Motivation continues to be studied in depth by academics. With this post I would like to discuss three theorists who ground my beliefs in what motivates people – and specifically my own students.

The earliest and perhaps most famous theory of motivation is that of Abraham Maslow (1954), who believed that people possess an internal drive that is constantly growing. He defined a hierarchical needs system, usually represented as a pyramid, from the most base to the most aspiring, as follows:

Self actualization (the realization of one’s true potential)
Esteem (seeking recognition, awards)
Love and belonging (connectedness to others with love and/or friendship)
Safety (security, shelter, health)
Biological and physiological (hunger, thirst, sleep, sex)

Each new level of needs builds upon the previous one. Needs are arranged according to their importance to sustain human life. Maslow (1943) and his followers believe that if one level is not fulfilled, it is not possible for a person to attain the next level. For example, if a person is not feeling safe or adequately sheltered, their focus will be on remediating this situation rather than striving for recognition or self actualization. However, the further up a person can successfully progress on the hierarchy of needs, the more psychological health and individuality they will be able to manifest.

Maslow’s theory is certainly a great start to understanding what motivates people, but I also look to other thinkers for additional dimensions. A theory that is of great interest to me trains its lens on the motivation to achieve. Douglas McGregor (1960) proposed his famous XY theory in his book “The Human Side of Enterprise”. Theory X (authoritarian style) posits that the average person dislikes work and will avoid it if s/he can. Therefore most people need to be forced to perform work, or else they will be punished. In Theory X, the average person needs to be directed, naturally avoids responsibility, is not ambitious and wants security above all else. This is an ineffective way to motivate a worker – or learner. Threatening students with bad grades is an ineffective way to motivate them to learn, and may make them overly anxious, further impeding their ability to learn and create. A more progressive approach with positive motivation will enable greater learning.

Continuing with McGregor, we now turn to Theory Y, where the effort in performing work is as natural as play. In Theory Y, the average person self-directs in the pursuit of their objectives without threat of punishment. People are committed to their objectives and seek further responsibility, and want to use their imagination, ingenuity and creativity. Managers, as well as instructors, who follow Theory Y are usually more successful at motivating their charges.

And finally, according to David McClelland, there are three types of needs: achievement, affiliation and authority. These needs are found in all workers and students. Understanding a learner’s needs will help the instructor to motivate them: a student with a high need for achievement will relish challenging projects with reachable goals. Students with a high need for affiliation will do well in a cooperative team-based environment. And students with a high need for authority or power will also do well in team based projects, and will gravitate to positions of leadership within them.

The three academics whose major theories I just mentioned are only three of many, many great thinkers who studied what motivates people at different times, and roles, during their lives. I use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, McGregor’s Theory XandY (well, my belief is in Y and not X) and McClelland’s three needs theories in my classes when instructing on topics of technology management – or refer to them when working in teams in my consulting practice.

Hiking image by UnSplash, CC0 Public Domain, January 2016
Hiking image by UnSplash, CC0 Public Domain, January 2016


Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.
McGregor, D. (1960) “The Human Side of Enterprise” New York, NY: McGraw-Hill
McClelland, D. (1961) “The Achieving Society”, New York: Free Press


2 thoughts on “Motivation

  1. I try not to read these posts until I’ve finished my own, but I’m kind of wishing I’d heard about McGregor earlier; I’m feeling a bit too ‘X’ this week for my liking.
    I’ve never gotten my head around Maslow, but the other two sound worth checking out.

    Great post!


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