A school boy is punished with a spoon by the teacher.

Motivation: What You Really Need to Know

Overview: To understand the behavior of others, we must know what we can not see, you must understand the motivation. The means knowing a set of theories useful in explaining what you see.

by Murray Johannsen, Feel to connect him by Linkedin or by email.

Quote that says, "Motivation will almost always beat mere talent," by Norman Augustine
There is a common saying which goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” However, for most people the saying goes, “When you’re going is tough — I quit.

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Definitions of Motivation

“Motivation is the effort, the drive, the desire, and the energy a person uses to activate and maintain goal-driven behavior.” — Murray Johannsen

“Motivation is the reason for people’s actions, willingness and goals.” — Wikipedia

“A reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way.‘ Example: escape can be a strong motivation for travel. b. Desire or willingness to do something; enthusiasm. Example: keep staff up to date and maintain interest and motivation. — Lexico.com

1. the act or an instance of motivating 2. desire to do; interest or drive 3. incentive or inducement 4. (Psychology) psychol the process that arouses, sustains and regulates human and animal behavior.” — Source: The Free Dictionary

Motivation Quote: If I knew what brand of whisky he [General Ulysses Grant] drinks, I would send a barrel or so to some other generals," by Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote about motivation. The metaphor refers to the fact that many of his generals had a nasty habit of sitting in camp and drinking whiskey — not going on a campaign to gain more territory.

What is Motivation?

Common to all theories of motivation, is the assumption that there’s energy that shows up as behavior.

A symbol used to explain extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. A Hungarian television set from 1959. Image by Takkk
A Hungarian television set from 1959. Image by Takkk. This is a symbol of how motivation works. What we see in the world is what appears on the screen. What we don’t see is the hardware and software hidden in the box.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation address the forces that exist within the black box of the mind. It’s like trying to describe the insides of the television by looking at the screen. Extrinsic motivation refers to environmental factors. For example, money is an extrinsic motivator while greed is an intrinsic one.

When we think of types of human motivation, we often start with a fundamental assumption that we are motivated by intrinsic  OR extrinsic motivation factors. However, there is a third option, you are motivated by both.

Getting a college degree could be motivated by achievement motivation. But it could also be drive by the desire to have a good-paying job and other factors such as expectations of parents, career goals, and so on.

Research indicates that in some cases external rewards can lower internal motivation (Deci, 1971, 1977, 1985). An example of this is learning.  All parents face this fundamental choice, should they, “Pay for the A.” If a child has a high desire to learn, research has shown money will lower a child’s “love of learning.” On the other hand, if there is no internal motivation to learn, perhaps a properly designed reinforcement schedule can bring about the behavior.

This video by Zimbardo talks about the power of the environment to shape ordinary people to do good or bad behaviors. In other words, when really bad things happen, maybe it’s not a “few bad apples”, it’s the system that’s rotten.


One can overcome almost any adversity if one gets the right push and is truly motivated.

A very wealthy man bought a huge ranch in Arizona and he invited some of his closest associates in to see it. After touring some of the 1500 acres of mountains and rivers and grasslands, he took everybody into the house. The house was as spectacular as the scenery, and outback was the largest swimming pool you have ever seen. However, this gigantic swimming pool was filled with alligators. The rich owner explained it this way: “I value courage more than anything else. Courage is what made me a billionaire. In fact, I think that courage is such a powerful virtue that if anybody is courageous enough to jump in that pool, swim through those alligators, and make it to the other side, I’ll give him anything he wants, anything – my house, my land, my money.” Of course, everybody laughed at the absurd challenge and proceeded to follow the owner into the house for lunch … when they suddenly heard a splash. Turning around they saw this guy swimming for his life across the pool, thrashing at the water, as the alligators swarmed after him. After several death-defying seconds, the man-made it, unharmed to the other side. The rich host was absolutely amazed, but he stuck to his promise. He said, “You are indeed a man of courage and I will stick to my word. What do you want? You can have anything – my house, my land, my money – just tell me what and it’s yours.” The swimmer, breathing heavily, looked up at his host and said, “I just want to know one thing – who pushed me into that pool?” as told by Dr. Charles Garfield, author of Peak Performance

Test Your Understanding: From standpoint of motivation, was the behavior of swimming across the pool:

  • Intrinsically motivated? 
  • Extrinsically motivated? 
  • Both?

The Two Schools of Motivational Theory in Psychology

For convenience, motivational psychology divides the theories into two sets:

  • Behavioral Theories
  • Cognitive Theories

Behavioral theories of motivation focus on — well, behavior. They ignore the black box of the human mind. The cognitive theories all have some underlying reasons that exist within the mind and body.

Here is a summary of fire really important motivational theories all managers should know.

Key Cognitive Motivational Theories

In this area, many, many theories take into account factors such as needs, beliefs, scripts, schemas, volition, attitudes, values, etc.

“Measure wealth not by the things you have, but by the things you have for which you would not need money.” — Murray Johannsen

In stark contrast to the behavioral school of thought, there are many motivational theories within cognitive psychology. These theories take into account factors such as: 

  • Needs,
  • Beliefs,
  • Scripts,
  • Schemas,
  • Volition,
  • Attitudes,
  • Values etc.

However, when it comes to building motivational skills, there are three worth knowing something about: needs for achievement,  equity theory, and expectancy theory. 

1. McClelland’s Need For Power, Affiliation, and Achievement

McClelland (1961) felt that certain needs are not preprogrammed into the body via the genes, but learned from the environment. We learn to affiliate (or not affiliate), how to exercise power, and how to be achievement-oriented. This means we can teach achievement motivation, something associated with success in various fields of endeavor. It’s believed to be one of the primary motive forces driving entrepreneurs to start a business.

2. Equity Theory

Adams (1963) lays the groundwork to understand why people perceive something as fair or unfair. This is a most serious issue for leaders and managers, not to appear to have favorites and to treat people in such a way that they believe they are treated fairly.

3. Expectancy Theory

Proposed by Vroom (1964) this approach focuses on the beliefs that influence effort, outcomes, and performance. For example, when if one believes that one’s efforts result in a certain level of performance associated with the desired reward, one likely takes action. Of course, the exact opposite is also true. A low correlation between effort, performance, and reward breeds inaction.

We understand extrinsic motivation much more than intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation address the forces that exist within the black box of the mind. It’s like trying to describe the insides of the television by looking at the screen.

When we think of types of human motivation, we often start with a fundamental assumption that we are motivated by intrinsic  OR extrinsic motivation factors. However, there is a third option, you are motivated by both.

Within the world of psychology, there are two general schools of thought regarding motivation. The first school is called the behaviorist school. Those who hold this philosophy are not interested in the black box of the human mind–they focus on observable behavior. There are three theories here one must know:

Behavioral Theories of Motivation

3 Conditioning Theories

There are three major theories in the behavioral school of motivation in psychology. Each of them is important and can be found in almost all introductory textbooks on psychology associated with learning although they are also theories of extrinsic motivation.

  • Classical Conditioning
  • Operant Conditioning, and
  • Vicarious Learning (or modeling)

Of these three, the one most valuable to those in the organization is operant conditioning (behavior modification).

Three Primary Motivational Sources

Physiological (or Genetic) Motivators

Drawing by: Chodowiecki Basedow Tafe
Drawing by: Chodowiecki Basedow Tafe

The body has demands that must be satisfied. The three most basic are: hunger, sex, and thirst. These are captured in a common model of human motivation known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

A useful way of thinking about motivational needs is to divide them into categories that start with the body and end with the mind. In between, we have the social.

Social Motivators

Taken in Masai Mara, southwest Kenya by Benh Liue Song. Portrait of three lions (one female and two males) of a pride.
Portrait of three lions (one female and two males) of the pride. Taken in Masai Mara, southwest Kenya by Benh Liue Song.

Humans are pack animals who exist within a web of social relationships within different groups. Belonging to a group supplies social needs and motivates many behaviors.

Economic Motivation 

Adam Smith "on motivation, "it is not a benevolence of the butcher, the Brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from regard to their self interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity, but to their self love.
The fundamental assumption of the capitalistic economic system is selfishness. It is rational to only act on your self-interest. Of course, this makes no sense unless you are an economist.

If we are to believe the classical economists, the primary motivational factor driving humanity is money. And corporations? They are to engage in the never-ending quest to grow revenues, minimize costs and maximize their profits.

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Painting is by Richard Westaill called the Sword of Damocles. it illustrates a famous story told by Cicero about a young man who was motivated by riches and power.
The painting is by Richard Westaill called the Sword of Damocles. It illustrates a famous story told by Cicero about a young man who was motivated by riches and power but failed to understand that there was a price to pay.

Adams, John S. (1963). Toward an understanding of inequity. Journal of Abnormal and, Social Psychology67(5), 422-436.

Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Degaura, Josephine (2001). David McClelland: Three Needs Theory.

Deci, E. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115

Deci, E. L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press

Franken, Robert (2007). Human Motivation, 6th Edition., Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

McClelland, D.C. (1961). The Achieving Society. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.

Murray, H. A. (1938). Explorations in personality. New York: Oxford University Press

McNerney, Same (2012). Ego Depletion, Motivation and Attention: A New Model of Self-Control, thinkbig.com September 12.

Redmond, Brian (2013). Equity Theory Overview. Wikispace Penn State University.

Schmidt, Charles (N.D.). Motivation: Expectancy Theory. Labor Research Center, University of Rhode Island.

Vroom, V. (1964). Work and motivation. New York, NY: Wiley.

First published on September 20, 2014. Last update: July 10, 2023

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