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Process Theories of Motivation: Critical Assessment of the Three Main Process Theories of Motivation


Cite this item: S. Shafqat. (2021). Process Theories of Motivation. Risk Concern. Accessible at: link.

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Process theories are based on "economic models of human behavior, they assume that we make rational economic decisions when it comes to choosing our goals and deciding how to go about achieving these goals," these are "extrinsic theories, that attempt to identify the relationships among the dynamic variables that make up motivation and the actions required to influence behavior and actions" (Mullins & Christy, 2016). Three main types of process theories include the equity theory by Adams (1965), expectancy-based theories by Vroom (1964), Porter (1991), Lawler (1973), and Goal-setting theory by Locke (1968).

Equity theory is rooted in the principle of perceived equitable rewards. It is based on the social exchange theory, and it "focuses on people's feelings of how fairly they have been treated in comparison with the treatment received by others" (Mullins & Christy 2016). Thus, it is somewhat analogous to the principle of reciprocity, a law in social psychology. The principle of reciprocity states that people pay back what they perceive to have received from others, and a reciprocal expectation would mean that people also expect to receive what they consider an equitable reward for what they do or may have done for others.

Lawler expectancy mode hrm
Figure 1: An illustration of the Lawler expectancy model. Source: L. J. Mullins and G. Christy, Management and organizational behavior (Pearson, 2016; 11th edition)

However, simplistic assumptions or expectations that employees harbor may not always be met. An important critique worth understanding is that organizations are structured entities with hierarchical designs for governance and effective agency; often, these are pyramid-like structures or structures that have centers of gravity in terms of management and governance.

This means that possibilities of upward mobility or pecuniary rewards are limited, and this limitation may be a structural one, one that cannot be circumvented; this means that often only one person out of a few employees, section, team, or a group can get a promotion.

Similarly, often only a small percentage of employees can be rewarded via bonuses, etcetera. This means that feelings of inequity or unfairness are inevitable in organizations; arguably, these feelings are an inevitable structural flaw of all hierarchical systems that, by their very nature, can only furnish the expectations of a few selected individuals, based on strict performance-based criteria.

Thus, inequity, most of the time, in organizations functioning in a capitalist system, where the very survivability of the firm depends on efficient internal selection and rewards systems, can't be eliminated. Therefore, firms should strive to establish and design alternative mechanisms to address these feelings.

For example, if due to limited resources, bonuses can't be offered to all employees, the top management team (TMT) should try to provide other intangible benefits such as personal encouragement and praise. Or if only one person can be promoted from a team, others may be provided seniority grades or honorary titles to limit disappointment or feelings of inequality. Still, these 'solutions' can't be practiced repeatedly as some would feel frustrated by receiving only encouragement or honorary titles rather than tangible rewards or real promotions that enhance authority.

Expectancy theory is based on the notion that "people are influenced by the expected results of their actions" and "a person's behavior reflects a conscious choice between the comparative evaluation of alternative behaviors. The choice of behavior is based on the expectancy of the most favorable consequences" (Mullins & Christy, 2016).

Vroom's (1964) expectancy theory postulates a similar condition. Put simply, people's actions can reflect the possible results of those actions., i.e., what they expect in return for their actions. However, due to limitations, as discussed in the previous paragraph, firms may not provide employees what they expected in return for their hard work or behavior. For example, a group of workers may have gone above and beyond what is the minimum requirement, putting in discretionary effort, so that they may receive a reciprocal reward, i.e., a bonus or a promotion.

However, due to structural or financial limitations on the firm, only one or a few may be provided a promotion or pecuniary rewards. This example illustrates that in most cases, violation of expectations or violation of a psychological contract may very well be inevitable in firms due to hierarchical or pyramid-like structures and inherent economic limitations. This condition also partly explains the cause of prevalent and persistent atmosphere of demotivation in some organizations, and why, if it is caused due to the above-mentioned reasons, it may be difficult to change this condition.

Link of expectancy theory with motivation
Figure 2: Link of expectancy theory with motivation. Source: L. J. Mullins and G. Christy, Management and organizational behavior (Pearson, 2016; 11th edition)

Another important element worth mentioning here is that even though employees might be motivated to put in 'discretionary effort,' the avenues they choose to put in this effort are also important. How they apply themselves or avenues they may choose to put in this discretionary effort might not be ideal, or even correct, to achieve their desired rewards. This can happen when employees have inaccurate mental models and expend discretionary effort on avenues that don't result in outcomes they desired. Therefore, this puts another limitation on expectancy theory; this means accurate mental models are integral for the practical functioning of expectancy theory.

The goal-setting theory argues that work motivation is influenced by how difficult the goals are, how specific they are, and knowledge of the results. Goals that are challenging and specific, lead to higher levels of performance, and participation in goal setting can improve performance. It also argues that knowledge of results of past performance is necessary for effective goal achievement.

This means that in order to motivate employees, managers must design jobs with involvement and autonomy. Jobs should be designed so that they are challenging and provide personal development that's desired by the employees (Mullins & Christy, 2016). Mundane, monotonous work that an employee cannot see a greater purpose of, and has no say in, for example, would not encourage or motivate, of course.

Yet, some mundane tasks, or tasks that may be confidential, with the exclusion of the employees from participation in strategic planning, or the understanding of the greater purpose of the work, being a necessity. These types of jobs also must be performed by organizational members for the functioning of the business, however. This reality limits the implementation of the prescriptions of the goal-setting theory to specific, mostly managerial roles.

While it would be ideal to nurture motivation at all levels of the workforce, for all practical purposes, a theory that lays out prescriptions for such a goal may never be constituted, bearing in mind the present structural and economic realities. In the future, of course, with advances in automation, robotics, and A.I., it may be possible to eliminate the most monotonous and mundane tasks, tasks that must be performed for organizational functioning but are antithetical to the objective of attaining higher job-related motivation in the workforce. Presently, nonetheless, we aren't quite there.

goal-setting theory hrm
Figure 3: Illustration of goal-setting theory. Source: L. J. Mullins and G. Christy, Management and organizational behavior (Pearson, 2016; 11th edition)

To increase the influence of motivational factors for the jobs where it is viable to do so, managers use techniques such as job enrichment, self-managing teams, and worker empowerment. In addition, ensuring that the roles and duties that employees have to perform, encourage interest in these duties, and employees are able to see the broader purpose of their work, and how their work is relevant and critical for the overall strategic objectives of the firm, should nurture motivation in the employees, wherever these elements practically may be implemented.

Yet challenges remain, as explained in the previous paragraph. Another fundamental challenge goal-setting theory faces is that the focus it brings can induce a sense of tunnel vision in employees, where the primary focus on the goals diminishes attention needed for other challenges in the functional ecosystem (Locke & Latham, 2006).


Adams, J. S. 'Injustice in Social Exchange', in Berkowitz, L. (ed.) Advances in

Experimental and Social Psychology, Academic Press (1965); also abridged in Steers, R. M. and Porter, L.

Lawler, E. E. Motivation in Work Organizations, Brooks/Cole (1973).

Locke, E. A. 'Towards a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives', Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, vol. 3, 1968, pp. 157-89.

Mullins, L.J. and G. Christy. (2016). Chapter 1. In Management and organizational behavior. Pearson, 11th edition.

Mullins, L.J. and G. Christy. (2016). Chapter 7. Work motivation and job satisfaction.

Chapter8 Working in groups and teams. Pearson, 11th edition.

Vroom, V. H. Work and Motivation, Wiley (1964); also published by Krieger (1982).


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