The World of Work Project

Motivation Theories: Content and Process

There are two main types of motivation theory: content and process. Content models of motivation focus on what people need in their lives (i.e. what motivates them). Process theories look at the psychological and behavioral processes that affect and individual’s motivation.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Motivation Theories: Introduction

Though people have been interested in the idea of motivation for a long time, the first real models of human motivation that people still regularly refer to originated in the 1940s and 1950s.

Since then, many different models and frameworks of motivation have been published. These models fall into two main types of models: content models and process models. More recently, newer types of models have been introduced. That said, content and process theories often form the platform on which these newer models are built.

Having a good understanding of different theories of motivation is a great help for leaders and managers at all levels.

Content models of motivation

Content models of motivation focus on the “whats” of motivation. More specifically they focus on the different things that people may feel they need in their lives. The theory is that people’s motivations will be based on acquiring the things that they think they need. Thus, by understanding their wants and needs, you can understand why and how people are motivated.

Four Famous Content Theories of Motivation

The content model school of motivation theory is the older of the two schools. Content models are currently very popular in management and leadership training and the world of work.

Some famous content models include:

Process models of motivation

Process theories of motivation focus on the “hows” of motivation. Instead of focusing on what people need, these models focus on the psychological and behavioral processes that humans follow. By understanding these processes it’s possible to understand the actions, interactions and contexts that motivate individuals’ behaviors.

Some famous process theories of motivation

The process school of motivation is the newer of the two schools. These process models are influencing leadership and management theory more and more.

Some famous process theories of motivation include:

There’s More!

You can read more articles on motivation by browsing our website. This guest article on Reversal Theory might be particularly interesting, as it’s a slightly more modern take on motivation. Reversal Theory builds on Self-determination theory, and brings together elements of both content and process approaches. You can listen to our podcast of Reversal Theory here:

The World of Work Project View

There are no clear answers when it comes to what motivates people. While the two schools of thought described above are interesting to be aware of, and hugely useful for both self-awareness and understanding others in the world of work, none of the models are strong enough on their own to be a go-to tool for fully understanding human motivation.

In addition, there are newer models that readers should be aware of and writers and researchers continue to explore and evolve our understanding of motivation. These models are a great foundation for understanding how many people think of motivation, but they are just a snapshot.

In our view, leaders and individuals should seek to understand the range of models that exist and try to take their factors into consideration when assessing their own behaviors, and those of others around them.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

In this post we’ve discussed many different models, so we won’t include sources here. If you follow the links to the models within the post though, you’ll find further consideration of source materials on the relevant sub-posts.

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