5 Motivation Theories for Managers and Reasons Use Them

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 May 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Motivation is important in the workplace because it can help employees be more productive and feel satisfied in their roles. Management teams can use different motivation theories to encourage employees to work towards individual, team and company goals. Learning about these theories can help you find one that suits your management style and works for your team. In this article, we explain why you may use motivation theories in the workplace, explore five common theories and provide tips for motivating employees at work.

Why use motivation theories in the workplace?

Motivation theories are tools managers can use to increase productivity, profits, employee retention rates and job satisfaction levels. As a manager, you can aim to increase employee motivation to help your employer achieve its business goals. Using motivation theories can include offering incentives, addressing needs or providing rewards to motivate your team to meet different goals.

Related: 12 Types of Motivation at Work Quotes to Keep You Inspired

5 theories managers can use to motivate teams

Here are five motivational theories you can consider using for increasing employee satisfaction and productivity:

1. Incentive theory

The incentive motivational theory suggests people feel motivated by reinforcement, recognition, incentives and rewards. The incentive theory also proposes that people may display certain behaviours to achieve a specific result, incite a particular action or receive a reward. Here are a few examples of incentives in the workplace:

  • Bonus: A bonus is a reward you may give to an employee based on their performance levels over time. Employees may receive team bonuses or bonuses for individual performance.

  • Praise: Praise can be useful for one-on-one situations, such as quarterly employee reviews. You can praise an employee by giving positive feedback about their performance, which may build your relationship with them and promote trust.

  • Opportunity: Providing opportunities such as paid training or continuing education may give your team an incentive to increase their knowledge in a specific field and develop their skill sets. These opportunities can show employees their management teams care about investing in their careers.

  • Promotion: Providing an opportunity for career advancement is often one of the most influential incentives a manager can offer because it can give an employee a feeling of importance and growth. A promotion may include an advanced job role, a new job title and a salary increase.

  • Salary or wage: Offering a pay raise or salary increase is an incentive management teams often find effective. You might consider using salary or wage incentives for individual employees rather than all employees and departments within a business.

  • Paid holidays or time off: Consider offering employees compensation for taking days off or giving them additional holiday days. An employee may value this incentive if they're planning for a family holiday or desire some extra time to rest at home.

Related: 12 Effective Motivational Techniques for Managers

2. Three needs theory

The three needs theory states that each person feels motivated by one of three specific needs. When professionals feel their management teams fulfil these needs, they may be more likely to thrive at work. Managers who use the three needs theory strive to determine each team member's primary needs, so they can help them thrive at work and achieve their professional goals. Here are the three needs addressed in this theory:


The need for affiliation proposes that people have an innate desire to be accepted as part of a group. Professionals who identify most strongly with the need for affiliation often rely on their interpersonal skills to help them form bonds with their colleagues and achieve shared objectives. Managers who recognise that an employee has a need for affiliation can motivate them to succeed by assigning them team projects and collaborative tasks.


Some professionals consider being successful means committing to a high standard of work and accomplishing significant career goals. The three needs theory classifies this as the need for achievement and managers often identify these employees as reliable, diligent and competitive. Professionals with a need for achievement often thrive when managers recognise them for their work, offer them incentives for meeting goals and assign them special tasks.

Related: Exploring How to Answer "What Is Your Greatest Achievement?"


Some professionals have the primary goal of achieving influential positions, such as managerial and leadership roles. These professionals associate with the need for power, which means they find motivation at work by performing duties like leading team projects, delegating tasks and hosting meetings. Managers can put employees with a need for power in a position that allows them to use their leadership skills to encourage job satisfaction and goal achievement.

Related: 10 Examples of Work Motivators for Professionals (With Benefits)

3. Competence theory

The competence theory suggests that people want to work in roles that allow them to show others their knowledge, skills and talents. When professionals demonstrate their proficiencies around their colleagues and managers, it may make them feel more confident in their abilities. This feeling of competence can encourage productivity, motivate professionals to develop more efficient processes and increase their job satisfaction in their roles.

4. Expectancy theory

The expectancy theory proposes that people choose how to behave or which tasks to complete based on whether they can expect a favourable outcome. Here are the three factors that work together to determine how a person might act under this theory:

  • Expectancy: This refers to a person's belief in being able to complete a goal.

  • Instrumentality: A person believes that making an effort towards a goal can produce the desired result.

  • Valence: This refers to the value a person places on the goal they want to achieve.

Managers can apply the expectancy theory to encourage productivity and motivate employees to use or develop their skills.

5. Hierarchy of needs theory

Hierarchy theory is a psychological concept that outlines the types of needs a person is required to fulfil to progress to more complex needs. The hierarchy of needs includes these five levels:

  • Physiological: To meet physiological needs, or basic survival needs, you can ensure you have adequate water, shelter, clothing and food. In a work setting, an employee's salary may allow them to fulfil their physiological needs.

  • Safety: This level refers to a person's need for protection. In the workplace, this need may align with employees feeling safe in the workplace and feeling a sense of job security.

  • Socialisation: To meet socialisation needs, employees may strive for their coworkers to accept them, seek to make friendships at work or join groups to feel a sense of belonging. A workplace may fulfil this need by creating opportunities for employees to bond by hosting employee lunches and team-building activities.

  • Esteem: Employees often reach this level by receiving recognition, which can help them feel confident in their work and increase their self-esteem. Recognising their achievements and providing positive feedback are two methods you can use to help build an employee's self-esteem.

  • Self-actualisation: This level involves employees achieving complex, long-term or personal goals. Self-actualised employees often feel motivated to complete workplace goals.

Tips for motivating employees in the workplace

Here are some tips to help you use motivational theories effectively:

Keep promises when offering incentives

If you offer your team incentives for completing tasks or meeting goals, it's important to follow through with them. This can help you establish trust with a team. If you offer an incentive and don't provide it, the team may experience low morale and feel hesitant to put forth more than the required effort to complete their tasks. By meeting their expectations for a reward, you can encourage continued productivity and goal achievement.

Create custom rewards for individuals or departments

Instead of offering the same incentives to each individual or team, you can consider personalising them based on their roles and interests. This can show employees that you care about providing them with meaningful rewards, which may motivate them to continue setting and working towards goals. For example, you can offer the sales team boxes of snacks they can take with them when travelling to meet with clients or give the administrative team a subscription to a monthly coffee delivery service they can enjoy at work.

Ask for feedback

If you're unsure of how to motivate your team, consider asking them for feedback. You can suggest they provide details about parts of their role they enjoy, aspects that present a challenge and what helps them feel motivated to perform well at work. This can help you decide which motivational theory to use for each employee or team. You can also ask for feedback after offering incentives to ensure they feel their rewards align with their efforts and interests.

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