Work motivation is defined as a set of energetic forces, internal or external to individuals, that help to initiate work-related behavior and determine its form, direction, intensity, and duration. It is one of the most studied and discussed topics in industrial and organizational psychology and extensively documented in meta-analyses and literature reviews. The content approaches to motivation show that (a) both mastery- and performance-approach goals are related positively to performance (achievement goal theory); (b) a promotion focus is positively associated with positive worker outcomes, while a prevention focus has less beneficial outcomes and relates negatively or not at all to such outcomes (regulatory focus theory); and (c) intrinsic motivation and basic need satisfaction are positively related to positive worker outcomes (self-determination theory). Context motivational theories indicate that (a) extrinsic incentives are associated with poorer well-being and creativity yet better employee performance (reinforcement theory) and (b) job characteristics explain up to 87% of the variance in worker outcomes (work design theories). Finally, the process approaches to motivation reveal that (a) expectancy theory is more useful in explaining choice behavior rather than energy investment or persistence; (b) setting specific difficult goals increases performance, even more so when feedback is also given, and that goal commitment is particularly important for goal achievement (goal setting theory); (c) goals allow people to more effectively process information, but the role of self-efficacy is less clear (self-regulation theories); and (d) perceived behavioral control is essential for intentions to behave (theory of planned behavior). Most of this research on work motivation has employed rather traditional research methods, such as cross-sectional self-reported studies that disconnect with work motivation theory focusing on dynamic processes over time.
Therefore, to properly test motivational theory and advance the field of work motivation, future research should use longitudinal (experimental) field studies, person-centered approaches, and experience sampling method studies to allow for the evaluation of motivational and behavioral variability as a function of time, work events, and individual and situational factors. In terms of content, future research should go beyond the study of separate work motivation theories and integrate them to better understand the content, process, and context of work motivation. Such an integrated theory should include the work context in a more structured and explicit way, also taking into account that contextual variables may operate in isolation or interactively to affect motivation and that workers also influence the work context. As such, time and individual perspectives thereof should also be better incorporated in such integrated work motivation theories.
Finally, there are a few “do’s” and “don’ts” for practitioners to enable them to practice evidence-based human resource management. First, following self-determination theory, one should bear in mind that not all motivation is good: Some types, especially those reflecting autonomous motivation (i.e., related to intrinsic motivation or experienced meaningfulness), generally lead to better outcomes than other, more controlled types (e.g., based on rewards or guilt induction). Second, goal setting theory is a useful perspective when developing performance management systems.