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What is motivation?


A scientific definition of motivation:

Motivation is the direction, intensity, and persistence of a readiness to act, whether toward or away from goals (effective employee motivation). Within the context of work, motivation manifests in behavior through a gradual expression of direction, intensity, and endurance.

Motives should be distinguished from the concept of motivation. They represent individual reasons or drives behind human behavioral readiness. An individual motive could be, for example, the desire for social recognition or achievement. Motives are expressed in the choices individuals make regarding their behavior or how they define their goals. For instance, someone particularly focused on achieving high performance will select behavior that aligns with this objective.

Values, from a psychological standpoint, are another related concept. Unlike needs, which primarily seek to avoid or eliminate deficiencies, values are defined as desirable states or conditions. Values are oriented toward the development of positive states and can have a motivating effect both at the individual level and, on a broader scale, within organizations. Values essentially "reward" rule-compliant behavior within a company.


The word "motivation" has its origin in the Latin word "movere," which can be translated into German as "bewegen" (to move). In psychology, the term finds its research area in motivational psychology.


  • Incentive
  • Drive
  • Inspiration
  • Enthusiasm

Psychological Research

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Why do we do the things we are supposed to do? Two fundamental factors need to be considered. Firstly, there is intrinsic motivation, where actions are driven by the inherent enjoyment of the task, personal interest, or the challenge it presents. For example, someone might work on a project simply because they find it enjoyable, satisfying, or challenging.

On the other hand, extrinsic motivation propels actions due to the desire for rewards or the avoidance of punishment. One of the most prominent examples of extrinsic motivation is the factor of money.

Which Form of Motivation Is More Sustainable

"If you love what you do, you will never have to work a day in your life!" - Confucius was absolutely right. Work involves effort, and to exert ourselves, we need motivation. Money can certainly provide a short-term boost to productivity, but if we genuinely enjoy what we do, external factors become less necessary to drive us. A heavy reliance on extrinsic factors does not guarantee sustainable, high-quality work. Intrinsic factors are significantly more substantial. To achieve this, it is essential to give employees enough room for personal development and encourage the cultivation of their potential.

The New Motivation Research

In 1998, researchers John Barbuto and Richard Scholl expanded motivation theory by introducing additional factors:

Intrinsic Motivation

  • Internal Process Motivation: Doing something because it brings personal enjoyment, as seen when an athlete trains for hours purely for the love of the sport.

  • Internal Self-concept: This relates to subconscious ideal images we hold. The athlete trains to achieve their desired goal, with the motivation of achievement playing a crucial role.

Extrinsic Motivation

  • Instrumental Motivation: Doing something because you expect something in return, such as an athlete wanting to be paid after completing a competition.

  • External Self-concept: Similar to internal self-concept but focused on the ideal images held by one's environment. A team athlete takes on tasks associated with their position based on external expectations.

  • Internalization of Goals: Adapting the goals of the overarching structure. For instance, a sports team's goal is to win the championship, and the athlete works towards achieving the title of champion by the end of the year.

Milestones in Motivation Theory

In 2004, the most significant milestones in motivation theory were summarized in "The Future of Work Motivation Theory" by R. M. Steers:

  1. Hedonism: In ancient Greece, it was believed that the primary drive of humans lay in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain (negative subjective experiences).

  2. Utilitarianism: With the advent of scientific psychology, the view emerged that human behavior was determined by conscious instincts and drives.

  3. Libido: Probably the most famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud, placed the human sexual drive at the forefront of motivational factors.

  4. Basic Needs: Freud's contemporaries, James and McDougall, emphasized human basic needs like sex, the drive for movement, curiosity, jealousy, the thirst for knowledge, etc., in motivational research.

  5. Reward and Punishment: In the 1920s, learned motives were first discussed, which control human behavior through reward and punishment mechanisms.

  6. Positive and Negative Reinforcement: According to the famous researcher B.F. Skinner, people learn motives and behaviors that contribute to the satisfaction of motives through positive and negative reinforcement mechanisms.

Maslow's Theory of Motivation

Although Abraham Maslow's motivation theory is considered failed due to a lack of empirical validity in contemporary views, it is still widely known, and most people are familiar with it. According to the behavioral researcher, there are different levels of motivation or underlying needs. More precisely, there is a hierarchy of human needs that Maslow represented in a pyramid.

Maslow's hierarchy categorizes the lower three levels of needs as deficit needs, which must be satisfied first. These include basic physical necessities and social relationships, often referred to as basic needs. The upper two levels are considered growth needs, primarily describing individual desires. Examples of these might include power, money, career, and status.

The hierarchy of needs seeks to explain why people are willing to invest time and effort in pursuing a goal.

Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory

Although Maslow's motivation theory is not without controversy, it has led to various branches of motivation research. One of these is Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory, which distinguishes between satisfaction and dissatisfaction as separate factors to be considered. This implies that not being dissatisfied does not necessarily equate to being motivated.

Motivation Running Low? - How to Rekindle Your Motivation

Is it possible to regain motivation and tackle tasks anew? With a few simple tricks, you can positively influence your journey back to a motivated self. Below are tips and tricks that can help you rediscover your motivation:

Keeping the Goal in Sight

No one is motivated for the sake of motivation itself. Motivation is the force we summon to achieve goals. Therefore, it's essential to keep your goals in mind and define them clearly. Only then can you muster the necessary motivation to reach those goals.

One Milestone at a Time

Handling a task can be extremely demotivating, especially when the achievement of a goal seems unrealistic. It makes sense to break down the significant goal into sub-goals. Achieving one of these sub-goals can provide the motivation needed to continue. This way, you progress step by step towards your overarching objective.

Pressure Can Be a Motivator

Without deadlines for tasks, people tend to procrastinate on unpleasant tasks. Deadlines can create pressure and lead us to tackle our to-dos instead of postponing them indefinitely. Especially when deadlines are tied to consequences for non-completion, they can help you find the necessary motivation to address a less enjoyable task quickly.

Establishing Routines

While routines may not directly create motivation, they can help overcome a motivation slump and keep you going. Especially in sports, it's often observed that the longer you stick to a routine, the easier it becomes to muster the motivation to continue and maintain consistency.

Identifying Motivators

It's worthwhile to reflect on what truly drives you. Everyone has different trigger points that motivate them to work on their tasks. These motivators can be intrinsic or extrinsic in nature. Creating an environment that appeals to your motivational factors can be inspiring.

Identifying Demotivators

Just as there are motivators, there are factors that can significantly demotivate us. Recognizing these demotivators can help us avoid situations that trigger them in the future.

Employee Motivation as a Key Factor for Quality

For the employees of a company to deliver quality, employee motivation plays a crucial role. But how can companies influence employee motivation?

Establishing Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivational factors are often not sustainable and can, in the worst case, negatively impact the individual drive of a company's employees. Therefore, companies should promote conditions that can foster a high level of intrinsic motivation. One way to achieve this is through optimal work design, as illustrated by Dan Pink in 2009.


Autonomy means being able to experience self-determination. Employees can decide for themselves how tasks should be completed and actively seek solutions independently. Thus, employees should be encouraged to schedule their own time and exhibit a certain degree of goal orientation. For company leaders, this requires a high level of sensitivity and an understanding of when intervention may be necessary to avoid missing the set goal.

Support for Growth

When one makes an effort and repeatedly hears that the work delivered is not of sufficient quality, it can be frustrating. It is even more important to establish a culture of learning from one's own mistakes. This is the only way to create a sense of development and purpose. It is also important to identify successes and provide feedback. This way, employees have the necessary framework to continue their self-improvement.


Change is challenging and often a demotivating factor for employees of a company. Therefore, it is essential to explain the "why" behind a goal precisely. Only when one understands the purpose behind their actions can they commit to a goal adequately.


John Barbuto, Richard Scholl: Motivation sources inventory: development and validation of new scales to measure an integrative taxonomy of motivation. In: Psychological Reports. 1998, Vol. 82, S. 1011–1022.

R. M. Steers: The Future of Work Motivation Theory. In: Academy of Management Review. Vol. 19 (2004), No. 3.

Abraham Maslow: A Theory of Human Motivation.