There are numerous definitions for Motivation. Wikipedia defines motivation as it is the driving force by which humans achieve their goals and other theorists define Motivation – the process of arousing and sustaining goal-directed behavior. Motivation can be internal – explains the variables within the individual gives rise the motivation and behavior, process – accentuates the nature of interaction between the individual and the environment, external – concentrates on the environmental elements to explain behavior.

Low motivation could lead the individual to behave like, incapacitate, poor organizational behavior, low productivity etc. Mainly there are two kinds of motivational theories – process theories and content theories. As McClelland & Maslow suggested content theories elaborate why human needs change with time and suggest that every individual has the same set of needs. Contrary to this, process theories examine an individual’s cognitive processes. Content theories suggest that we all behave in a similar way so we all can be motivated in same way, whereas process theories suggest that every individual is unique and their motivational process is also unique, which means what motivates one person may not motivate the other.

To understand more about content theory we can examine the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s theory can be taken ad content theory as it assumes we all can be motivated in a similar way; it is a general model for human motivation.

As depicted in the above diagram, there are five stages of motivation. Maslow explained that humans live by bread alone – if there is no bread. But if there is bread, their desires come into picture. There are needs that every human has, needs like water (physiological), health (safety), and Love (social). But there are needs that are more important in a working environment - needs like promotion (self-esteem). At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization, only a small portion of people can achieve this and it is highly impossible for younger individuals. Maslow argues that once we have satisfied a need at one level in the hierarchy, its impact on us decreases and what then wields a more powerful influence is the need at the next level up the hierarchy. Therefore, a satisfied need is not a motivator anymore and a need in an upper level is not an effective motivator unless a lower motivator has been satisfied. Nevertheless, Maslow does not suggest that having satisfied one need we move on to the next.

There are two main criticisms to Maslow’s theory. First of all, it is obscure and cannot predict behaviour and secondly, the theory is said to be culture-bound. For example: Scandinavian cultures place a higher value on quality of life and social needs and European and Anglo-American cultures place a higher value on productivity, efficiency and individual self-actualization. Therefore, the needs levels can have a different order in different cultures.

As an example for process theory we can take Equity theory. . “It argues that the perception of unfairness in a social or organizational setting leads to tension, which in turn motivates the individual to act to resolve that unfairness”. The highest impact on this theory comes from J. Stacy Adams (1965). As the name might suggest, it “explores the impact of feeling poorly rewarded or indeed the opposite feeling, too well rewarded, on our behaviour at work. According to this theory, there is an effort-reward ratio, which people use to compare with themselves at another point of time or with their social referents. The effort-reward ratio is calculated by comparing our rewards (such as pay, recognition and many more) and contributions (such as time, effort, ideas and many more) to the rewards and contributions of others. This social comparison process is driven by our fundamental concern with fairness. When we see that we put in the same effort as our colleagues or individuals in the same work field but receive a lower (or higher) level of reward, we might experience inequity (internal inequity when within the same company and external inequity when outside of company) and therefore de-motivation.

Equity is an important part of process theories as it illustrates very clearly that we are individuals and have different perceptions not only of motivation but also of equity. For example, when calculating the effort-reward ratio, some individuals might include experience and seniority into the contribution part and their status in the company into the rewards part. Other people might consider their intelligence and training and desire to receive a higher level of recognition proportional to this. As you can see, because every person is unique in his perceptions, two individuals in the same company, doing the same job and maybe even receiving the same salary might feel inequity compared to each other, because they have a different perception of what is fair. Huseman et al. suggest that there are three types of people. There are the benevolent, people who prefer to give rather than take and therefore prefer their effort-reward ratios to be lower or at least have a greater tolerance of under-reward than their social referents. A benevolent is distressed by equity or over-reward. Another type of people are equity sensitive, who behave exactly in accordance with equity theory, strive to ensure that their effort-reward ratios are the same as their referents’ and feel distressed under the conditions of inequity or under/over-reward. The third type of individuals is the entitled, who believe that their effort-reward ratio should exceed those of their referents and are distressed under conditions of equity or under-reward.

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As you can see, if you look at the theories just by themselves, they have nothing in common. However, they are linked to each other, when looking at them from a manager’s prospective and trying to apply them into working life. To successfully motivate employees, the employer should not look at just one theory but trying to look at all content and process theories. By looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to motivate his employers, the manager should provide good working conditions, job security, a clear job description, communicational and social facilities and recognition for achievement. However, when taking into consideration equity theory, some problems might occur, when for example employees working under good working conditions (physical need satisfied) start to compare their effort-reward ratios and discover that for example someone who is less experienced has received a pay rise (internal inequality). This leads us to a major difference between these two theories. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs doesn’t put a big emphasis on money (compared to other theories, like Taylor’s); whereas the major point where individuals might experience equity or inequity is when comparing salaries. Equity theory is particularly well supported for conditions of underpayment, so managers involved in wage-setting therefore have to be careful to avoid setting wage rates which cause people to feel underpaid relative to others within the same plant or to comparison groups outside the organisation. Underpayment is a common cause of perceived inequity which can lead to conflicts (effort bargains), whereas the threshold for experiencing over-payment is high and feelings of overpayment do not appear to last very long.

Another difference is, that Maslow recons that motivation is an unconscious process and that we could not describe what motivates us by completing a questionnaire, therefore when thinking about the hierarchy of needs, we move through the levels unconsciously and cannot do anything about. With equity theory, on the other hand, (as mentioned previously in the definition) individuals can actually do something about it. If you take payment as an example, when an individual realizes that s/he is a) paid more or b) paid less putting in the same effort, he experiences tension and is either a) feeling guilty or b) annoyed, therefore the individual is motivated to restore equity and decides to do something about it, s/he then either a) puts more effort in to compensate or b) asks the manager for a raise or leaves hard work to others. Through that process we feel that equity is restored again and that our efforts and rewards are comparable with those of our social referents.

I have chosen Maslow’s theory and equity theory as examples for a comparison and contrast between content and process theory to show the fundamental differences of the two different approaches to motivation. Process theories focus on how we make choices with respect to desired goals and give the individual a cognitive decision making roe in selecting goals and the means by which to pursue them, whereas content theories are based on the assumption that every individual has got the same set of needs (some of them we are born with and lie in our nature) and that these needs are and should be used to motivate. However, it is said that individual behaviour is the heart of human motivation and that because we are all different, we actually have different sets of needs and different goals and therefore we behave differently. As I tried to point out before, it is the managers’ job to recognize our needs and provide us with an equal and just offer (bearing in mind equity theory) of what we need for satisfaction i.e. relationships, sense of belonging, intellectual stimulation, mental and physical challenges and self-development. However, I do realize that applying theories into practice is not as easy as it is on paper since you can’t satisfy everyone at once and in addition to that be fair. It might happen that once you have satisfied someone’s needs you might have caused someone else to experience inequity.

To sum up and to come back to the actual topic, the main difference between Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and equity theory is that Maslow’s theory (being a content theory) suggests that everyone has got the same needs which s/he is motivated by and that there is nothing really s/he can do about it, whereas equity theory (being a process theory) suggests that individuals have got different perceptions (i.e. of what is fair) and attitudes to work (i.e. the effort they put in) and therefore different cognitive ways to motivation.

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