What is motivation? Definition and meaning

Motivation is the reason or reasons why a person acts or behaves in a particular way, or the willingness and desire to do something. When there is motivation there is enthusiasm. Motivation is an internal phenomenon – it is within us – that drives us to behave and act in certain ways.

The term ‘motivation’ may also refer to a set of arguments or facts used when supporting a proposal, as in: “We submit the following proposal and motivation for consideration.”

In the world of business and management, motivation is all about the internal and external factors that encourage individuals to be continually committed and interested in their jobs, subject or role, or to push themselves in order to reach a goal or objective.

The BBC says the following regarding motivation in a business context:

“Motivation is about the ways a business can encourage staff to give their best. Motivated staff care about the success of the business and work better.”

Motivation and lack ofUnderstanding what motivates employees ensures that a commercial enterprise not only has workers that have the knowledge, ability and skill to do the job effectively, but who are also committed to do their best. Motivation helps companies become successful!

Motivation vs. happiness

A ‘happy’ employee is not necessarily a ‘motivated’ one. While the two states are related, they do not have the same meaning. A worker may be extremely happy, but does very little work.

A motivated worker wants to perform, even if he or she is unhappy. When motivation pushes somebody to reach a goal, and that objective is reached, in most cases he or she is happy – but that is just a consequence from a sense of achievement. When we are pleased with what we have done we are generally happy.



A workforce that is adequately motivated to excel will be more productive and engaged – each worker will feel more invested in his or her work. When individuals experience these feelings, they and their managers are more successful.

Motivation vs. incentive

Although motivation and incentive may appear similar, their meanings are, in fact, quite different. If I want you to ‘want what I want’, the best way is to pay you a lot of money – money is your incentive. As soon as I stop paying you, you stop ‘wanting what I want’. You only wanted what I wanted while you were incentivised to do so.

Motivation - the right and wrong wayThere are many ways to motivate your team members. You can guide them, encourage them to take pride in their work, teach them to appreciate the value of a job well done, and remind them that it is possible to reach their full potential. You can also scare them into submission with threats, penalties and punishments. The first way is more effective and longer-lasting.

Motivation, on the other hand, is a force within you, that you are committed to. People who are motivated are more generally enthusiastic about doing something for its own sake – perhaps because they think it is important, that their function matters; they take a pride in what they are doing.

If you want a team of people to work hard and well for you, it is possible to dangle lots of money – incentivise them – and achieve your purpose that way. However, you will have a more effective and successful team if the members care about what they are doing because they believe in it – they are motivated.



This does not mean that money is not a motivation – it often is. However, if you give employees more autonomy (control over their actions), the ability to bring their own ideas into the work process, help them believe that their activity is important and fulfills a personal value, and encourage them to improve their professional skills, their motivation will grow dramatically.

Put simply, incentive depends entirely on the promise of something from outside – something external. Motivation is inside the individual – it is internal.

If your workers are not proud of their efforts and results, their ability to perform effectively and successfully is only temporary. They will look for a position where they can derive pride from their work – where their work makes them feel good.

Motivation vs. inspiration

Many of us regularly use the words ‘motivated’ and ‘inspired’ interchangeably. While the two terms may appear similar, there is a difference between the world of motivation and inspiration.

Motivation builds in people’s mindset – it gathers their senses and pulls them up from laziness and inactivity to achieve something, to build something, to feel good about one’s function.

When we are motivated we work harder and better – we are more successful. Motivated people have a good sense of self-worth.

Confucius: motivation quoteMOTIVATION QUOTE: Confucius (551-479 BC) a Chinese philosopher, teacher, editor and politician, once said: “The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” (Image: biography.com)

A motivated mind is highly energized – it can be taken into any direction. The direction it takes you is your inspiration.

Inspiration is like that little light-bulb we see in thought clouds in cartoons – an idea that tells your mind to be creative. It shows you the path that you should follow.

If inspiration is the seed, motivation is the water. We can sow many seeds, but they will only grow with water. Inspiration does not get anywhere without motivation.

We need motivation to get things done. Typically, in the realm of motivation there is a lot of ‘measuring’ – check lists, goal posts, targets, etc. Inspiration, on the other hand, is magnetic, its reasoning does have to make sense – you just ‘gotta do it!’

Danielle LaPorte says on her website:

“What is motivating you? What is pushing you?”

“What is inspiring you? What is pulling you?

Winston Churchill: motivation quoteMOTIVATION QUOTE: Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during WWII, then again from 1951-1955, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, once said: “Never, never, never give up.” (Image: churchillcentral.com)

Managers and motivation

The responsibility to motivate employees to do a good job lies with their managers. They encourage their workers to be productive and effective.

How employees are motivated depends on several factors, including their age, socioeconomic and academic level, national culture, and the availability of work elsewhere.

Example of national culture: in Japan, when workers call in sick, their immediate manager will probably visit them at home after work. This is seen as a form of encouragement – the boss cares about his or her workers.

If this happened in the USA, UK, or other Western nations, the worker would probably think the manager was suspicious and came to determine whether he or she really was ill.

If you are a manager and want to encourage productivity, you should work to make sure your employees:

– take pride in their work, feel that what they do is important and has meaning,

– believe that good work is rewarded, and

– feel that they are being treated fairly.

Motivation, like intelligence or imagination, cannot be observed directly. It is inferred by observing an individual’s behavior.

Maslow theory of motivationThe five levels of motivation described by Abraham Maslow.

Motivation theories

Researchers have put forward theories that attempt to explain motivation in human beings, These theories include Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory and Drive Reduction Theories.

Drive Reduction Theories: theories of motivation developed by Clark L. Hull (1884-1952), an American psychologist. Hull proposed that individuals’ behaviors are external displays of their desire to satisfy physical deficiencies.

He believed that people are motivated to act in a certain way in order to minimize needs and maintain a constant physiological state. For example, we consume nourishment in order to reduce our need for food, or we drink water to avoid feeling thirsty.

Hull said that a ‘drive’ is a state of tension or arousal triggered by our physiological or biological needs. These needs include thirst, hunger, sex, need for warmth, etc. In his theory, he stated that drives give rise to our motivation.

Central to the drive reduction theories is homeostasis – keeping conditions within our bodies in a state of equilibrium (maintenance of a constant internal environment).

Hull’s theories failed to explain several aspects of motivation, such as why some people fast for long periods in protest, despite experiencing extreme hunger, or why individuals continue eating even after they are no longer hungry.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), an American psychologist, proposed – in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation, which was published in Psychological Review – that humans are motivated by a hierarchy of needs.

Level 1: our most basic physiological needs, including the need to drink, eat, to be safe, and have somewhere dry and warm to live in. If these requirements are not met, our bodies cannot function properly and will ultimately fail.

Level 2: our needs for social interaction, such as the need to belong. This need is more acute during childhood and may sometimes override the need for safety, as witnessed in young children who do not want to be separated from their abusive parents.

Level 3: our needs for esteem, which include our desire and need for respect for ourselves and from others. Esteem presents our typical desire to be accepted and valued by other humans. Individuals commonly engage in a hobby or profession to gain recognition. These activities give us a sense of value or contribution. Most of us have a need for stable self-respect as well as self-esteem.

Level 4: This is where we strive to realize our full potential – through our needs for self-actualization. Maslow once said: “What a man can be, he must be.”

Video – What is motivation?

In this video, Mark Anthony says he can motivate anybody, that is, if they want to be motivated. He emphasizes that motivation is not a goal in itself, rather it is the means to actually get to the goal.