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) and process theories look at the psychological and behavioral processes that affect and individual’s motivation.

Summary by The World of Work Project


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 of motivation are considered to fall into two main types of models: content models (AKA needs models) and process models. More recently, newer types of models have been introduced, but content and process theories form the platform on which manynewer models are built.

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.

The content model school of motivation theory is the older of the two schools, and is currently the less accepted among academics. Despite this, content models are the models that are most accepted and ingrained in management and leadership theory and the world of work.

Some famous content models include: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Herzberg’s Two Factors Theory, McClelland’s Theory of Needs, and Alderfer’s ERG Theory.

Process models of motivation

Process models of motivation focus on how human behavior is motivated. Instead of focusing on what people need, these models focus on the psychological and behavioral processes that humans follow. The theory says that by understanding these processes it’s possible to understand the actions, interactions and contexts that motivate individuals’ behaviors.

The process school of motivation is the newer of the two schools and the one that’s most accepted in the academic community at the moment. These process models are starting to influence leadership and management theory, though they are not fully embedded there yet.

The most famous process models are: Skinner’s reinforcement theory (which we’ve yet to write about), Vroom’s Expectancy Theory, Adam’s Equity Theory and Locke’s Goal Setting Theory.

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.


If you see any errors on this page or have any feedback, please contact us.

Most popular

Most discussed

click to book a call

Booking a call button
Our newsletter, the WoW Mail, covers all things related to the World of Work and the World of Work Podcast. You can sign up HERE.