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Content and process theories

The Distinction between Content and Process Theories of Motivation

Motivation is generally understood as the drive or the desire to do things. Sometimes financial rewards motivate people and sometimes it is just an inner drive to make a difference. People are driven by so many things – by their passion, by the need for money or financial security and sometimes it is for the sake of recognition. The sources of motivation can vary between individuals and not the same factor drives us all. A lot of research has been undertaken in the past several decades to uncover the factors underlying motivation. Research has identified the distinct relationship between motivation and behavior. It has a special significance in the context of workplace and performance.

It is why managers study motivation with keen interest.  The relevance of motivation can also be understood from the fact that higher motivation has been linked with higher performance. The productivity of the organization depends to a great extent on the performance of the employees. 21st century has seen companies focus on factors that drive motivation high and make the workforce perform. Managers are interested in motivating their employees so as to help them perform as per expectations or better. Several theorists have given theories regarding factors behind motivation. These theories primarily fall into two categories. They are the process theories and content theories. Content theories address what factors motivate people whereas the process theories address how the people are motivated.

Content theories:

These theories look for the factors inside people that cause, sustain or stop behavior. Their main focus are the needs that motivate people. Some of the most well-known names among the content theorists are Abraham Maslow, Clayton P Alderfer, Federick Herzberg and David C. McClelland. While the theories given by them have proved helpful at understanding motivation, they are still to be fully verified through research. Still, these theories have immense value in research related to motivation.  The content theories mainly imply that individuals are unique and may have unique sources of motivation. It would be useful for managers to understand the sources of motivation for each individual employee. The basis of the content theories is that absence of motivating factors creates tension that can trigger a negative behavioral performance. These theories suggest that when people do not get what they believe they need, they try to satisfy these needs.

  • Specific needs can give rise to the desired behavior. These needs should be identified.
  • Rewards can satisfy individual needs. Identifying these needs will help create an impact through the motivational programs that managers create.
  • Performance can be optimized if proper rewards are offered. However, it is important to ensure that the awards we offer are proper.
  • Needs can keep changing based on people’s experiences and other factors. It is important to design motivation programs to satisfy the changing needs.

Process theories:

The process theories on the other hand explore how behavior is caused, sustained or stopped by the motivational factors.  There are four predominant process theories that include reinforcement, expectancy, equity and goal setting. The process theories mainly imply that individual choices are based on preferences, reward factors and sense of accomplishment. Therefore, the managers should understand the process of motivation. The works of Skinner are cited most often in connection with the reinforcement theory. The main assumption underlying Skinner’s work is that it is the consequences (referred to as operants; that’s why the term operant conditioning) that affect behavior. The expectancy model focuses on the likelihood of the occurrence of the outcome. However, in case of the equity theory the main underlying assumption is that employees compare their efforts and rewards with other people working under same conditions. Another important process theory is the goal setting theory that was developed by J Stacey Adams, a psychologist for General Electric. The theory argues that goals have to be more specific to drive performance. This theory is also supported by research. Vague goals do not motivate employees, as do the specific goals.  So a few things that can be understood from the process theories are:

  • Goals are important to direct behavior.
  • Equity should be considered an important factor while designing the motivational programs.

While research has been unable to verify these theories fully, still they have provided us with a framework to understand motivation and its applications in various settings.  The importance of motivation has grown in the 21st century as organizations are focused on increasing productivity and deriving competitive advantage through human resources. In this regard the process and content theories can provide a helpful framework to initiate discussion and design meaningful programs.