What Motivates People to Come to Work Each Morning?

Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on January 14, 2020

What makes you get up and go to work in the morning? Are you in it for the money and the eye-grabbing resume entry? Or have you invested your heart into this job because it makes you so happy? Perhaps this seems like a loaded question? Well, that’s because it is—and the answer to what drives you to go to work every day is different for everyone. While one person might be motivated by productivity, for another person, the idea of focusing on the bottom line instead of personally meaningful projects is nothing short of horrifying. 

There are all sorts of motivation theories, and the manager’s role is to understand and exploit these theories to keep workers productive to secure the best outcomes for the organization. How they achieve this, however, could be more down to the manager’s personality type than anything else.  

Understanding Theory X and Theory Y

The terms ‘Theory X’ and ‘Theory Y’ were first coined by Douglas McGregor in his 1960 management classic, The Human Side of Enterprise. They describe two opposing styles of management. Theory X is a traditional hands-on, micromanaging and authoritative style of management that many long-standing businesses grew up with. Theory Y, on the other hand, is all about collaboration and trusting your employees to work effectively with little or no supervision. 

According to McGregor, which style of management you lean towards has very little to do with the capabilities of the people you’re managing and everything to do with your personal assumptions about what motivates people to work. 

Theory X managers assume that:

  • People are naturally unmotivated and lack ambition. They find work boring and will avoid it wherever they can.
  • Employees want to be told what to do instead of taking responsibility for their own behavior and accomplishments. 
  • Most people are not very creative, unless they’re attempting to cover up mistakes or subvert an unpopular rule.  
  • As a result, people must be bribed, coerced or threatened to complete their tasks and do the right thing—the carrot and stick approach.
  • People can only be motivated by money and the fear of losing their jobs.

Theory Y managers take the opposite view. They assume that:

  • People want to work. They choose activity over inactivity and, in the right circumstances, will enjoy working each day.
  • People want the freedom to take the initiative and seek out new challenges.
  • People seek and accept responsibility for their work and need very little direction.
  • Under the right circumstances, people are motivated to realize their own competence and potential.
  • People are capable of solving problems creativity, but their ingenuity is often underused.

Theory X management has fallen out of favor in recent years since, in the words of McGregor, it likely demotivates people in the long term by reducing them to cogs in a machine. Theory Y is widely regarded as the superior management practice. That’s because it encourages a more trust-based and collaborative relationship between managers and their team members and lays the foundation for people to create a meaningful career for themselves, instead of just being in it for the money. 

At least, that’s the theory. 

Which Type Are Your People?

If I were to ask you, your subordinates and co-workers which type of employee you are, I can bet that virtually everyone would roll their eyes and answer, “That’s easy, I’m a Type Y!”

But is that actually true?

When we look at people through the lens of personality type, using the theories developed by Myers and Briggs, it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to motivation. Each of Myers and Briggs' 16 personalities has a dominant or preferred function which guides how that individual goes about her daily business. We see how someone approaches tasks and challenges, and whether they will need micromanaging and coercion (Theory X) to fulfill their work duties, or whether they can fuel their inspiration on their own (Theory Y). 

For example, we know that ENTJ and ESTJ personality types are motivated to lead initiatives and develop their own plans and processes to reach certain goals. They want others to recognize their competence and decisiveness, and they love to discuss ideas and make plans for carrying them out. These types are the commanders of their own ships and keenly aware of expectations. The idea of a manager double-checking everything they do and controlling every aspect of their work process (Theory X) sounds like a terrible work environment that would leave our EXTJs angry and looking for an immediate exit. 

Those who type as ISTJ and ISFJ, on the other hand, are strongly motivated by tradition, duty and values. They want to do their very best in every situation and often stress over making the right judgment call. These types may benefit from a little more ‘Theory X’ style structure in the workplace because following the rules, and having a strong commander and sounding board above them, allows them to worry less. 

And for many of Myers and Briggs' 16 personality types, notably those who prefer Perceiving over Judging, there’s a risk that neither approach will work well on its own. These freewheeling types hate to go through the motions. Repetitive processes implemented day after day, and enforced with targets and deadlines by over-attentive managers is enough to make these types jump ship at the earliest opportunity. But at the same time, you cannot always count on these types to simply get things done. Many Perceivers are always going to be looking for wildly creative ways to complete a task and stay open to new information for some long they can miss important deadlines. From the organization’s perspective, this may not be the most efficient way of working and a little Theory X prodding could be the extra push that’s needed to help them achieve their goals.  

Tips for Using Personality Tests to Increase Motivation

Successful managers will probably use a mixture of Theory X and Theory Y to get the best out of their people, based on each team member’s individual motivators and the goals they’re trying to achieve. For example, a Theory X style may be appropriate for new starters who need a lot of guidance in the early days, or in a crisis situation where someone has to seize control of the rudder. But you wouldn't use Theory X when managing a team of ambitious EXTJs who are used to taking the initiative and need little direction. If you did, you may demotivate them to point where they rebel or quit. 

And you wouldn’t stridently adopt a Theory Y approach with procrastinators as it gives them too much opportunity to stray from core goals. For these individuals, assuming a little more managerial control helps everyone achieve what the team has set out to achieve. 

Here are some tips for using personality type to increase motivation. 

1. Use a business-focused personality assessment to identify who in your team responds best to which management style. 

2. Be very clear about what each type needs from managers and vice versa. Employees who like flexibility and are good at self-motivation will hate you if you treat them like slackers. Those who enjoy the security of an additional layer of supervision will flounder if you leave them to it without providing regular encouragement and feedback. Understanding this is key to keeping people happy and motivated.

3. Understand your own management style—most of us lean naturally towards an X or Y style of leadership. Also take note of your stress reactions, and how your tendencies change when you don’t feel like yourself.  Suddenly flipping from a participative, Y-style of management into a micromanaging X-style can be very confusing for people, so take some time to learn your own stress triggers.   

4. Partner with people whose style complements your own. For example, ISTJs tend to enforce organizational procedures and don't like employees who don't follow the rules. ENFJs, by contrast, give people the space to grow into their own potential. If these types got together, their complementary styles could offer balance. Together, they could identify and praise contributions that one personality type may not have noticed on his own. This can make all the difference between a highly motivated employee and one who is looking for a new job.

Jayne Thompson

Jayne is a B2B tech copywriter and the editorial director here at Truity. When she’s not writing to a deadline, she’s geeking out about personality psychology and conspiracy theories. Jayne is a true ambivert, barely an INTJ, and an Enneagram One. She lives with her husband and daughters in the UK. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.

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About the Clinical Reviewer

Steven Melendy, PsyD., is a Clinical Psychologist who received his doctorate from The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He specializes in using evidence-based approaches in his work with individuals and groups. Steve has worked with diverse populations and in variety of a settings, from community clinics to SF General Hospital. He believes strongly in the importance of self-care, good friendships, and humor whenever possible.

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