What do Employees Really Want? Job Satisfiers & 4 Workplace Motivation Models

Feeling apathetic, lethargic, or unmotivated? Or, have someone on your team who feels that way? We're always looking for ways to stay focused, but sometimes life can get in the way. Unmotivated employees don't feel good about their own work. And, they are a real headache for managers, who find that they become a source of poor communication and lagging morale for others. Left to fester, loss of interest or job satisfaction can affect the culture of the whole company. So, how can leaders and HR managers motivate an apathetic member of the team?

In this article, we explain four major concepts in psychology: The Motivator Hygiene Theory, the Job Characteristics Model, the Hierarchy of Needs Model, and the PERMA Model. We shed light on the growing shift from employee wellness perks like free food and bean bags to more intrinsic, personal growth drivers of motivation, like digital mental health tools or leadership training. Read on for why these psychological theories matter in the workplace, and how you can build them into your team's daily success.

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What motivates employees?

Theory 1: Motivator Hygiene Theory

both provide motivating factors, and take away job dissatisfiers

One of the most famous theories of work motivation is the Motivator Hygiene Theory proposed by Frederick Herzberg. Hertzberg claimed that the most important question to ask when trying to ascertain what motivates employees is: “What do employees really want out of their work experience?”

In the late 1950s, Herzberg surveyed numerous employees to find out what particular work elements made them feel exceptionally good or exceptionally bad about their jobs. Herzberg compiled a list of certain job factors that were consistently related to both job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction. Herzberg said that there were two major elements involved in employee motivation and dissatisfaction.

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1. Motivating factors (job satisfiers)

These are primarily intrinsic motivators that lead to job satisfaction, like enjoyment or a sense of accomplishment.  Some examples of motivating factors are achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement, professional development, personal growth, or the flexibility to work from home.

2. Second, hygiene factors (job dissatisfiers)

These are extrinsic motivators, elements of the work environment such as reasonable pay, clean offices, or snack pantries. Some examples of hygiene factors are the company policy, supervision, working conditions, interpersonal relationships at work, salary and employee benefits, and job security.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Herzberg’s study is the implication that the opposite of job satisfaction is not job dissatisfaction. Herberg believed that proper management of hygiene factors could prevent employee dissatisfaction, but that these factors cannot serve as a source of satisfaction or motivation. For example, good working conditions may keep employees at the job but it will not make them work harder. But, bad working conditions, which are job dissatisfiers, can make employees quit.

According to Herzberg, a manager who wants his employees to be motivated must provide motivating factors and satisfiers. A job with many satisfiers will usually motivate workers, provide job satisfaction, and prompt effective performance. But a lack of job satisfiers doesn’t always lead to dissatisfaction and poor performance; instead, a lack of job satisfiers may merely lead to workers doing an adequate job, rather than their best.

The most crucial part of Herzberg’s theory is that intrinsic motivation is much more important than extrinsic motivation. Therefore, investing in tools that can support an employee’s personal and professional development, whether wellness benefits or leadership training tools, can make all the difference between someone who does the bare minimum and goes above and beyond.

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Theory 2: Job Characteristics Model

Make work interesting

Greg R. Oldham & J. Richard Hackman also proposed a very important theory to increase employee satisfaction and motivation. They proposed that when an employee loses interest in their role, it affects their motivation levels and, ultimately, their productivity. Loss of interest could be for a number of reasons, such as starting to find the work monotonous or that the work is not challenging enough for their particular skill set. Oldham and Hackman realized that repetitive tasks resulted in a demotivated workforce, who were actually far less productive than they had been before. Therefore, they introduced the Job Characteristics Model which was based on the idea that the key to maintaining motivation is in the job itself. They found that mundane tasks reduced motivation and productivity, and varied tasks improved them. They identified the most important aspects of a job that employees find motivational: 

1. Skills variety

Do tasks vary and are they challenging? Or are they monotonous and too easy?

2. Task identity

Do tasks have a defined beginning, middle, and end? Without this clarity it is hard to achieve satisfaction of an attained goal. 

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3. Task significance

Does the employee feel that their role has meaning and purpose?

4. Task autonomy

Can employees have a say in how they carry out their work? 

5. Job feedback

Are employees receiving feedback, criticism, and praise on their performance? 

According to Oldham and Hackman, if a job is consciously created to be varied and meaningful, with plenty of two-way communication, the employee will be more engaged with their role, and they will also have an increased sense of responsibility for their work outcomes. Interestingly, to link this back to the previous theory on satisfiers and dissatisfiers, communication can be seen as both. Great communication can motivate through clarity, significance, feedback, and autonomy. But poor communication, such as through conflicts, put-downs, uncertainty, or micro-managing, can be a huge dissatisfier. So, investing in tools that boost communication skills across the company can not only lower attrition (by removing dissatisfaction) but also boost motivation (by raising satisfaction). 

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Theory 3: Hierarchy Of Needs

make employees feel social belonging and self fulfillment

Abraham Maslow’s theory of Hierarchy of Needs can also be translated into the workplace to help motivate employees. According to Maslow, we all strive to go up this "hierarchy," first covering basic needs like food and shelter, then moving upward through belonging, achievement, and finally, self actualization. One cannot progress to the next level unless the one below it is met.

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1. Physiological

The lowest and most basic level and need that must be met is physiological. This includes access to a restroom, a place to access drinking water, breaks to eat meals and snacks, and a comfortable working environment. The next level is safety, which is also a vital need that can impact overall satisfaction with the workplace. It is crucial that an employee feels that their physical safety is valued and prioritized. An employee needs to feel that their resources and personal property are safe and protected.

2. Safety

Emotional safety is also important. An employee can lose motivation if they live in constant fear of losing their job due to layoffs or budget cuts. Unsteady futures can also lead to decreased morale in the workplace.

3. Belonging

The third stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is love and belonging. In the workplace, this translates to establishing relationships at work. Companies that host social activities and offer more opportunities for relationship-building outside of the office tend to have higher rates of employee engagement than companies that do not focus on these aspects of a work-life balance. When an employee feels like they belong, it is easier for them to be motivated to work hard and achieve results.

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4. Esteem

The fourth level is esteem, which is the belief that the employee is contributing to a higher goal and that the contributions that they make are recognized. It is important to feel like you are growing, advancing, and achieving results, and especially that others are recognizing it. When an employee has confidence in themselves and their abilities, and receives positive feedback and encouragement, they are more likely to be motivated and succeed.

5. Self Actualization

The final and highest level in the hierarchy is self-actualization. This translates to maximizing an individual’s potential at work. A person ultimately wants to feel that they are doing the best that they can in the position that they are in, and this helps them to feel motivated to continue on in their career path and eventually succeed. A self-actualized employee feels empowered and trusted, which encourages growth and engagement. One of the most important keys to ensure that employees can reach this goal is to give them opportunities that allow them to succeed. Employers should ensure that they are focusing on developing their employees’ skills and abilities while helping them find ways in which they can advance as leaders. To feel self-actualized, an employee should feel challenged without feeling overwhelmed or overloaded.

The most important aspect of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when it is applied to the workplace is that an employee cannot feel motivated unless their basic needs are met. So, employers have to meet a standard of pay, equality, respect, and so forth. Then, to really motivate employees, companies need to show them a path to get to self-actualization, the pinnacle we all strive for. This involves opportunity for personal growth and giving back. 

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Theory 4: PERMA Model

positive emotions, relationships, and meaning contribute to achievement

Martin Seligman proposed the PERMA Model to help motivate employees. PERMA stands for Positive emotion, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment/Achievement. These five categories are applied to the workplace and they are essential for employees to have long lasting well being and motivation at work. Positive emotion reminds us that to experience well being, for every negative emotion that we feel, we need three positive emotions to continue the current state of happiness. Therefore, if an employer needs to give his/her employee critique, they should also say three good things about the employee so the employee can continue to be motivated. Secondly, employees need to have “Engagement” in their work or tasks that they are required to do. Engagement in work creates a “flow” in which employees find themselves enjoying and concentrating on their work.

The opposite of engagement is distraction, so it is crucial to remove as many distractions and interruptions as possible. Engagement will help the employee remain motivated. Afterwards, we need to create relationships and resolve conflict in the workplace. Most people will spend a majority of their life at work, and positive relationships with kind, empathetic leaders, colleagues and clients will help to motivate and inspire. The next aspect of PERMA is Meaning. Employees need to feel that there is meaning and purpose to the job that they are doing. If they feel that their job is pointless, they will not be motivated to work on it. Lastly, employees need Achievements and Accomplishments to feel motivated in their work. Employers should try to give constant feedback to their employees to show that they recognize their good work. These five categories of PERMA will help promote productivity and motivation in the workplace. 

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In all cases of motivation, employee wellness and learning and development are essential

Whether you prefer the Motivator Hygiene Theory, the Job Characteristics Model, the Hierarchy of Needs Model, or the PERMA Model, these many theories demonstrate that across the board, bean bags and free food are far from the best ways to motivate employees. Especially in the remote work world of COVID-19, companies need to find innovative and digital ways to motivate employees. Especially among the modern Gen-Z and Millennial employees, motivating with workplace wellness is becoming the norm. With new technologies like online courses and therapy apps, companies can use this time to invest in the growth and fulfillment of their people: a true intrinsic motivator for increased productivity, efficiency, satisfaction, and retention.

Elisheva Hoffman
December 7, 2020


Ganta, V. C. (2014). Motivation in the workplace to improve the employee performance. International Journal of Engineering Technology, Management and Applied Sciences, 2(6), 221-230.

Burton, K. (2012). A study of motivation: How to get your employees moving. Management, 3(2), 232-234.

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