Motivation Theories and Professional Service Firms

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Professional firms are finding it difficult to retain their talent. Is there anything they can do to motivate staff? Here’s a look at what we can learn about motivating talented people.

Personality, abilities and experience are all relevant indicators to assess a person’s potential to perform the work required of them. However the best predictor of someone’s performance is his or her motivation. There are three traditional theories to explain how motivation works:

  • Satisfaction theories – a satisfied worker is a more productive worker. Sadly there is little empirical evidence that this is the case. However satisfied workers do tend to stay with their employees longer, so there are benefits to firms in maintaining useful know-how in the firm.
  • Incentive theories – workers will increase their efforts to gain a reward. This is generally thought to be true if the following conditions apply:
  • The reward is perceived to be worth the extra effort
  • The performance can be measured and clearly attributed to the individual
  • The individual wants the reward
  • The increased performance does not become the new minimum. In law firms that depend on collaboration and teamwork, the second condition above can be difficult to satisfy.
  • Intrinsic theories – someone’s reward is the satisfaction of a worthwhile job. This works best when intelligent people can work independently on challenging problems. It does not work when an individual does not have control over his or her own work. 

More recently, Charles Handy has developed a new thesis on motivation. He believes that a person will be motivated to achieve a result if he or she perceives that the result will satisfy a need he or she has and that the result is worth the effort required to achieve it.

Even more recently, Dan Pink in his book Drive says that three factors are required to increase performance:

  • Autonomy – this enhances greater engagement rather than just compliance
  • Mastery – this creates a sense of well-being through getting better at something
  • Purpose – to provide a sense that the work has meaning and is worthwhile

What are needs?

There have been many different classifications of needs, as follows:

Maslow’s hierarchy from the most basic to the more complex:

  • Physiological
  • Safety
  • Belonging
  • Esteem
  • Self-actualisation

Maslow thought that needs would only motivate to the extent that they were not satisfied and that higher order needs could not motivate until lower order needs were met. 

Hertzberg’s two-factor theory . He believed there were two factors which affected workplace motivation:

  • The hygiene/maintenance factors (environment, conditions of work, money, interpersonal relationships)
  • The motivators (the work itself, responsibility, recognition, achievement, promotion)

Hertzberg claims the hygiene factors address the question “why work here?” and will lead to dissatisfaction if not met (but not satisfaction if they are). The motivating factors help answer the question “why work harder? If they are in place they will lead to satisfaction.

McClelland’s work. He identified three categories of need:

  • The need for power (perhaps a necessity for owners and managers, but needs to be balanced to avoid authoritarian rule!)
  • The need for achievement (perhaps a pre-condition for successful people, but needs to be balanced to avoid too much individualism)
  • The need for affiliation (can provide the balance for the above needs)


Charles Handy believes that whether a person will be motivated to make an extra effort depends on whether the ‘E’ factors of effort, energy, excitement and expenditure (of time money or passion) are perceived to be worthwhile. He describes this as “the motivation calculus” which is made up as follows:

  • The strength of the need that the result is intended to satisfy
  • The expectancy that the effort will yield the result
  • The likelihood that the result will satisfy or reduce the need

The calculation is multiplicative; that is, if any of the three elements is zero the final result is zero (ie no motivation).

Other issues of motivation

  • Individuals belong to several organisations (work, family, social). It is not necessary for one organisation to meet all the person’s needs.
  • If the employer’s and employee’s expectation about efforts and results are not mutual, there are likely to be problems about motivation.
  • When money meets an individual’s needs, it becomes relevant only to make comparisons with other people.

Conclusions about motivation in professional service firms

 Different things motivate different people. Partners, other fee earners and support staff may be motivated by different things.

Professionals and senior support staff tend to be self-motivated, so it becomes important to avoid an environment that demotivates (ie Hertzberg’s hygiene factors), such as:

  • Being given poor quality, boring work
  • Being treated as subordinates
  • Always being criticised and never praised
  • Having independence stifled

For more on research findings on what motivates and demotivates lawyers, see

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1 Response to Motivation Theories and Professional Service Firms

  1. Pingback: Leadership Development in Just Two Hours (and less than 500 words!) | Tony Reiss

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