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What is motivation?

Hardly any other psychological research concept has spread so widely into everyday speech as motivation. Interest in motivation springs along the issues of engagement, employee experience and obviously, the implications to performance. Peter Drucker is claimed to have said: "we know nothing about motivation - all we can do is write books about it" (Tarant, 2009). But, what is really known about the much talked motivation?

Motivation is a rich and multifaceted concept. Everyday speech refers most often to along time varying desires or interests to act: "I became motivated" or "I lost my motivation". In addition to a state of mind varying in time, motivation can refer to more stable individual characteristics. For example, top athletes tend to describe themselves as having had a competitive spirit since childhood. Motivation can be used to describe both general urges of the humankind as well as differences among individuals. All these ways in understanding motivation are valid, interchangeable and not in conflict with one another. The question is about each chosen perspective on motivation.

Motivation has been defined with various emphases depending on each perspective. Agreement exists in neuroscience (Berridge, 2004) as well as in work psychology (Diefendorff & Chandler, 2011) that motivation concerns initiating, maintaining and orienting behavior. Motivation equals to what is meant by the common word of wanting. Motive is simply a want or desire to do something, to act in some way. At work, it translates into the question what the individual wants to do at work. The most influential theories of motivation can be divided into humanistic and personality focused theories. The figure below displays the most prominent representatives of the two traditions.

Theories of motivation

Theories of motivation

Humanistic theories

Humanistic theories of motivation embrace basic questions of existence and personal growth along broad developmental lines. The most well-known is probably Abraham Maslow's (1954) theory according to which needs are arranged in a hierarchy from lower order needs, such as need for nutrition to higher order needs, the highest of which is self-realization. Satisfaction of the lower order needs sets a precondition for moving into realization of higher order needs and, people have an inner tendency towards growth and development. Maslow's theory has had numerous heirs beginning from Herzberg's theory (1959) on work's hygiene factors and motivators. The most recent heir in the humanistic tradition is the Self Determination Theory by Deci and Ryan (1985). The theory is centered around intrinsic and extrinsic motivation where the former concerns actions which are rewarding in themselves and the latter deals with actions leading to external rewards. The significance or validity of the needs or motives presented in the the humanistic tradition are all but undisputable. However, the question remains as how do different individuals realize themselves, their competence or intrinsic motives?

Personality theories

Theories with emphasis on personality focus on the individually variable meanings of such higher order needs as self-realization, competence or intrinsic motivation. In other words, individuals have different intrinsic motives and people realize themselves in very different ways. Henry Murray and David McClelland are the most well-known representatives of this tradition developed primarily at Harvard University. At Harvard Psychological Clinic, Henry Murray devised a taxonomy of appr. 30 psychological needs for description and measurement of motives (Murray, 1938). The following focuses on motivation viewed as a factor of personality individual differences along which have important implications.

McClelland and colleagues (1987) positioned three broad motivations, achievement, power and affiliation as underlying Murray's taxonomy and developed his original content analytic method for their measurement (TAT, see eg., Niitamo, 1999). This trio of motivations has shown to predict success in the three broad categories of work and have therefore been called the "Three Big" motives. Achievement motivation enhances performance as entrepreneur and in different professional jobs, power motivation in turn strengthens success in different leadership roles while affiliation motivation is a resource in jobs with emphasis on social interaction such as customer service or foreign service. One of the most widely known work competency models builds upon the three motivations (Spencer & Spencer, 1993).

See Wikipedia: Murray's taxonomy | McClelland's Three Big Motives

Motives have to be discovered

Motives are factors of personality with the characteristic that that they are less visible from the outside than are traits such as extraversion. Motives are neither always fully known to the person him or herself. Instead, they often have to be discovered, with questions as "what do I really want?". Criminal investigation offers a dramatic example of the search for motives: a motive for the criminal act is attempted to be discovered. The hidden nature of motives means that in contrast to external personality traits, motives cannot be directly inferred from action. For example, a successful student's motive may be a true desire to achieve but diligent behavior can also be a consequence of the student's wish to please his or her teacher or parents.

Knowing motives is understanding the person

Personality traits are good for describing individuals' external behavior tendencies. In the words of Dan McAdams' widely cited article (1992), traits are about the psychology of the stranger. They can be observed relatively easily but they give only a first, coarse reading of a previously unknown person. Everyday experience has taught us that the first picture of an individual can change greatly as his or her motivation, desires and life goals become known to us. In fact, getting to know a new person in everyday life follows the same path: first we draw the person by his or her outer behavior tendencies and continue getting more acquainted with the person through knowledge of his or her desires and goals in life. Knowing another person's (or one's own) motives is therefore understanding another person (or oneself). We then know what makes the person "tick".

Motives compete with each other

A factor related to understanding the person and distinguishing motives from external traits is that, similar to desires, motives function in competition with one another. For example, people with strong leadership motivation and average interaction motivation often tend to begin leading others in interaction situations, not just behave in an "average" level of interaction. In other words, strong motives tend to dominate over less strong motives or desires. Therefore, attention should be focused on the rank order of motives within the person, not just their general strength indicated by their score levels. As is obvious, recruitment often seeks for strong results or leadership motivated people. But understanding of the individual is deepened and predicting one's behavior sharpened when it is known what the person in him or herself most and least desires.

Motives have special value in work

Motives are desires or wants and behave accordingly. Realization of motives causes satisfaction and joy while failure in realizing them causes feelings of frustration. Motivation is therefore a valuable driving force for the organization. When the job has been staffed by an appropriately motivated person, work is carried out on his or her own "appetite". The match between jobs and people is sought either by hiring a person suited to the job, by coaching him or her to better suit the job or by changing the job for better suitability to the person. The special value of motivation for work is further attested by the meta-analysis which shows that motivation and cognitive abilities are equal in magnitude as predictors of work performance (Van Iddekinge et al., 2018). There is also growing evidence that while intelligence predicts performance better in the first job, thereafter motivation takes the lead.

Motives in the WOPI concept

For the part of motivation the WOPI personality concept is built on the three "big" motivations presented by David McClelland and colleagues and seven preceding, narrower motives from Henry Murray's early taxonomy. The somewhat abstract terms "Power and Affiliation" motivation used in the original works were renamed into more tangible and work descriptive terms of leadership and interaction motivation.

Achievement motivation

Achievement motivation is about behavior in the world of things. It is a general desire to excel in independent activities, either through focus or competition. Focused achievement (fo) is a motive or desire to excel by concentrating on the task at hand. It strengthens performance in jobs that emphasize quality and focus, such as in technical and semi-independent (supporting) jobs. Competition (co) is in turn a desire to excel by competing, surpassing goal lines and breaking of records. It strengthens performance in jobs that emphasize sizeable, quantitative results, entrepreneurial and multi-task action. People with achievement as their strongest motivation (focus + competition) at work may be described as "Independent performers".

Leadership motivation

Leadership motivation is about behavior in the world of people. It is a general desire to lead others, either their action or thoughts. Leadership (le) is a desire to lead other people's action through direct means, by setting direction, giving orders and exercising power. In addition to supervisory jobs, it strengthens performance in jobs that require direct influencing or control of others' behavior (cf. police work). Inspiration (is) is in turn a desire to lead others' thoughts and feelings through indirect means, by standing out, attracting attention and inspiring others. It addition to supervisory jobs, inspiration strengthens performance in marketing, sales and all promotional jobs. People with leadership as their strongest motivation (leadership + inspiration) may be described as "Leaders-influencers".

Interaction motivation

Interaction motivation is about direct, face-to-face behavior in the world of people. It is a general desire to do things with or, for other people either by creating contacts, guiding others or listening to and serving others. Sociability (so) is a desire to create contacts and communicate with others. Empathy (em) is a desire to guide and support others. Reliance (re) is a bi-polar desire where one pole indicates relying and listening to other people while the opposite pole indicates the desire to rely primarily on oneself and act autonomously. People with interaction as their strongest motivation (sociability + empathy + reliance on others) may be described as "Collaborators".

Motivation is the driver of development

Human personality is a complex whole which needs to be described with other factors besides mere personality traits, such as the Big Five traits (McAdams, 1995). Motivation involves a deeper-seated factors underlying and shaping observable behavior traits. As drivers of behavior, motives offer a longer-reaching perspective as to where the person is on his or her way? In regard to development, it is by far more important to know what the person wants than what the person "is".

In the words of David C. McClelland, the fifteenth most cited scientist in psychology: "Understanding human motivation ought to be a good thing. It should help us to find out what we really want so that we can avoid chasing rainbows that are not for us. It should open up opportunities for self-development if we apply motivational principles to pursuing our goals in life" (McClelland, 1978).

Leadership of motivation

As mentioned earlier, motives are desires and behave accordingly. That is, motives are not always "on" but need to be aroused into readiness to act. This is what happens when we talk about "becoming motivated". Motives surely can and do become aroused spontaneously, but they may also be aroused externally through incentives in the environment. If, for example in a playful exercise people are divided into small groups and urged to compete with each other, some degree of competitive desire will arise in almost everyone. Individuals with strong personal competitive drives will become more motivated to compete - although their motivation for competition tends to arise even without strong external incentives.

Motives differ importantly from the context-free personality traits (Big Five) in their context dependency. Becoming motivated that is, getting ready to act requires environmental incentives. If the organization does not provide clear incentives for people to behave in a certain way, it is less probable that such action will emerge.

Organizations have two main avenues for leading motivation. Existing organizational cultures always arouse motivation toward some behavior, eg., focused action, results orientation, listening to others etc. Influencing the culture enables leadership of motivation. More direct leadership of motivation is attained through the organization's leadership practices such as encouraging people toward focused or results oriented action, toward listening and serving others, etc.

Individuals' self-directed behavior can effectively be promoted in face-to-face contact by knowing their main work roles and preferred action patterns. Thus, for example independent performers get lighted up and set into motion with emphasis on independent action and quality or results orientation.

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Van Iddekinge, C.H., Aguinis, H., Mackey, J.D., & DeOrtentiis, P.S. (2018). A Meta-Analysis of the Interactive, Additive, and Relative Effects of Cognitive Ability and Motivation on Performance. Journal of Management Vol. 44 No. 1, Jan., 249-279.


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