5 Motivational Theories That A Project Manager Must Know About!

motivationMotivational theories are an important part of PMP exam syllabus. It is equally important that project managers understand the nuances of various motivational theories and reflect on them as applicable to their unique project scenarios. This will sure help manage team and other stakeholders better.

When team members understand how their work is making a difference – to the customer, end users, company, as well as themselves – it motivates them. People have different personal and professional needs and goals, and they need to know how working on your project would help them achieve these goals.

Some people may get motivation by getting good financial compensation, some may get it from a sense of accomplishment realized by doing challenging work, for some it could be promotion and for others it could be just getting recognized for their hard work.

Knowing what motivates each of your team members and helping them get those things will keep the team motivated.

Here are the 5 motivational theories brought about by the experts, that you may find useful in dealing with motivational issues of your team –

1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsFigure 1: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs [Courtesy: Wikipedia]

Abraham Maslow proposed a theory in 1943, which he subsequently published in his book in 1954. It came to be known as “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”.

Maslow’s theory is represented as a pyramid with layers of needs – basic needs at the bottom, and the subsequent layers above representing ‘evolved’ needs that motivate individuals. Bottom four levels of the pyramid are termed as ‘deficiency needs’ – which means that their absence will make an individual tense and stressful. The top layer goes beyond the needs of these four layers, and is driven by the constant need to become a better individual.

Maslow also concluded that these stages are not attained in pure sequence, man’s mind being a complex mechanism, needs from different layers are felt simultaneously, and they are interrelated.


Needs such as food, water and sleep form core and basic needs of human beings. Only after these needs are fulfilled do man’s actions get motivated by higher needs.


These are security of body, employment, health and family – which are a level higher than man’s physiological needs.

Love and belonging

After physiological and safety needs are fulfilled a man’s needs will be interpersonal and he needs love and belongingness with fellow human beings. Friendship, family, intimacy maintain man’s emotional stability.


This comes next. Humans have the innate need to feel respected, valued and wanted. The activities he gets involved (such as a profession, hobbies) give him a sense of contribution. Maslow identified ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ needs – lower needs are expectation of respect from others, and higher needs include respect for self. People with imbalance in these needs will suffer from inferiority complex.


This need stems from the adage “what a man can be, he must be”. This refers to the realization of one’s potential. This is a perceived need, in the sense that man needs to strive to achieve whatever he considers to be the ideal state of being. And this ideal state may differ between individuals. For one this may be becoming a selfless altruist, and for someone else this could be being a top notch athlete.

2. McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor developed this theory in the 1960s. He was a management professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and also taught at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. Theory X and Theory Y refers to the perception manager has of his employees.

Theory X states that a manager sees his employees as fundamentally lazy, and that they always are on the lookout to escape work. This belief tends managers to micromanage their employees, and results in mistrust and restrictive supervision. Theory X manager tends to blame others for everything.

Theory Y type of manager believes that every employee is self-motivated and can be trusted. And that they can think for themselves, accept responsibility, given right conditions they can perform well. This type of thinking builds positive work environment. There will be open communication, lesser hierarchy and collaborative decision making in such an environment.

Here’s a simple mnemonics that helps remember – visualize teacher correcting an answer sheet and drawing a big red X across the sheet on a completely wrong answer. This is something negative – and Theory-X believes that employees are inherently lazy and don’t want to contribute.

Theory-Y points to the other side – positive attributes given to employees by default.

3. Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory

Frederick Herzberg proposed Motivation-Hygiene theory in 1968, which states that content of a person’s job is the primary source of motivation. This opposes the popular belief that money alone is the primary motivation for people to work.

He proposed that ‘hygiene factors’ such as pay, job security, working conditions, fringe benefits, job-policies will only reduce dissatisfaction, and by themselves do not motivate people. Other factors such as levels of challenge, work, recognition, advancement, autonomy and opportunity for creativity are termed as ‘motivational factors’ that make people want to work.

4. McClelland’s Need Theory

David McClelland proposed that people are motivated by achievements, affiliation and power.

People who are motivated by achievements prefer to master a job or situation, prefer to work on task that are moderately difficult, and prefer work where success is based on effort (and not factor of luck), and that they would like to get feedback on their work.

People who are motivated by affiliation prefer to work with people in power and love to establish relationship with them, be part of such elite group where their work is accepted and respected.

People who are motivated by power prefer to work in positions of power (military, police and heads of departments) and they intrinsically want to influence, teach and encourage people. They place high value on discipline. They have zero-sum goals where for one to win, someone else has to lose.

McClelland proposed that people in top management should be motivated by power, and not affiliation. People with need for achievement will make good managers.

5. Expectancy Theory

This was proposed by Victor Vroom of Yale School of Management in 1964. This is based on the assumption that people choose a specific behavior based on their expectation of the intended result. He introduced three variables –

  • Expectancy (E) : Expectation leads to desired Performance
  • Instrumentality (I) : Performance leads to favorable Outcome (rewards such as promotion, salary increase)
  • Valence (V) : This is the importance one places on rewards, based on their needs, goals and sources of motivation

Expectancy theory can help managers in understanding how people behave, what choices will they make when alternatives are available. Managers can understand people’s expectation towards desired performance and tie specific rewards to outcomes in order to motivate them.

On a closing note,

We saw the motivational theories required for project managers to hone their craft. Have you seen the modern version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? 🙂
modern maslow's hierarchy of needs

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Francis November 5, 2019, 7:23 am

    Thanks shiv, this article and explanations have really helped me understand the various theories I need to know as a project manager..
    God bless you.

  • Chris McPhee, PMP March 21, 2018, 7:32 pm

    Thanks for writing this article. I am will be recommending my FB follows to review your site. So that they can prepare for the PMP Exam.

    Chris McPhee, PMP

    • Shiv Shenoy July 19, 2018, 11:18 am

      My pleasure, Chris! Thanks for the recommendation. I hope to help as many as I can.

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