The Psychology Behind Employee Motivation

The Psychology Behind Employee Motivation

Nichole Gunn

Three smiling female employees in yellow vests - boost employee motivation

Employee motivation in the workplace is more than just a “nice thing to have,” it is the foundation of successful business. For companies on the path of continuous growth, challenges arise not only in managing a growing number of employees, but in finding ways to motivate groups of varying personalities, priorities, backgrounds, and worldviews.

While no two employees are alike, studies on motivational psychology show that humans share a basic set of needs and motivators that dictate behavior. These needs, as well as the priorities unique to their individual, are the keys to driving success. When a company actively fulfills these needs, the result is higher satisfaction, productivity, engagement, and employee retention. The goal for managers and HR departments? Understanding your employees to seek the most effective forms of motivation.

Employee Motivation and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation is widely studied within the world of business as it relates to the human purpose. Released in 1943, the study specifies five main needs starting with the most basic, or physical, and ranging to the more complex, or psychological:

  1. Physiological Needs: The human body sets the stage for these needs, including food, water, shelter, and sleep. In the workplace, this is the employee’s need to earn a livable wage that can provide basic necessities.
  2. Safety Needs: Next in line, these needs are for shelter, security, and stability. For an employee, this means having the necessary tools to fulfill their role, and believing their job is secure.
  3. Love Needs: These are the needs for companionship, inclusion, and belonging. As an employee, this is fulfilled by team participation and feeling that their work contributes to the success of the company as a whole.
  4. Esteem Needs: Once inclusion is achieved, the balancing need for self-esteem and individuality is formed. Similarly, once the initial need for inclusion is met in the office, a desire for power and prestige develops, typically fulfilled through recognition and promotion.
  5. Need for Self-Actualization: The final need, also known as the need for growth, ironically sets the stage for endless need-fulfillment, and is the drive to find our purpose in the world. In the workplace, this employee has all the necessary tools, purpose, and recognition. In a leadership role, they become the example for others in the office.

The structuring of needs within a hierarchy speaks to the infinite nature of human desire. The satisfaction of one need is merely temporary before nature sparks incentive for the next.  In other words, motivation is a natural part of the human spirit, and successful businesses incorporate this into their employee engagement strategy.

Employee Engagement Levels & their Corresponding Needs

While we have specified the role of the business in fulfilling these needs in the workplace, it is important to establish the perspective of an employee operating at each need level.

Maslows Hierarchy

For those performing work merely for a paycheck or job stability, employee motivation is low, and employee retention unlikely. These employee types, while completing tasks, often contribute negatively to workplace culture.

Employees with a basic sense of belonging and importance are classified as mid-to-high level engagement. This group is good at their job, but could benefit from recognition and rewards, as well as higher amounts of inclusivity to strengthen their sense of loyalty to a company. Applying creative employee rewards and other engagement techniques are most effective on this group and could solidify a workplace culture of loyalty and hard work when applied effectively.

Finally, employees in the self-actualization stage are considered highly engaged, and therefore highly beneficial to a company’s culture. This is the ideal level of employee engagement to work toward, however once achieved, this group can also prove harder to motivate, requiring grand motivational gestures alongside career advancement.

Employee Motivation and McClelland’s Learned Needs Theory

Almost twenty years after Maslow released his findings on intrinsic human needs, David McClelland wrote a book entitled “The Achieving Society,” identifying three main motivators of the human psyche. These motivators, while similar to those in Maslow’s hierarchy, have the following unique identifiers:

  • They apply more specifically to the workplace environment.
  • They are specified as “learned needs,” meaning they are acquired and highly affected by experience and world-view.
  • While a combination of the motivators is possible, they often present themselves individually and employees are likely to have one of the three as their dominant motivator.

Let’s take a look into the motivators and their corresponding behaviors below.

Motivator or “Learned Need”Characterizing Behavior
Power-seeks positions of control
-desire to influence the behaviors of others
-engages in competition, wants to “win”
-seeks status and recognition
***need can be further classified into desire for personal or institutional
Achievement-need to excel
-desire for feedback and progress tracking to confirm success
-does not engage in situations of low or high risk as the end result carries most importance
Affiliation-desire for acceptance and belonging
-malleable; tend to conform to the group norms
-seeks engagement and situations of personal interaction


This need, falling under the category of an “esteem need,” is achieved when an employee is granted the ability to influence the behaviors of others. Depending on the personality of the employee, this need for power can be fulfilled as part of a team, or in a high-level position within the organization. With power comes the want for recognition, status, as well as the love of competition and the need to win.


This form of employee motivation is characterized by the completion of challenging (but not unattainable!) goals. Measurement of progress is important as well as moments of pause and recognition to acknowledge that achievement was reached.


Similar to Maslow’s “love needs,” employees driven by affiliation thrive in a team setting. They prefer collaboration over competition, and acceptance within the group is very important. They often play a supporting role, and don’t seek out individualized recognition.

Using a Rewards Program to Increase Employee Motivation

In order to inspire motivation in the workplace, businesses must combine strategy, organization, and a deep understanding of their workforce. These factors paired with proven techniques for employee engagement are the ingredients to a successful employee recognition program.

Whether you’re looking to motivate a sales team, or inspire a culture of high achievement, employee incentive programs provide an online reward platform that speaks to each need and motivator type. Engage your employees motivated by achievement and competition by implementing a sales promotion and tracking your top performers on a virtual leaderboard. Inspire a culture of camaraderie and relationship-building with a social media-inspired recognition suite, allowing employees to showcase peer appreciation company wide. Your employee reward program can serve as a one-stop shop for interactive training quizzes, surveys and employee feedback, and an online catalog for employees to track and redeem personalized rewards.

Employee Motivation: The Next Steps

Employee motivation and engagement has a direct correlation with business performance. An online reward and recognition platform is just the beginning of a well-developed employee engagement strategy. If you’re looking to increase productivity and cultivate a strong company culture, an employee reward program is the next step.

Interested in learning more about motivation and incentives in the workplace? Check out these articles below or sign up to connect with one of our specialists for a free consultation. We’d love to help your employee culture grow with your business!

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