A critical assessment of Herzberg’s theory of motivation


American Frederick Herzberg (1923 to 2000) was one of the most influential management teachers and consultants of the postwar era. The ‘Father of Job Enrichment’ challenged thinking on work and motivation and conducted a widely-reported motivational study on accountants and engineers to develop his two-factor theory known as the Motivator-Hygiene Theory.

Herzberg’s research was based on in-depth interview techniques, called a critical incident technique. One problem with this approach is that respondents generally associated good times in their jobs with things under their personal control, or for which they could give themselves credit. Bad times, on the other hand, were more often associated with factors in the environment, under the control of management.

He concluded that job satisfiers are related to job content and job dissatisfiers are allied to job context. Herzberg labelled satisfiers motivators and called dissatisfiers hygiene factors.

The hygiene factors, which are mostly concerned with the work environment, can be explained through Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow was a famous American psychologist who determined that some human needs take precedence over others. Beyond the details of air, water, food and sex, he laid out five broader layers: the physiological needs, the need for safety and security, the need for love and belonging, the need for esteem, and the need to actualise the self, in that order.

The first three needs — physiological, safety and social — are all in the hygiene factor of Herzberg’s Theory. This tells us that the hygiene needs are generally the basic needs of individuals. This compatibility of Herzberg’s Theory and the Hierarchy of Needs proves that Herzberg’s Theory is different from Maslow’s only in the method of categorisation.

Herzberg categorises basic needs of human beings as hygiene factors. This means basic needs do not give motivation but merely create a conducive work environment. There would be no dissatisfaction among workers when basic needs are fulfilled, but it does not motivate them or give them satisfaction; it merely removes dissatisfaction.

The motivation factors are the two top needs of the hierarchy — esteem needs and self-actualisation needs. These needs, when fulfilled, would give employees satisfaction. Before satisfaction can actually be achieved, there must not be any element of dissatisfaction.

Thus, it is easier to actually apply Herzberg’s Theory coupled with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This serves to strengthen Herzberg’s Theory as it simplifies its application as a strategy to motivate employees. By identifying the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, the hygiene and motivation factors can be obtained and subsequently fulfilled. Herzberg recognises that true motivation comes from within a person and not from the environment, or external factors.

However, there are a few weaknesses in Herzberg’s Theory, one of which is the standardised scales of satisfaction. Herzberg did not take into account the various job factors that might cause satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Some job factor scales are not purely motivation or hygiene factors. Herzberg used a general standardised scale, which may have caused errors in his findings.

Apart from that, these unspecific job satisfaction scales are more likely to be general morale surveys, which means that they were not based on actual job experience or situation.

The validity of the deductions drawn by Herzberg is also questionable. Herzberg failed to recognise the existence of substantial individual differences. Different individuals might have different needs and thus, different motivators.

Herzberg’s Theory can be applied by managers to motivate employees. By identifying the hygiene factors, managers can fulfil the basic needs of employees and remove any element of dissatisfaction. When employees have no dissatisfaction arising from the job environment, they are in a better mode to be motivated.

By applying the theory, employees can be motivated by fulfilling their esteem and self-actualisation needs. This includes a sense of achievement when they have performed their jobs satisfactorily. Therefore, managers can fulfil this need by improving job content.

By improving job content, employees get a higher sense of achievement and work enjoyment. When employees are happy with their jobs, the general mood improves and so does productivity. Thus, the advantage of this theory is that managers are able to actually work on basic needs, once identified, and then go to more complex needs of employees.

This way, employees are more wholly satisfied with their job content and job environment. This could lead to organisational citizenship behaviour and work commitment. Employees who are have job satisfaction need minimal motivation from the management to actually perform well. When job satisfaction is high, employees are more willing to do more for less. This behaviour is termed organisational citizenship behaviour where employees indulge in discretionary job activities, which are not rewarded.

On the other hand, the Herzberg Theory can also be a disadvantage to managers where employees with low motivation needs are concerned. There are those who do not conform to the conventional Hierarchy of Needs. Usually less-educated employees do not have the need for achievement and self-actualisation. Basic hygiene needs are all it takes to satisfy them.

If managers fail to identify these types of employees, the theory could backfire if applied. Instead of being motivated and having a sense of achievement, these employees would only be overwhelmed by the work content. They might also be dissatisfied, even though their basic needs have been fulfilled.

Also, certain hygiene factors are motivators to some individuals. Take for example money. Money is a hygiene factor, based on Herzberg’s Theory, but it is a motivation for a lot of employees. It motivates them to work harder in order to gain recognition, which translates into a higher salary.

Herzberg’s Theory parallels Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, thus making it easier to apply. However, the methodological bias that exists makes the theory questionable to some extent. Managers can apply the theory to motivate employees by identifying the hygiene and motivation factors. Individual differences must still be taken into account because not every employee would appreciate this method.

Dr Lew Tek Yew is a senior lecturer in management in Curtin Sarawak’s School of Business, while Mona Abdul Manap is an alumnus.