How to make sense of the many theories of motivation

by Mike Clayton  - February 4, 2015


There are so many models and theories of motivation. How can we put all of them into a single, comprehensive framework?

This is a question I get asked a lot, and the answer I give is that you have to recognise two factors:

  1. The effects you are trying to explain or predict with the model or theory. For example, are you interested in what motivates people to make the choices they make, what motivates people to work harder, or why does motivation sometimes work and sometimes fail. McClelland’s needs theory is good for the first, Self Determination Theory for the second, and Vroom’s Expectancy theory for the third?
  2. If you are interested in what motivates people, at what level are you interested? The vast array of motivating factors can all be accommodated by recognising that motivation occurs at different levels, and I have identified four. Let’s look at them in more detail.

The Four Levels

In selecting four levels, I am taking an approach pioneered by well-known motivational thinkers, like Clayton Alderfer (ERG theory – with three levels of Existence, relatedness, and Growth) and Abraham Maslow (with his famous Hierarchy of Needs, with – depending on your interpretation – five or six levels: survival, security, belonging, status, self-esteem, and self-actualisation). My four levels are:

  1. Foundational factors – like survival, safety and security
  2. Extrinsic factors (which come from outside of us) – like economic and material rewards, and pleasures
  3. Social Factors – like friendship, belonging, status and trust
  4. Intrinsic factors (that come from within ourselves) – like pride in what we do, the freedoms to make choices, and the sense of doing something of great value.

The last of these is the subject of Daniel Pink’s excellent book, Drive. My worry, though, is that too many people will pick up on his broad messages and think that these are the only motivators that matter.

Clearly we are complex beings with a lot of different motivators, and I hope tis simplified model helps you to understand how some of them fit together into a wider picture.


It is also relevant to understand how different forms of power work on these different motivational levels.

  • Hard power works by promising or threatening safety and security: foundational motivators.
  • Economic power works by offering or withholding material rewards, or pleasures.
  • Soft power works at the level of relationships and the things that matter to us most.

When deciding what form of power to use, think about what level of motivation you can most effectively appeal to.


The Influence AgendaMore about using power and motivators in a
structured campaign of influence in my latest book,
The Influence Agenda.

This features a chapter on the use of Soft Power and also another on a fourth form of power: Hidden Power.

Learn more about The Influence Agenda at

How leaving my job made me better at it than I could ever have been if I'd stayed

Leave a Reply

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

You may be interested in

Malcare WordPress Security