Motivation Theories: Behavior

Process theories explain how workers select behavioral actions to meet their needs and determine their choices. The following theories each offer advice and insight on how people actually make choices to work hard or not work hard based on their individual preferences, the available rewards, and the possible work outcomes.

Equity theory

According to the equity theory, based on the work of J. Stacy Adams, workers compare the reward potential to the effort they must expend. Equity exists when workers perceive that rewards equal efforts (see Figure 1).


But employees just don't look at their potential rewards, they look at the rewards of others as well. Inequities occur when people feel that their rewards are inferior to the rewards offered to other persons sharing the same workloads.

Employees who feel they are being treated inequitably may exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Put less effort into their jobs
  • Ask for better treatment and/or rewards
  • Find ways to make their work seem better by comparison
  • Transfer or quit their jobs

The equity theory makes a good point: People behave according to their perceptions. What a manager thinks is irrelevant to an employee because the real issue is the way an employee perceives his or her situation. Rewards perceived as equitable should have positive results on job satisfaction and performance; those rewards perceived as inequitable may create job dissatisfaction and cause performance problems.

Every manager needs to ensure that any negative consequences from equity comparisons are avoided, or at least minimized, when rewards are allocated. Informed managers anticipate perceived negative inequities when especially visible rewards, such as pay increases or promotions, are allocated. Instead of letting equity concerns get out of hand, these managers carefully communicate the intended values of rewards being given, clarify the performance appraisals upon which these rewards are based, and suggest appropriate comparison points.

Expectancy theory

Victor Vroom introduced one of the most widely accepted explanations of motivation. Very simply, the expectancy theory says that an employee will be motivated to exert a high level of effort when he or she believes that:

  1. Effort will lead to a good performance appraisal.
  2. A good appraisal will lead to organizational rewards.
  3. The organizational rewards will satisfy his or her personal goals.

The key to the expectancy theory is an understanding of an individual's goals and the relationships between effort and performance, between performance and rewards, and finally, between the rewards and individual goal satisfaction. When an employee has a high level of expectancy and the reward is attractive, motivation is usually high.

Therefore, to motivate workers, managers must strengthen workers' perceptions of their efforts as both possible and worthwhile, clarify expectations of performances, tie rewards to performances, and make sure that rewards are desirable.

Reinforcement theory

The reinforcement theory, based on E. L. Thorndike's law of effect, simply looks at the relationship between behavior and its consequences. This theory focuses on modifying an employee's on‐the‐job behavior through the appropriate use of one of the following four techniques:

  • Positive reinforcement rewards desirable behavior. Positive reinforcement, such as a pay raise or promotion, is provided as a reward for positive behavior with the intention of increasing the probability that the desired behavior will be repeated.
  • Avoidance is an attempt to show an employee what the consequences of improper behavior will be. If an employee does not engage in improper behavior, he or she will not experience the consequence.
  • Extinction is basically ignoring the behavior of a subordinate and not providing either positive or negative reinforcement. Classroom teachers often use this technique when they ignore students who are “acting out” to get attention. This technique should only be used when the supervisor perceives the behavior as temporary, not typical, and not serious.
  • Punishment (threats, docking pay, suspension) is an attempt to decrease the likelihood of a behavior recurring by applying negative consequences.

The reinforcement theory has the following implications for management:

  • Learning what is acceptable to the organization influences motivated behavior.
  • Managers who are trying to motivate their employees should be sure to tell individuals what they are doing wrong and be careful not to reward all individuals at the same time.
  • Managers must tell individuals what they can do to receive positive reinforcement.
  • Managers must be sure to administer the reinforcement as closely as possible to the occurrence of the behavior.
  • Managers must recognize that failure to reward can also modify behavior. Employees who believe that they deserve a reward and do not receive it will often become disenchanted with both their manager and company.

Goal-setting theory

The goal‐setting theory, introduced in the late 1960s by Edwin Locke, proposed that intentions to work toward a goal are a major source of work motivation. Goals, in essence, tell employees what needs to be done and how much effort should be expanded. In general, the more difficult the goal, the higher the level of performance expected.

Managers can set the goals for their employees, or employees and managers can develop goals together. One advantage of employees participating in goal setting is that they may be more likely to work toward a goal they helped develop.

No matter who sets the goal, however, employees do better when they get feedback on their progress. In addition to feedback, four other factors influence the goals‐performance relationship:

  • The employee must be committed to the goal.
  • The employee must believe that he is capable of performing the task.
  • Tasks involved in achieving the goal should be simple, familiar, and independent.
  • The goal‐setting theory is culture bound and is popular in North American cultures.

If the goal‐setting theory is followed, managers need to work with their employees in determining goal objectives in order to provide targets for motivation. In addition, the goals that are established should be specific rather than general in nature, and managers must provide feedback on performance.