At the dawn of this new millennium, Miner (2003) concluded that motivation continues to hold a significant position in the eyes of scholars. “If one wishes to create a highly valid theory, which is also constructed with the purpose of enhanced usefulness in practice in mind, it would be best to look to motivation theories . . . for an appropriate model”. Miner’s conclusion is based on a comparison with other middle range theories of organizational behavior (OB). The question remains as to whether, on an absolute standard, motivation theory and research have fared well over the last quarter of a century. In answering this question, we provide a definition of the construct and an assessment of how the field of motivation in the workplace has evolved and progressed since the year in which the last chapter (Korman et al. 1977) devoted exclusively to this topic appeared in the Annual Review of Psychology (ARP).

We selectively review theory and research, emphasizing work published in the past decade, 1993–2003, with special emphasis given to research on contextual effects and mediating mechanisms. This is because scholars (e.g., Pinder 1998) have pointed to the power of context to moderate opportunities for, and constraints against, organizational behavior. In addressing this issue, the chapter concludes with an assessment of the degree to which progress has been made to predict, understand, and influence motivation in the workplace.

Work motivation is a set of energetic forces that originate both within as well as beyond an individual’s being, to initiate work-related behavior and to determine its form, direction, intensity, and duration (Pinder 1998). Thus, motivation is a psychological process resulting from the interaction between the individual and the environment. Accordingly, the importance of context is acknowledged throughout our analysis.

However, because of space limitations, we focus primarily on national culture, job design characteristics, and person-environment fit, omitting reviews of other exogenous sources of motivation (e.g., organization climate and culture, leadership, and groups and teams). Job design is traditionally included in reviews of motivation. National culture and person-environment fit are relatively new to this literature, hence our choice of these three contextual variables.

The role of human motivation has always been considered by psychologists to be a very difficult undertaking, especially because motivation is something inside the organism. But the fundamental difficulty has actually been self imposed or, more specifically, imposed by false philosophical assumptions. Two key assumptions were that: (a) only material events could be causal, and (b) only entities that were directly, externally, perceivable could be admitted into the realm of science. Accepting these positivist premises meant that: (a) consciousness could not be considered a cause of action; and (b) making valid inferences about internal events, especially if they were mental events in other people, was logically impermissible.


Historically, motivational psychologists have tried to conform to these strictures by externalizing or materializing their key concepts. Skinnerian behaviorism, for example, externalized motivation by attributing it to reinforcers (consequences of action) and treating the human mind as an epiphenomenon. Drive-reduction theorists like Hull kept motivation inside the organism but attributed it to strictly physiological mechanisms. Both approaches assumed the validity of psychological determinism—the doctrine that man has no choice with respect to his beliefs, choices, thinking or actions. Both also barred introspection as a scientific method on the grounds that it could not be publicly verified and that, even if it were, the data obtained thereby were causally insignificant (due to determinism or materialism).

Beginning in the late 1960s the positivist paradigm in psychology began to fall apart for a number of reasons. First, it had lost support in philosophy (e.g., Blanshard, 1962). Second, the materialist approaches did not work. Human action cannot, in fact, be understood by looking at man only from the outside or only at his internal physiology.The recognition of these facts ushered in the “cognitive revolution” in psychology; it became the dominant paradigm by the end of the 1970s or early 1980s.