The meaning of motivation

The meaning of motivation

The term ‘motivation’ derives from the Latin word for movement (movere). A motive is a reason for doing something. Motivation is the strength and direction of  behaviour and the factors that influence people to behave in certain ways. People are motivated when they expect that a course of action is likely to lead to the attainment of a goal and a valued reward – one that satisfies their needs and wants. The term ‘motivation’ can refer variously to the goals that individuals have, the ways in which individuals chose their goals and the ways in which others try to change their behaviour. Locke and Latham (2004: 388) observed that: ‘The concept of motivation refers to internal factors that impel action and to external factors that can act as inducements to action.’

As described by Arnold et al (1991) the three components of motivation are:

  1. Direction– what a person is trying to do.
  2. Effort– how hard a person is trying.
  3. Persistence– how long a person keeps on trying.

Well-motivated people engage in positive discretionary behaviour – they decide to make an effort. Such people may be self-motivated, and as long as this means they are going in the right direction to attain what they are there to achieve, then this is the best form of motivation. But additional motivation provided by the work itself, the quality of leadership, and various forms of recognition and reward, builds on self-motivation and helps people to make the best use of their abilities and to perform well.

There are two types of motivation and a number of theories explaining how it works, as discussed below.

Types of motivation

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation takes place when individuals feel that their work is important, interesting and challenging and that it provides them with a reasonable degree of autonomy (freedom to act), opportunities to achieve and advance, and scope to use and develop their skills and abilities. It can be described as motivation by the work itself. It is not created by external incentives. Deci and Ryan (1985) suggested that intrinsic motivation is based on the need to be competent and self-determining (that is, to have a choice). Michael Sandel (2012: 122) remarked that: ‘When people are engaged in an activity they consider intrinsically worthwhile, offering money may weaken their motivation by “crowding out” their intrinsic interest or commitment’.

Intrinsic motivation can be enhanced by job design. Katz (1964) suggested that jobs should in themselves provide sufficient variety, complexity, challenge and skill to engage the abilities of the worker. Hackman and Oldham (1974) in their job characteristics model identified the five core characteristics of jobs that result in intrinsic motivation, namely: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and feedback. Pink (2009) stated that there are three steps that managers can take to improve motivation:

  1. Autonomy– encourage people to set their own schedule and focus on getting work done not how it is done.
  2. Mastery– help people to identify the steps they can take to improve and ask them to identify how they will know they are making progress.
  3. Purpose– when giving instructions explain the why as well as the how.


Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation occurs when things are done to or for people in order to motivate them. These include rewards such as incentives, increased pay, praise or promotion; and punishments such as disciplinary action, withholding pay, or criticism.

Extrinsic motivators can have an immediate and powerful effect, but it will not necessarily last long. The intrinsic motivators, which are concerned with the ‘quality of working life’ (a phrase and movement that emerged from this concept), are likely to have a deeper and longer-term effect because they are inherent in individuals and the work – and are not imposed from outside in such forms as incentive pay.

Motivation theory as described below explains the ways in which intrinsic and extrinsic motivation take place.

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