Top 12 Motivational Theories for Success in Life & Business

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Almost everyone is interested in motivating either themselves or others, but few know the actual psychological theories that drive us to become motivated. To help, below is a list of the top 12 motivational theories that work in specific situations and for specific people. By reading, you should understand not only what drives us, but how to motivate yourself and those around you.

Here are the most important motivational theories for 2020:

1. Expectancy Theory of Motivation

The expectancy theory of motivation is a psychological theory posed by Victor H. Vroom in 1964 that says people are motivated by their expectation of achieving a specific outcome as a result of their actions or effort. This motivational theory is a form of external or extrinsic motivation and focuses on the degree to which you’re motivated by a reward based on your belief that you’ll actually receive it, should you achieve the goal.

Ultimately, the surer you are that your actions will cause a specific and desired result, the more motivated you (or others) are to carry out those actions. Conversely, if the actions don't end up with your expected result, you'll be less motivated to carry out the same actions in the future.

This means that if you want to motivate yourself by external rewards, you need to choose specific and measurable rewards and tie them to specific actions. If you’re trying to achieve a goal and believe the reward will go away once you get there or that your actions won’t result in the reward you want, you’ll become demotivated. For more information, check out my full article on the expectancy theory of motivation.

2. Equity Theory of Motivation

The equity theory of motivation is a motivational theory developed by workplace psychologist J. Stacey Abrams in the 1960s that states people are motivated not by a reward but by their perceived level of fairness. This level of fairness is known as “equity”, and people can become motivated or demotivated depending on their specific level of equity. What’s interesting is that equity not only means how fair you think people are to you, but also how fair you think people are to others.

For example, if you have a co-worker who didn’t get a raise you know they deserve, you might become demotivated even though you’re adequately paid. Conversely, if you don’t think you’re paid what you deserve, your perceived level of fairness will also be low, resulting in demotivation. Luckily, the opposite can also be true if the perceived level of fairness is high. For more information on how to maximize equity and fairness in order to motivate yourself and others, check out my full article on the equity theory of motivation.

3. Arousal Theory of Motivation

The arousal theory of motivation, also known as the Yerkes-Dodson law after psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, is a psychological theory developed in 1908 that says individual people are motivated by a specific and unique level of arousal. In psychological terms, "arousal" means mental alertness or attentiveness, and the arousal theory states that if a person’s mental alertness drops below or rises above a certain point, it can cause stress, depression, and ultimately demotivation.

If, however, mental alertness can stay at an optimal level safely in the middle of high and low on the arousal scale, a person can maximize their motivation and achieve the success they want. Depending on the person, specific inputs can increase or decrease arousal. For more information on what these inputs are and how to achieve the perfect level of arousal, check out my complete article on the arousal theory of motivation.

4. Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation

The goal-setting theory of motivation is pretty self-explanatory and states that specific and challenging goals, along with helpful feedback, results in more motivation. Edwin Locke pioneered this theory in the 1960s and made it clear that proper goal-setting is linked to an increase in overall performance. Basically, the more challenging the goal you set, the more motivated you are to achieve it, until a certain point when the goal becomes too daunting and demotivates you. However, this is not the only principle of this theory.

In addition to setting challenging goals, Locke showed that in order for a goal to be motivating, it also needs to be clear, agreed upon, and tied to a complex task. What’s more, the person setting out to achieve the goal must be committed, confident, as well as actively solicit helpful feedback. Only then will a goal be truly motivating. For more information on how to set motivating goals, check out my article on SMART goals.

5. Hertzberg’s Two-Factor Hygiene Theory

Also known as the motivation-hygiene theory, this business-focused theory of motivation states that there are certain factors in the workplace causing job satisfaction, while there is a different set of factors in the workplace causing job dissatisfaction. These factors are mutually exclusive, meaning that something causing job satisfaction will not cause job dissatisfaction, and vice versa.

Specifically, the factors for job satisfaction include achievement, recognition, responsibility, advancement, and growth. On the other side, the factors causing job dissatisfaction include work conditions, salary, status, security, and an employee’s relationship with the company or their superiors.

Factors leading to satisfaction are referred to as “motivators”, while the things leading to dissatisfaction are known as “hygiene factors” because while they don’t directly lead to increases in motivation if present, their absence will directly lead to demotivation. Think of a shower: not life or death, yet necessary and very noticeable if absent. To motivate yourself and others, you want to make sure that you have "good hygiene" (aka take care of the hygiene factors) while you focus on increasing performance through the positive and lasting motivators.

Of course, this shows that those with high job satisfaction are more motivated than those dissatisfied with their job. What’s more, factors that increase job satisfaction are intrinsic motivators while factors leading to job dissatisfaction are extrinsic motivators. This theory was pioneered by psychologist Fredrick Herzberg in the 1950s and 1960s. For more information, check out the Wikipedia article on the topic.

6. Reinforcement Theory of Motivation

This theory was pioneered by American psychologist B.F. Skinner stating that people are motivated by the expected outcome of their behavior. This is similar to the Expectancy Theory, but Skinner makes the case that behavior is a function of its repeated consequences and that people develop a certain behavior only after performing a specific action enough times to understand the outcome of their actions.

This theory is based on the “law of effect”, which states that a person is motivated to repeat actions that result in a positive reward and avoid actions that result in a negative outcome. These rewards or outcomes, when repeated over time, are tied to specific actions, making this theory similar to that of operant conditioning. For more information, check out Wikipedia’s in-depth article on the theory.

7. Acquired Needs Theory of Motivation

The Acquired Needs Theory, also known as the Three Needs Theory or Human Motivation Theory, explains how a person’s need for achievement, power, and affiliation affects their motivation and actions. People typically need one or more of these things in order to become motivated and usually need one over the others; identifying which of the three is most needed in your life (and the lives of those around you) can help you motivate yourself and others.

For example, people motivated by achievement like to work on difficult projects and their perceived success is based on their effort. People motivated by power enjoy hierarchical environments or those with a high level of structure and discipline. Those motivated by affiliation are motivated by the growth in personal relationships and their acceptance into a community. Identifying which ones are the most desired will help you create an environment that naturally creates motivation. This theory was pioneered by psychologist David McClelland. For more information, check out the informative Wikipedia article

8. Participation Motivation Theory (Theory X & Y)

The participation theory of motivation, also known as Theory X and Theory Y, is a motivational theory pioneered by psychologist Douglas McGregor in the 1960s. This theory of motivation, found in McGregor’s book, The Human Side of Enterprise, posits that there are two contrasting motivational theories, which he labels “Theory X” and “Theory Y”. These contrasting theories cover the two main ways people are motivated to do work and other things in the workplace. One requires micromanagement while the other empowers people to do good work independently and autonomously.

Let’s now discuss each in a little more detail:

Theory X

Theory X is an authoritarian approach to workplace motivation. This theory is also referred to as "authoritarian motivation" and is used in the workplace when employees or other people are typically unmotivated and dislike their work.

When this is the case, McGregor states that managers and others need to take an authoritarian approach to motivation, meaning that the manager needs to be hands-on and micromanage their people. This is because people who fall under Theory X are not self-motivated and need a carrot and stick approach to getting work done.

Theory Y

Conversely, Theory Y is known as participative motivation and takes the other side of the coin. It posits that some people in the workplace (and elsewhere) are happy to work on their own initiative, are self-motivated to complete tasks, and like a collaborative approach to their work. This type of motivation is known as “collaborative” and “trust-based”, and managers (or others) can take a decentralized approach to motivation where people are encouraged to take on more responsibility, develop their skills, and suggest better ways of doing things.

The idea here is that Theory X is an older and more outdated way to workplace motivation. Alternatively, Theory Y is a newer approach to motivating people through employee empowerment and meaningful work that excited employees to work hard. For more information, check out this detailed article on the topic.

9. Three-Dimensional Theory of Attribution

The theory of attribution attempts to explain how people interpret events and how those events relate to their thinking, behavior, and ultimately, their future motivation. Bernard Weiner popularized this theory in the 1970s and tried to show that the reasons we attribute to a specific event or outcome will dictate how motivated we become to achieve that event or outcome in the future.

For example, if someone passes an exam and attributes the achievement of a passing score to studying hard, they might be motivated to study harder in the future. Conversely, if that same person fails a test and attributes a failing score to teacher bias, they might be demotivated to study in the future because they think it won’t matter and the teacher will be biased regardless of their effort and preparation.

A person’s motivation will specifically be dictated by the things they attribute to causing their outcome as it relates to stability, locus of control, and controllability:

  1. Stability - Attempts to explain how solid - or stable - an attribution is. For example, passing a test because you think you studied hard is a stable attribution factor and will give you more motivation to study in order to achieve the same result. Conversely, if you passed an exam because the teacher is an easy grader, that is less stable (or solid) and it won’t motivate you nearly as much.
  2. Locus of Control - Tries to explain if the factor you attribute to the event or outcome is internal or external. For example, you’ll be more motivated if you believe you passed a test because you studied hard (something you can control), versus an external locus of control such as passing a test because the teacher is an easy grader.
  3. Controllability - Explains the degree in which you perceive the situation to be controlled by you (or the extent of your locus of control). For example, if you can’t control whether or not a teacher is an easy grader, you might be less motivated to study. Conversely, if you believe that you can directly control your grade by how hard you study, you might be more motivated to try hard.

Understanding these three factors and how each affects motivation will help you better motivate yourself and those around you. Weiner believed that ability, task difficulty, effort, and luck are the most important factors affecting attributions for motivation. For more information, read this article on the subject.

10. Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory

Abraham Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs is perhaps one of the better-known theories of motivation. This theory states that all humans have five specific levels of needs that build upon each other like a pyramid. As you achieve each lower-level need, it no longer motivates you and you are only motivated by the higher-level needs.

Below are the five hierarchies of needs as proposed by Maslow:

maslow's hierarchy of needs

The idea here is that you can’t achieve the next level of need until you fulfill the one underneath it. At the same time, once you achieve that level of need, you are only motivated to achieve the one above it. For this reason, if you’re trying to motivate yourself and/or others, make sure you fulfill each of these needs in order. Check out this Wikipedia article for more information.

Alderfer's ERG theory

Psychologist Clayton Alderfer takes Maslow’s hierarchy of needs one step further by categorizing the five levels of needs into three categories: Existence, Relatedness, and Growth. This further helps you identify what specifically can motivate you or others based on the level you’re currently experiencing. It adds a little more clarity to Maslow's seminal theory.

11. Argyris’ Theory

Argyris’ theory isn’t technically a motivational theory but is more a theory of management. Still, it can be effectively used to motivate employees in the workplace. This theory was pioneered by Chris Argyris and states that a person’s motivation in the workplace is dictated by his or her relative level and speed of personal growth, similar to the growth of a child. Specifically, Argyris argues that a person becomes more motivated as they move from immaturity to maturity.

Below are the seven areas where an employee can grow and become more motivated:

  1. Passivity to activity
  2. Dependence to independence
  3. Responsibility for a few behaviors to many behaviors
  4. Little interest to deep interest
  5. Short-term perspective to a long-term perspective
  6. Subordination to superiority
  7. Lack of self-awareness to self-awareness

Like a child, if someone in the workplace can grow and progress in these seven areas, they will become more motivated. It’s the responsibility of the manager, Argyris says, to help their employees grow and evolve on their way to becoming more motivated. For more information on Argyris and his theory, read about his bio and work here.

12. The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne effect also isn’t a motivational theory per se, but it states that a person will naturally change their behavior when being observed. This effect was first explained in psychological observation trials and was a warning to experiment administrators that their subjects may change their actions or behavior if they know they’re being observed. 

This is called the Hawthorne effect because it was discovered during an experiment in Hawthorne, Chicago, when the National Research Council tried to study the effects of shop-floor lighting on worker productivity. They believed better lighting would lead to increased productivity, but found that when observed, employees’ productivity improved in poor or good lighting. This led researchers to discover the Hawthorne effect, that if people are being watched their productivity will increase regardless of environment.

So, what does this mean for motivation? Well, it stands to reason that if you are trying to motivate someone to increase their productivity, observing them while they work would certainly help them focus more on their task and potentially perform better. The same applies if you want to motivate yourself. You can manufacture situations where you know you’re being watched to force yourself to improve. Read this in-depth Wikipedia article for more information.


Overall, the motivational theories above should help you motivate yourself as well as others. Different types of theories work in different situations and on different people, so make sure you understand all 12 above and choose the best one for you. Only then can you become motivated to achieve your dreams.

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