6.3 Theories of Learning within Organizations

When we think of learning within an educational organization, we tend to focus on three distinct needs of leaders: managers, subordinates and direct reports. As people are driven by an innate force to be actionable.  The ability to use that force within an organization that accounts for the persistence to do work is referred to as motivation needs. The need to be active either physically or mentally, refers to the inherent abilities that are present. But what if the condition is not present or unfulfilled? The concept of deficient psychological or physiological needs in a person are referred to as individual needs. People, regardless of status, have different needs.  Thus, theories that complement the motivation and individual needs of learning organization members can be developed.   Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, mentioned in Chapter Three, is a great tool for understanding these needs.  The Maslow Hierarchy can be simplified by Alderfer’s ERG theory. This theory builds on using and collapses Maslow’s five needs into three distinct categories[3]:

  1. Existence Needs – Psychological and material well-being.
  2. Relatedness Needs – Desires for satisfying personal relationships.
  3. Growth Needs – Continued psychological growth and development.

When Maslow is compared to Alderfer, the different needs required from Maslow can be placed in the ERG model. Essentially, this outlines the main factors of individual motivation towards growth and development or regression and frustration[4].

Comparing and Contrasting Alderfer and Maslow
Figure 2: Comparing and Contrasting Alderfer and Maslow. Long description.

Along with the ERG theory, there are two other theories connected with the topic of organizational needs: Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory and McClelland’s Acquired Needs Theory. In the two-factor theory, a binary model is used to exemplify job satisfaction[5]:

  • Satisfier Factors: nature of the job that is satisfying.
  • Hygiene Factors: work setting that is unsatisfying or “turned them off”.

With this specific theory, the members of the organizations and the different actions that are implemented for employee satisfaction are considered. One example would be an individual who works in a great work space with wonderful people and a great interpersonal culture.  However, that same organization might not align with someone environmentally or with regard to social responsibility. Most organizations do not align to one side when you take into account all of the factors.  Instead, most use a utilitarian approach to find the greatest number of satisfier and hygiene factors as the best options. On the other hand, if one hygiene factor is unacceptable, such as an extremely toxic work environment, that might outweigh the satisfiers of pay, benefits, and job security. Looking at the two-factor theory critically the binary model can be broken down to understand the given experiences and the weighting of actions.  The two-factor theory prioritizes importance.

The acquired-needs theory, developed by psychologist David McClelland, uses the experiential approach of needs through a Thematic Appreciation Test (TAT)[5]. The acquired-needs theory attempts to identify three needs:

  • Need for Achievement
  • Need for Power
  • Need for Affiliation

This theory proposes an in-depth understanding of another two-factor contrast between the dominant motivators and the characteristics of the individual. McClelland found that there is a correlation between the psychological characteristics and their acquired needs to be successful[5].


Dominant Motivator Achievement Power Affiliation
Characteristics of the Person
  • Strong need to set and accomplish goals.
  • Takes calculated risks to accomplish their goals.
  • Likes to receive regular feedback on their progress and achievements.
  • Often likes to work alone.
  • Strong need to control and influence others.
  • Likes to win arguments.
  • Enjoys competition and winning.
  • Enjoys status and recognition.
  • Wants to belong to the group
  • Wants to be liked, and will often go along with whatever the rest of the group wants to do.
  • Favours collaboration over competition.
  • Doesn’t like high risk or uncertainty.
Figure 3: Dominant Motivators and Characteristics Affecting Acquired Needs.

Motivation Theories

Motivation theories are organizational learning theories which rely on how people behave in order to motivate themselves to complete a task. There are four specific types of process theories of motivation:

  1. Equity Theory
  2. Expectancy Theory
  3. Goal-Setting Theory
  4. Self-Efficacy Theory

Equity Theory

Developed in the 1960’s by J. Stacy Adams, the theory of equity in motivation is based on the logic of social comparisons:  the notion that perceived inequality is a motivating state.  People have different preferences to equity which is described as equity sensitivity[6]. This means that perceived equity or inequity is the key motivating factor for motivation. Essentially, if someone believes “why work hard because I will never reach this area?” can be an idea of a perceived inequity. However, the inequity, in some cases, may only be perceived, and there are options available to use goals to build an equitable reality. In other cases the inequality is too overwhelming to match. It depends on the experience and the tools available to the individual.

Expectancy Theory

Developed in 1964 by Victor Vroom, it proposes that motivation comes from three expectancy factors[7]:

  1. Expectancy – belief that working hard will result in desired outcomes
  2. Instrumentality – belief that successful performance (quantifiable) will be followed by desired outcomes.
  3. Valence – the value placed on possible rewards and work-related outcomes.

The idea of expected outcomes, based on work, is at the heart of this theory.  It uses, in many ways, a reward/punishment model (i.e. Work hard and be so you will receive reward.). The variable is the understanding of valence and its connection to expectancy and instrumentality. Someone might want to strive to work hard if a truly life-changing reward is waiting in the balance, but another may be hesitant if the valence of the reward does not align with the individual’s context of expectancy or instrumentality.

Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valence = Motivation

Goal-Setting Theory

Developed by Edwin Locke in 1984, the goal setting theory encompasses both an idea of planning and execution. The idea of the theory is that goals can be motivating if they are properly set (planning) and well managed (execution) through four guidelines[8]:

  1. Give direction
  2. Clarify performance expectations
  3. Provide a frame of reference for feedback
  4. Set a foundation for behavioural self-management

The idea is if goals are well produced and followed-up, motivation of the individual in an organization are raised. This theory brings a deeper understanding to the concepts of scientific management in the area of planning, organizing, coordinating, and controlling.

Self-Efficacy Theory

Developed in 1977 by Albert Bandura, the self-efficacy theory is about being self-efficient. This means that the individual feels self-efficient or personally capable to perform a task.  In addition, there are four areas in which self-efficacy can be enhanced[9]:

  1. Enactive Mastery – confidence through positive experience
  2. Vicarious Modeling – learning by observing others
  3. Verbal Persuasion
  4. Emotional Arousal

The idea of self-efficacy can be cultivated through learning in an educational institution.   Educators look to instill a sense of mastery in their students, through many individual and collaborative exercises, to produce an emotional and holistic learning experience.

Argyris Theory

The Argyris theory proposes that when subordinates become passive in the workplace, individuals will become more regressive, and decrease their efficiency [10]. Leading to the single-loop model cycle of passive workers, leading to disenfranchised workers[11]. Perhaps to avoid a consistent cycle of regression is to base leadership and management decisions on individual behaviour with different types of reinforcement. With the Argyris theory seems to be a base approach to all members in an organization, however, using individuality may help to reverse this regressive method.

Bringing the Theories Together

Regardless of the organizational theory used, each one follows a stream of reinforcement. Reinforcement strategies are tools used by the manager to strengthen policies and procedures in subordinates within an organization. Reinforcement strategies were first studied by B.F. Skinner in 1948, when he coined the term “Operant Conditioning:”

The process of applying the law of effect to control behaviour by manipulating its consequences[12]

There are four principles of reinforcement strategie,s and Figure 5 outlines a tree illustrating them from management to the individual, and how each enforcement principle is relayed.

Review Questions:

  1. What are the two types of needs individuals seek within organizations?
  2. What are the three dominant motivators affecting acquired needs? What are their characteristics?
  3. What are the four types of motivation theories?


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Leadership and Management in Learning Organizations Copyright © by Clayton Smith; Carson Babich; and Mark Lubrick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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