The Psychology of Motivation

The Psychology of Motivation

Legendary psychologist Abraham H. Maslow once philosophically stated: “What a man can be, he must be”. Some might say this is the true definition of motivation – the innate need to be all that one can be.

But what drives a person to start and continue the journey to be all that they can be? And, more importantly, how can you, as a project manager, enhance motivation in your employees?

In order to enhance motivation, you must first understand it. Therefore, this week we will discuss the ins-and-outs of motivation, and stay tuned next week for information on how to motivate others.

Understanding Motivation

Perhaps the most famous explanation psychology offers for motivation is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. According to Abraham Maslow, humans must fulfill 5 different types of needs. These needs are typically arranged into the pyramid shape you see below. According to Maslow, meeting these 5 needs is the motivating factor behind why people do what they do.

The Psychology of Motivation

    • At the base of the pyramid lie Physiological Needs. This category encompasses the physiological needs for survival (i.e. food, air, and water). Because the human body cannot function without these needs being met, physiological needs are considered most important and must be met first.
  • Just above physiological needs are Safety Needs. This category includes both physical safety (i.e. absence of war, natural disasters, violence, etc.) and economic safety, which includes personal and financial security, as well as health, well-being and safety nets (e.g. insurance policies).


  • Once physiological needs and safety needs are met, people will naturally move on to tackle the Need For Love And Belonging. When this need is not met, people have difficulty forming and maintaining interpersonal relationship. In fact, love and belonging are necessary for survival. If you don’t believe me, read the study on baby monkeys who were purposefully separated from their mothers at birth.


  • So, once people are healthy, safe, and develop stable interpersonal relationships, they will turn inward to master the Need for Esteem, which is the next level of the pyramid. We are driven establish self-esteem and self-respect – we want to be accepted and valued by others. People often use their profession hobbies, or familial roles to fulfill this need.


  • Those people who accomplish the first four levels of the needs pyramid will turn to activities that meet the final need – the Need for Self-Actualization. Self-actualization can be described as the fine-tuning of the self. This is where the need to become the most that one can be, whether that is an ideal parent, an exceptional athlete, or a renowned artist. Basically, this is when we want to master a particular part of ourselves that sets us apart from others.


According to Maslow, the innate need to fulfill and master these 5 needs is what drives motivation. However, although Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs makes sense on paper, modern society seems to have outgrown it.

Current-day society, with its modern medicine, air transportation, and Xbox, has successfully knocked out the first 4 levels of Maslow’s pyramid. Most people have food and water, most (sadly not all)are safe, have friends, and feel relatively good about themselves.

So then what motivates us? This is where the quest for self-actualization takes the stage.

Some people claim to have already achieved self actualization. But, reality says that in most cases, this is just hopeful speaking. Unless they’re a Tibetan Monk, it is highly unlikely that these individuals have fully achieved self-actualization.

The word ‘fully’ is emphasized here because many people have indeed achieved certain components of self-actualization, but have not reached comprehensive self-actualization. However, the components of self-actualization, which Maslow coined ‘meta-motivators’ play an important role in motivation

Meta-motivators can be thought of as stepping-stones to full self-actualization. The more of them you master, the more self-actualized you are.

When you read through the list of meta-motivators below, think about which of them drives you the most. As a project manager, the important thing for you to remember is that everybody is different – one meta-motivator may drive you to pull an all-nighter but fail to get another person off the couch.

Maslow’s Meta-Motivators

  • Liveliness
  • Creativity
  • Goodness
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Uniqueness
  • Complexity
  • Autonomy
  • Wholeness
  • Justice
  • Unity
  • Purpose
  • Spontaneity
  • Individuality
  • Completeness
  • Harmony
  • Perfection
  • Simplicity
  • Fairness
  • Beauty
  • Truth
  • Moral
  • Playfulness
  • Benevolence

So, while most of us have mastered at least several meta-motivators, few can maintain full self-actualization in every aspect of their lives.

Meta-Motivators = Mega Motivation

How do meta-motivators motivate? What is the mechanism that underlies their motivational power?.

If we discuss this concept in terms of cognitive gaps, this becomes quite clear. Life creates gaps between what we have and what we want, and reconciling these gaps is what motivates us. In psychology, the mental and emotional tension created by these gaps is termed Cognitive Dissonance. When we experience the tension that these gaps create, we will do anything to make it go away.

Meta-motivators are notorious for creating gaps. Take the meta-motivator self-sufficiency for example. Most of us want to be self-sufficient, but this means we have to get off the couch and go to work. The love for lounging on the couch and the desire for self-sufficiency create a cognitive dissonance gap. We don’t like the way this gap makes us feel, so we act in a way that makes it go away – we get off the couch and go to work.

4 Cognitive Dissonance Gaps That Motivate:

  • The gap between what is and what could be
  • The gap between what was and what is
  • The gap between what I want and what I do not want
  • The gap between what I have and what I do not have


A cognitive dissonance gap can bring about uncomfortable emotions such as frustration, guilt, anger, embarrassment, shame, etc. Obviously no one likes feeling like a pincushion for such negative emotions, thus we will change our values, beliefs, and ideas in ways that alter our behavior in effort to rid ourselves of this feeling.

For example, lets say an employee is frustrated because he or she can’t pay his bills but they don’t want to work any harder. In order to become motivated to work harder, the tension caused by the need for more money and the feeling of laziness must eventually increase the frustration enough for the employee to decide to step things up at work to earn that raise. Cognitive dissonance is one of the most fundamental, influential, and studied theories in psychology. This is because peoples’ efforts to reduce the negative feelings created by cognitive dissonance is what drives our intentions and behaviors.

In other words, cognitive dissonance is the driving force behind motivation.

So, the key for you as a project manager is to decrease distracting cognitive dissonance gaps while increase motivating gaps. Tips on how to do this will be discussed next week.

In the meantime, using the information above, reflect upon what motivates you and why. Ask yourself, Why do I get up in the morning? What motivates me to crawl out of my den of blankets and face the day?

Take a moment to think about it – because what motivates you is likely to be the same types of things that motivate your employees. This reflection may give you new perspective on what motivates your employees.


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About the author

David is a Project Management expert. He has been published in,, and eLearningIndustry. As a project planning and execution expert at ProProfs, he has offered a unique outlook on improving workflows and team efficiency.Connect with David for more engaging conversations on Twiiter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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