Employee Motivation in the Workplace: Different Types of Motivation Theories

Part Three

Does money motivate people effectively? In part one of this three-part series on HR theories of motivation, we answered that question with different types of motivation theories.

Well, if not money, how do we create an environment where people are motivated? Check part two. The key: create productive work relationships.

But people are different; so how do we build productive work relationships with all types of people? In this last installment on workplace motivation, we’ll cover some theories for how various people motivate themselves.

Of the many different types of motivation theories, I would like to highlight two that are of particular use:

  1. David Merrill and Roger Reid’s work on the four personal styles
  2. David McClelland’s theory of motivation involving three basic needs: achievement, power, and affiliation

There are many more good motivation theories – Maslow, Myers-Briggs, etc. – but I’ve found these to be most useful in managing groups.

The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

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The starting point for all three different types of motivation theories is that they are built on the concept that intrinsic motivation is much stronger than extrinsic. This bedrock fundamental is perhaps the most powerful concept to apply in your work; see my post on top employee motivators for a more thorough review of incentive plans.

Briefly, it means that to get great results, you need people to be intrinsically interested in their work. Your efforts to control, set expectations, and reward people are all methods of extrinsic motivation, which helps explain why managers are often disappointed with employee results when relying on those motivation tools.

So, to help you get better results, here are three methods of intrinsic motivation that all build on that intrinsic bedrock.

Employee Motivation Theory 1: Merrill & Reid’s Personal Styles

In their theory on motivating different types of people, Merrill and Reid identify four personal styles:

  • Driver
    • Action Oriented: Focus is on present time frame, direct action
    • Minimum concern for caution in relationships. Tends to reject inaction
    • Prefers to control, tell
  • Expressive
    • Intuition Oriented: Focus is on involving others, future time frame
    • Minimum concern for routine. Tends to reject isolation
    • Prefers to emote, tell
  • Amiable
    • Relationship Oriented: Focus is on relating, supporting; present time frame
    • Minimum concern for affecting change. Tends to reject conflict
    • Prefers to emote, ask
  • Analytical
    • Thinking Oriented: Focus is on cautious action, “getting it right”, historical time frame, cautious action.
    • Minimum concern for relationships. Tends to reject being wrong.
    • Prefers to control, ask

* Information adapted from their book, Personal Styles & Effective Performance.

Application: To help people feel connected intrinsically with their work, structure their work so these personal style needs are met.


  • Driver
    • More effective
      • When you want to make a point, ask, as in, “What do you think of this idea?”
      • Get things done quickly that are going to be effective, even if they aren’t perfected
    • Less effective
      • When you want to make a point, lecturing them, as in, “Here’s how it is”
      • Spending time in reflection and consideration, in an attempt to perfect
  • Expressive
    • More effective
      • Make work a party while you’re getting stuff done; breathe life into work
      • Make use of their good gut instincts
    • Less effective
      • Spend 3 hours in a room sequentially creating a step-by-step checklist
      • Don’t trust them until they can “prove it”
  • Amiable
    • More effective
      • Include effectively when a group tackles a project, and not just the “amiable” coworker; they’ll feels others’ “pain” if their input is excluded
      • Act trustworthy, and trust them
    • Less effective
      • Try to get results through intimidation and application of stress
      • Divide and conquer; use conflict – of ideas, of emotions – to try to get best results
  • Analytical
    • More effective
      • Give them space to get grounded – to get it “right” – before they proceed to action
      • Assign complex problems where you need absolute confidence in the details
    • Less effective
      • Use conflict to try to get best results
      • Push, push, push, especially if towards an outcome that favors your self-interest
      • Ask them to “wing it”, to bet the company on their “hunch”

Employee Motivation Theory 2: McClelland’s Theory of Motivation

McClelland’s theory is very simliar to that of Merrill and Reid.

  • Achievement
    • More effective
      • Seek: to excel
      • May avoid both low- and high-risks as a result, in order to pursue meaningful success
    • Less effective
      • Work alone or with other high achievers
  • Power
    • More effective
      • Seek: either personal or institutional power
      • Either way they want to direct others, but the institutional power is in service to the institution’s success, so those with that focus tend to make better managers
    • Less effective
      • Direct others
  • Affiliation
    • More effective
      • Seek: harmonious work relationships, to accept, to be accepted, and to include others
      • They can be more comfortable conforming to group norms
    • Less effective
      • Work in settings with significant personal interaction

Application: To help people connect intrinsically with their work, structure their work so their major need is met. The “Power” need correlates to the “Driver” above; “Affiliation” to the “Amiable” above.

What’s new here is the “Achievement” need. It can cut across all the Merrill and Reid personal motivation styles. The key here is to surround high achievers with other high achievers. To be their best, they need to know they’re on a team capable of pulling off a worthwhile, attainable mission.

A Summary of Employee Motivation Theories

Employee motivation is simple.

  • You can’t motivate people
  • You can provide an environment where people motivate themselves
  • Apply what you know about people’s styles to strengthen their individual work “environment”

These different types of motivation theories are simple in concept. What makes it hard is that all of the above mean building a healthy, vibrant work environment, and that work is as vulnerable as building any other effective relationship in your life.

Hopefully, in these posts on employee motivation, we’ve given you some signposts to help guide the way.

As always, we’re curious about your thoughts!


Stuart Jennings

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