An Exploration of Motivational Theories

Motivation is an interesting concept to understand even within one’s self, but can be even more complicated as a leader. How do we understand what motivates those we are expected to lead? What can be done as a leader to ensure that our employees, students and volunteers are continuously motivated to do good work?

I recently read an article – “Motivation and Leadership in Social Work Management: A Review of Theories and Related Studies” by Elizabeth A. Fisher. In this post, I will discuss the Motivational Theories that are explored in this article – I will reflect on the Leadership Theories in a future post.

There are five leadership theories that are explored in this article, all of which I resonated with for one reason or another. Each theory also led me to reflect on my own motivation and the motivation of the students and volunteers that I supervise.

Motivational Theories: 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

This theory is one that is discussed in every Pysch 101 class and it never occurred to me that it could be applied to motivation in the workplace. This theory discusses the five levels of needs – physiological, security, social, ego and self-actualization. This theory identifies that people will be motivated based on what level they are currently at, the lower level needs will no longer motivate them once they surpass a certain level. For example – if someone is operating at a social level, then they will no longer be motivated by security needs such as salary, or job security. Fisher (2009) identifies that they will be motivated by “opportunities to connect with co-workers and work as a team” (p. 349).

This was an interesting theory to reflect on personally. It is interesting to see how I have been motivated by different factors throughout my career based on what my current status of employment is. As a leader, I think it is important to understand what level those that you supervise currently sit at and help provide them with the tools that will further motivate them. It is also important to understand that an employee, volunteer, or student will likely not stay at the same level forever. Within social work, I think it is also important to recognize that it may be very challenging to fulfill security needs with a lack of security with funding. As social work leaders, how do we overcome the issues around motivation for those who are in positions that could be jeopradized by funding loss?

Herzberg’s Two Factor or Motivator Hygiene Theory

This theory states that there are types of needs that motivate workers. These are hygiene factors, and motivator factors. As Fisher (2009) identifies, “hygiene factors include things like salary, benefits, policies, working conditions and relationships and are best for preventing job dissatisfaction” (p. 349), while motivator factors are, “best for promoting achievement and satisfaction with work and include things like recognition, accomplishment and responsibility” (p.349).

This theory really resonated with me because, while I believe salary and benefits to be an important piece of motivating workers, I believe it is important to not disregard other pieces that will further motivate your staff beyond job satisfaction. I think it is easy for things like recognition to be forgotten about, when in fact, celebrating successes may very much promote achievement and satisfaction in the workplace. It is also important to consider that in social work, it may be challenging to meet hygiene needs at times with limited resources being available. Leaders should be mindful of both hygiene and motivator factors at all times when working with their staff.

McClelland’s Trichotomy of Needs

This theory explores three needs that people are motivated by – power, affiliation, and achievement. Everyone is motivated by all three needs but most are motivated by one more strongly than the others.

This theory was interesting to reflect on as I had a challenging time determining which need I was most motivated by. I think I am heavily motivated by all three needs but the need for power outweighs the need for affiliation and achievement. As a leader, I think it is important to encourage workers to identify which need they value most to ensure there is ample opportunity to fulfill those needs.

Equity or Social Comparison Theories of Motivation

This theory identifies that “workers are motivated by comparing their performance to the performance of others” (Fisher, 2009, p. 350).

This is a theory that I did not heavily identify with. This may be because I work in a small agency where there are not many staff for me to compare myself to performance wise. Perhaps in a larger setting with many people in the same role as me, I may compare my performance to that of others. This theory also discusses the idea of “open salary scales and performance structures” (Fisher, 2009, p. 353), which I am not sure how I feel about. I think there are many factors that determine salaries for staff and it may be detrimental to staff relationships to disclose this information. It could perhaps create an unbalanced power dynamic in a workplace.

Goals and Objectives as Motivational Theory

This theory explains that, “workers will be motivated by setting goals and objectives for both the individual and the organization. The more these two goals intersect the more likely the worker is to achieve for the good of the organization” (Fisher, 2009, p. 350).

This is a theory that I think would be effective in most (if not all) social work settings, as I believe goal setting often goes overlooked in the busy lives of social workers. The concept of setting organizational goals and then attaching those goals to departments and individuals to create more direction in the organization reminds me of strategic and operational planning; another task that often gets overlooked in social work agencies. I am extremely passionate about strategic and operational planning. I think it provides the organization and the staff with a solid direction and it makes it easy to ensure that your day-to-day routines are in-line with the strategic direction of the organization. My organization has developed a strategic plan and based on that, my project has a current operational plan. This plan has been so helpful in creating task lists and deadlines, ensuring that tasks get completed in a timely fashion. These objectives and goal setting helps provide direction to my role and the work that I do.

Overall, each of theories provided a basis for me to reflect on my practice on the front-line and my experience as a leader. I think it is critical to understand what motivates you as an employee and a leader, and also what motivates those that you lead. I intend to share this article with future social work students that I supervise with the intent that they can attempt to identify where their motivation stems from.


Fisher, E. A. (2009). Motivation and Leadership in Social Work Management: A Review of Theories and Related Studies. Administration in Social Work, 33(4), 347-367. doi:10.1080/03643100902769160


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