfied it will go away and our habits and activities are then directed to the higher order need. In contrast, growth needs do not stem from a lack of something, but from a desire to grow as a person. These ideas are fundamental to many of our approaches to motivation at work. The ideal has been to provide environments where individuals can achieve and grow and feel fulfilled; that way they will reach their full potential and become truly high-performing employees. It is true to say that this is a little simplistic, and people move up and down the hierarchy according to factors both in and outside of work, but the general tenets still hold that once the basic needs are satisfied, people aspire to feeling a sense of belonging and purpose.

McGregor’s X and Y theory has some similarities to Maslow, but it divides people into two categories. In one category people are generally thought to have little ambition and be inherently lazy — they are seen as individually motivated and happy to work for a sustainable income (Theory X ). This belief has led to managerial approaches based on close supervision and managers who are likely to use rewards or punishments for motivation. This may be seen as a very old-fashioned view, but there is evidence to support that this theory of human behaviour is still alive and well in many workplaces. However, this approach leads to hostile workplaces and minimally co-operative employees, characterised by a lack of trust. The more enlightened managers, who still believe that individuals generally have low motivation have adopted a softer approach. This is characterised by greater leniency and less strict rules in the hope of improving morale and encouraging more co-operative employees. However, this muddle of thinking often leads to an entitled, low-output workforce and less consistency of approach. McGregor’s Theory Y school of thought is more closely linked to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the belief that people aspire to self-actualisation. Theory Y managers believe that individuals are internally motivated, find satisfaction in their work and will achieve without the need for external rewards. These managers relate to their employees on a more personal level and allow them greater autonomy in their work, leading to greater creativity and discussion. Some commentators think that this approach is limited, as it leaves room for error in terms of consistency and uniformity and is only suitable for the higher order jobs.

While these ideas may seem somewhat dated, they are significant in that they form the bedrock of much of our managerial thinking today. We have all come across Theory X and Theory Y managers, and seen at first hand the impact of such strict ideas on what motivates people, resulting in either significantly demotivating them or allowing them so much freedom that chaos ensues. These ways of thinking have led to the promotion and demise of badly designed performance-related pay schemes, rigid management by objectives, poorly thought-out self-managing teams and the like, and consequently have significant relevance for our learning about appropriate people strategies for today.

Fred Fielder’s research on leadership, known as contingency theory, led to the thinking that the combination of the two theories is what is required. Managers should evaluate the workplace and choose their leadership style according to both internal and external factors. The trick, of course, is to use appropriate tools and approaches depending on the circumstances, and more recent thinking is asking for a much greater level of sophistication, which encourages managers to see everyone as an individual and adjust their style accordingly.

Other theories emerged around the same time, including Herzberg’s two-factor theory, which postulated that satisfaction and dissatisfaction were two different factors and could therefore not be measured on the same scale. They are as follows.

  • Hygiene factors relate to the job and comprise of supervision, interpersonal relations, basic pay, work conditions and organisational policy. These factors cannot produce motivation; they can only serve to satisfy or dissatisfy.

  • Motivational factors include recognition, a sense of achievement, growth or promotion opportunities, responsibility and the meaningfulness of the work itself.

The thinking is that the motivational factors will only come into play once the baseline of hygiene factors are achieved. This is similar to Maslow’s hierarchy, but differs in that they are seen as two separate scales. This has significance for HR approaches and its influence on managerial practice. So many times I have seen a sticking plaster of a staff survey, new appraisal scheme or development activities put on the broken limb of poor working conditions or low pay in an attempt to increase poor morale and low motivation.

During the 1960s, David McClelland built on Maslow’s work in his book The Achieving Society. He identified three motivators that he believed we all have: a need for achievement; a need for affiliation; and a need for power. He argued that people will have different characteristics according to their dominant need, which is largely dependent on their culture and life experiences. The achiever is motivated by the need to set and accomplish challenging goals and likes to receive regular feedback on their progress and achievements. They will tend to take calculated risks to achieve their goals and often like to work alone. The affiliator likes to be part of a group, and wants to be liked. They will often go along with what the group wants and favour collaboration over competition. They don’t like high risk or uncertainty. Those individuals who are motivated by power want to control and influence others. They like to win arguments and enjoy competition. Status and recognition are important to them. McClelland also observes that those with a strong power motivator can be divided into two groups: personal and institutional. People with a personal power drive want to influence others, while those with an institutional drive like to organise the efforts of others to achieve the organisation’s goals. This view of motivation is helpful in that it begins the debate around the individual and how it is important to recognise individual motivations, rather than viewing employees as a homogeneous group.

In the 1970s, Theory Z was developed by William Ouchi, which is explained in his book Theory Z: How American Business Can Met the Japanese Challenge (1981). Theory Z is known as a participative style of management, which assumes that employees are motivated by a strong sense of commitment and the need to be part of something worthwhile (the self-actualisation need). Individuals crave the opportunity to advance and learn and will seek out opportunities for responsibility and advancement. The underlying theme here is lifetime employment with one employer, and individuals are happy to work up the ranks slowly, and that is how the organisation gets the best out of them. While the need for self-fulfilment may still be there, a job for life is no longer a realistic expectation (or desire for many) in the current environment of fast-changing services and organisations.

However, recent psychological research has claimed to disprove this “conventional” wisdom around what motivates people at work, and there is a new approach based on the “power of small wins”. In a study of employee motivation, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steve Kramer asked hundreds of employees to maintain a diary of peaks and troughs in their motivation at work. After analysing 12,000 entries they discovered that it was not money, safety or security or pressure that drives employees at work. The most important motivator for employees is what Amabile and Kramer call “the power of small wins” — employees are highly productive and driven to do their best work when they feel as if they are making progress towards a meaningful goal. They also discovered that, of the 600 managers they asked what they thought was the single most important motivator at work, 95% got it wrong. While this is powerful stuff, it doesn’t tell us if Maslow’s hygiene factors had already been met and that therefore there was arguably no longer a deficit need requiring to be satisfied.

In a more recent study of highly engaged employees by psychologist Susan Davis, she asked them what made them so engaged and excited about work. Ninety-five per cent did not mention pay at all. What she found was that they all “highlighted feeling autonomous and empowered, and a sense of belonging in their teams”.

These theories give us a baseline to consider the vexing issue of what motivates and engages people at work, but does not provide the whole picture. Some of the research below gives us a more practical and thoughtful approach to taking us forward in our thinking on work and motivation.

More practical theoretical approaches

In his 2005 book The Enthusiastic Employee Dr David Sirota, an organisational researcher and consultant, concluded that the way to enthuse employees is to give them what they want. Probably not a startling conclusion, but he based his work on surveys from over four million workers around the world, as well as interviews, case studies and informal observations. He then developed his three-factor model of human motivation in the workplace, which is based on three fundamental principles.

  1. The organisations’ goals are not in conflict with the individual’s goals.

  2. Workers have basic needs that organisations should try and meet.

  3. Staff enthusiasm is a source of competitive advantage.

The three factors, which together build the enthusiasm, have clear practical implications for the changing world of work and include the following.

Equity and fairness

People are motivated by fair treatment and they want their organisation to provide basic conditions that respect their physiological, economic and psychological needs. These include creating a safe working environment, fair compensation, a reasonable work-life balance and a reasonable level of job security. Fair pay includes some variable pay for performance and allowing employees to share in the organisation’s success. Psychological health is about creating an environment of respect, where power is used fairly. Individuals are treated similarly, regardless of how much power they have and status distinctions are minimised — eg avoiding differentiated parking arrangements or canteen facilities. Independence and autonomy are important, as are positive feedback and recognition. Paying attention to what staff say they need and want, together with showing an interest in them, are all important factors in achieving an engaged workforce.


People want to be proud of their work and have their achievements recognised. They also want to be proud of what the organisation achieves; so individual and collective achievement are both important. Sirota identified four specific things an organisation needs to do to give individuals a sense of achievement. They are as follows.

  1. Provide an enabling work environment, ie give people what they need to do the job well. This includes using teams effectively, encouraging participative leadership, eliminating bureaucracy and hierarchy, delegating effectively and avoiding micro management.

  2. Provide challenging work by allowing people to do interesting work that makes good use of their skills and abilities. Employ people based on fit (values and goals) and design jobs for enrichment and satisfaction. Communicate how each role contributes to the organisation’s overall goals and provide training and opportunities to develop.

  3. Use feedback, recognition and reward — simply put, let people know how they are doing. The elements here are establish and agree priorities, communicate clear expectations, use tangible rewards to acknowledge achievements, balance criticism with praise, and promote from within where possible.

  4. Be an organisation of principles and purpose — people want to work for an organisation that they can trust and be proud of. To provide this, there needs to be a clear vision which makes employees proud, which is communicated and modelled by the leaders. Ethical leadership is hugely important, as is the provision of a high-quality service or product.


When people go to work they want to enjoy themselves; inter-personal relationships are very important. A culture that supports and encourages co-operation, communication, friendliness, acceptance and teamwork is critical in maintaining enthusiasm. Many managers see this “touchy-feely” approach as superfluous, but it is vital in ensuring that individuals feel a sense of community and teamwork, which maintains enthusiasm and engagement. The following activities are important to encourage such an environment to thrive — make people skills a priority, demonstrate empathy, respect and consideration, and expect the same from everyone. Reward positive team behaviours and encourage cross-functional interaction and teamwork. Ensure consistency in messaging and organisational practices. Use team charters to develop ground rules, encourage collaborative conflict resolution and win-win negotiation techniques.

It is a commonly held belief that high enthusiasm at work usually means an eagerness and a willingness to work hard, but somehow we are continuing to fail in generating that enthusiasm. We have often seen this when people begin new jobs. They start off with lots of enthusiasm and a keenness to contribute, but appear to lose motivation over time. This leads me to believe that people inherently want to achieve and we are failing to create working environments that enable them to do so. As individuals become indifferent, more unco-operative and unproductive, we fall back on traditional managerial tools — close supervision, motivational speeches, reward programmes and as a last resort disciplinary action. However, as most of us have discovered, these are not effective. Perhaps if we paid more heed to Sirota’s findings we would be adopting different approaches to these apparently disaffected and disengaged employees.

In their article in the Harvard Business Review, July 2008, Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg and Linda-Eling Lee considered what they called “a powerful new model to employee motivation”. They have taken their research from across disciplines including neuroscience, biology and evolutionary psychology, and attempted to learn more about the human brain. The synthesis of their research suggests that people are driven by four basic human needs, which are a product of our evolutionary heritage. In their book How Human Nature Shapes our Choices (2002), Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria argue that these drives (or needs) are the following.

  1. Need to acquire — obtain scarce goods, including intangibles such as social status.

  2. Need to bond — form connections with individuals and groups.

  3. Need to comprehend — satisfy our curiosity and master the world around us.

  4. Need to defend — to protect against external threats and promote justice.

It is argued that these drives underlie everything we do.

Nohria, Groysberg and Lee took these four drivers and tested them with the employees of 300 of the Fortune 500 companies, plus nearly 400 employees from two global business services — a financial services giant and a major IT company. To define motivation, they majored on four factors — engagement, satisfaction, commitment, and intention to quit. They considered engagement to be the energy, effort and initiative the employee brought to their job. Satisfaction was defined as the extent to which the organisations met employees’ expectations at work, including explicit and implicit contracts. Commitment captured the extent to which employees engaged in “corporate citizenship”, and the intention to quit was a proxy for turnover.

These studies strikingly showed that an organisation’s ability to meet these drivers accounted for about 60% of the variations of employees’ motivation. The researchers also found that some drivers had a greater influence on motivation than others. Fulfilling the drive to bond had the greater influence on commitment, whereas meeting the drive to comprehend is more closely linked to employee engagement. They also discovered that it is important to achieve on all four drivers — the whole is more than the sum of the parts, with a poor outcome on one substantially diminishing the effect of the other three. The interesting part of this research showed that, while the organisational norms are important, employees understood that managers had “wiggle room”, and individual managers could have as much influence over motivation as an organisation as a whole. As a consultant working in the sphere of employee engagement, I find this particularly encouraging. We all know it is particularly difficult to turn around a whole organisation, but it is possible to influence individual managers to enable them to engage their teams more effectively.

These drivers are hard-wired into our brains and as such the degree to which they are satisfied affects our emotions and by extension our behaviours. It is therefore arguable that all managers/leaders need to understand how they work in order to influence behaviour.

  1. The drive to acquire — we are all driven to acquire goods to bolster our sense of wellbeing, and we experience happiness when we acquire things and feel thwarted when we don’t. In addition to goods, this relates to social status at work and could be something significant such as being promoted or something smaller such as that better office or a reserved parking space. This drive is relative and therefore we compare ourselves with others, which is why the feel fair nature of pay is so important.

  2. The drive to bond — when this drive is met we feel strong positive emotions such as love and caring, but when it is not we feel negative emotions such as loneliness and anomie. It explains why individuals find it difficult to break out of their divisional or functional silos. At work this drive accounts for positive motivation when people feel proud of the organisation they work for, and can be extremely damaging for morale when individuals perceive a betrayal.

  3. The drive to comprehend — we want to make sense of the world, and produce theories and principles to help us make events comprehensible, which enables us to have a reasonable response to them. At work this manifests itself in our need to solve problems, and employees are motivated by jobs that challenge them and enable them to make a meaningful contribution, and to grow and learn. We are very demoralised by tasks that seem monotonous or pointless.

  4. The drive to defend — we will naturally defend anything that is important to us, and this is manifested by fight or flight, or in the workplace aggressive or defensive behaviour. We want to build organisations that promote justice and have clear goals and intentions that allow people to express their views and opinions. If this drive is fulfilled we feel secure and confident, but if it is not we feel strong negative emotions such as fear and resentment. This drive to defend tells us a lot about people’s resistance to change.

The researchers argue that each of these four drivers are independent; they cannot be ordered in a hierarchical way or substituted for one another. So, for example, higher pay will not make individuals feel enthusiastic about their organisation if relationships are not fostered, or they feel their work is meaningless or they feel threatened. To fully motivate employees, it is vital to address all issues.

Organisational levers of motivation

  1. Reward systems — assuming that the basic pay is reasonable and felt to be fair, it is possible to use pay to increase motivation. Many schemes, particularly in the public sector, have failed because they are not backed by sufficient investment or they are not understood, or seen as fair or transparent. Any such scheme needs to clearly discriminate between good and poor performers, and the application of criteria must be clear and consistent. Individuals who need external recognition find the link with pay particularly powerful, because it clearly recognises the work they have done. Some researchers would argue that pay is a hygiene factor and therefore a demotivator if the need is not satisfied. I believe this is dependent on two factors — first the pay is seen as reasonable, and second it is perceived as comparable to those of people an individual sees as their peers. The perceived fairness of any pay system is more relevant than the actual fairness.

  2. Culture — the most effective way to fulfil the drive to bond is to engender a strong sense of camaraderie. The organisation (leaders) needs to create an environment that promotes teamwork, collaboration, openness and friendship. Managers need to openly show that they care about their teams through actions, not words. These behaviours are closely watched by individuals, who note how a manager deals with a difficult HR issue or a colleague who is suffering from stress. This is not about being soft, but genuinely caring for another human being. These behaviours pay dividends, as employees are prepared to go continually the extra mile for an organisation/manager they think really cares.

  3. Job design — the drive to comprehend is best met by designing jobs that are meaningful, interesting and challenging. Backed by strong development opportunities and a commitment to ensure employees have the right skills, this is a powerful incentive for individuals to remain engaged and enthused.

  4. Performance management and decision-making — as with pay, any performance management scheme must be seen as fair and robust. Transparent decision-making together with the removal of bureaucratic barriers mitigate against the natural instinct to defend. It is important for people to be able to see the link between decisions and the organisational goals. All too often I have seen decisions made on the whim of senior leaders, which do not appear to accord with the publicised values and visions. Leaders underestimate the impact of such behaviours on the morale of the workforce and their continued engagement with the organisation. A prime example which HR practitioners see regularly is on recruitment, where the espoused values are ones of diversity and equal opportunity and then a senior appointment is made without any regard to due process. While this may seem a small action in itself, it does little to maintain the trust employees have in their leaders.

  5. The role of the direct manager — we have seen earlier in this article that managers can have a significant impact on their teams’ motivation, even despite organisational norms. Some managers hide behind ineffective systems, while others make the most of an imperfect model. While pay systems often leave a lot to be desired, managers can provide recognition through praise and non-pay rewards, such as a choice assignment or extra support on training. Managers can promote camaraderie in teams and design interesting roles even in a “cut-throat” environment. Many individuals find their direct manager motivating, even in an organisation that falls short. Equally a manager can create a toxic environment, even in a highly motivating organisation.

What does this all mean for today’s workforce?

It is my belief that the emerging theories of what motivates people serve in part to support the changing world of work, where people value flexibility and organisations are encouraging greater mobility — working from home or other locations. As we know, the drive to push down costs has led to organisations reducing their estate, encouraging hot desking and flexible/mobile working. People initially resisted this move, with managers arguing that they would be concerned that employees would not be working if they couldn’t see them or manage them closely. These ideas are based on McGregor’s Theory X that people are inherently lazy and need to have their tasks and work defined for them. However, if we are more of the view that employees are motivated by the values and goals of the organisation, that they want to feel proud of the work they do and need to see small steps of achievement, it doesn’t matter where they work from as long as they feel valued and recognised, and their goals do not conflict with those of the organisation. Many employees report that the flexibility of being able to work from home or variable hours improves their work-life balance, although this requires a level of discipline (both from the employer and employee) to ensure that work does not take over. We know that technology enables many jobs to be done at any place and any time. However, this does also mean that there could be a tendency to never switch off. An employer who has the ability to meet its employees’ needs has a better chance of engaging and retaining their talent.

The need to achieve is deemed by many commentators to be a fundamental requirement for enthusiasm and engagement. The ability to achieve is not so much affected by where people work from, but whether the work is meaningful and interesting. This is accommodated in the design of jobs, and new technology should remove those mundane tasks, freeing up time for more engaging and creative work. The need for human intervention is on those more complex tasks, or those to do with relationships, negotiations and creativity.

The area in which this changing way of working brings concern is the one of needing to belong and have a sense of community. This is often difficult to achieve when workers are not based together. Employers have attempted to address this by ensuring that team meetings continue and physical attendance is mandatory — even though dial opportunities exist. Employees often find their own way to ensure that camaraderie still exists through informal mechanisms and social events. However, this is an issue that will continue to evolve over time and as yet our responses to it are somewhat embryonic.

The gig economy, millennials and motivation

The expectations on job security are changing, as are the way people engage in work. The rise of gig economy, characterised by short-term contracts and freelance work, has led to a different approach to employment and the world of work. While there are the dangers of exploitation of low-paid workers and lack of security, many people choose that way of working because it better suits their lifestyle and needs. The higher-skilled workers can command reasonable pay, but they are also motivated by interesting projects and the flexibility such work affords them. This is also interesting in the light of the younger workers, who no longer see the foot on the property ladder (since the price of houses, and the need for a significant deposit has priced them out of the market) as the main reason for getting a steady job. It is argued, for example, that millennials are intrinsically motivated and therefore not motivated by money. In a research carried out by Forbes, a remarkable 50% said they would be prepared to take a pay cut in order to secure a job that aligns with their values and ambitions. They want to feel like they are making a difference and would be prepared to move on to pursue something more rewarding. They are ambitious and determined, seeking out advancement and opportunity, and as many as 65% state that personal development is the most important factor in their career. It is argued that millennials strive for independence and as many as 72% have said they would like to be their own boss. For those that had to have a manager, they say they want them to act more as a coach than a boss. This generation is more likely to change careers, forego promotion or relocate in order to have a flexible lifestyle. Companies such as Virgin and Evernote have taken notice of this and introduced “unlimited vacation” in order to attract and retain talented staff. In addition, millennials are looking for regular high-quality feedback including constructive criticism as well as praise.

These criteria point towards a more sophisticated, grown-up workforce of the future. One that is motivated by values and meaning, a desire to grow and learn and to be engaged in meaningful work. In return they are looking for flexibility, career development, work-life balance and a manager who can coach and guide. If all this is to be believed this is a very encouraging picture — the trick for leaders and managers is to find a way of managing the transition from the old-style workforce to the new, identifying the key drivers for each individual and finding a way to satisfy them within the constraints of the organisational norms — a difficult road to navigate.


Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation (1943)

Douglas McGregor, Theory X and Theory Y: Employee Motivation Theories, The Human Side of Enterprise (1957)

Fred Fielder, Contingency Model of Leaderhip

Frederick Herzberg , The Motivation to Work (1959)

David McClelland, The Achieving Society (1961)

William Ouchi, Theory Z – How American Business Can Meet the Japanese Challenge (1981)

Teresa Amiable and Steven J. Kramer, The Power of Small Wins, Harvard Business School (May 2011)

Dr David Sirota, The Enthusiastic Employee (2005)

Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg and Linda-Eling Lee, A Powerful New Model to Employee Motivation, Harvard Business Review, July 2008

Attract, Retain and Motivate Millennials,

Last reviewed 24 October 2018