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What Are Process Theories of Motivation?

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The psychological and behavioral processes that motivate a person to act in a particular way are referred to as process theories of motivation. In essence, these theories examine how a person's needs will affect his behavior in order to achieve a goal related to those needs. These theories are typically used in a workplace context and there are several theories that examine how employees within an organization can be motivated.

The Expectancy Theory

According to Yale business professor Victor Vroom, motivation is the result of conscious choices we make that will either maximize pleasure or minimize pain. Vroom theorized that even though the goals of individuals may differ, they can be motivated to act together toward a common goal if certain circumstances are put in place. For this to happen, there must be a positive correlation between an employee's efforts and his performance, and a positive performance must be rewarded in a way that will satisfy an important need. For the employee, the desire to satisfy this need is so strong that it makes the effort worthwhile; the expectation that the satisfaction of this need will occur upon successful completion of a task will drive performance.

The Equity Theory

In 1962, behavioral psychologist John Stacey Adams developed his equity theory of motivation. Adam's theory posits that employees are motivated by fair treatment, which will in turn motivate them to treat fairly others within the workplace. Maintaining this equity, said Adams, is based on the ratio of inputs — the contributions the employee makes to an organization — to the outcomes that result from these contributions. The underlying belief is that employees who perceive themselves to be either under-rewarded or over-rewarded for their efforts will feel distress. The goal is to ensure employees are rewarded equitably.

The Goal-Setting Theory

Edwin Locke's goal-setting theory states that the setting of goals is linked to performance. Specific, challenging goals and valid feedback will contribute to better performance. The clearer the goals, states Locke, the better the performance. Goals should be realistic and challenging, which will allow the employee to feel a sense of triumph when the task is successfully completed. In theory, the confidence gained from achieving one goal will be transferred to a person's performance in attaining her next goal.

The Reinforcement Theory

An outgrowth of the behavior theories of psychologist B.F. Skinner, the reinforcement theory considers that behavior is shaped by controlling the consequences of that behavior. Any form of behavior that results in a consequence is called an operant behavior. Reinforcement theory focuses on the relationship between operant behavior and its consequences. In essence, reinforcement theory states that behavior that results in a positive outcome will usually be repeated, while behavior with a negative outcome will not.

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