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Motivation Overview
Self Concept Motivation
Sources of Motivation

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Dr. Richard W. Scholl
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If you are willing to give up getting credit, you can get anything done

~ Benjamin Franklin

The self-concept motivation model implies that an individual develops a social identity and a related self concept (a set of self-perceptions) that guides behavior throughout an individual's life. The details of the self concept model can be found at the following site: Basics of the Self Concept Motivation Model

This WebNote presents a number of ways in which the self concept motivation model can be applied to a number of important organizational issues and theories.

Affirming Behavior

An important element of the self concept motivation theory is a concept of affirmation (also called validation or reinforcement). Individuals constantly seek to validate their self-perceptions by looking for feedback from the results of their activities (Task Feedback) and from the behavior and comments of others (Social Feedback). Affirming behavior refers to the words and deeds of others that act to reinforce an individual's self-perceptions of competencies, traits, and values. This section will discuss the ways in which the behavior of others acts to validate or invalidate one's self concept.

Direct Social Feedback

In some cases, individuals are very clear in offering feedback to others. Statements such as “you are an excellent student,” or “I admire your honesty” directly reinforce an individual's perceptions of this competency and trait.

Indirect Social Feedback

In many cases, we do not get clear verbal feedback from others, but rather we infer from their behavior what they think about us. This inference or attribution process often leads to conflicting signals and incorrect messages as to what others are thinking. How do we translate an individual's behavior into feedback about us? In other words, how do we interpret the meaning of the behavior of others in terms of our own self-perceptions? How do we make sense of what others are doing around us? For example, what does it mean (in terms of our self concept) when your boss does not pick you for an important assignment?

Attribution of motivation

The first thing we do his attempt to figure out why your boss made the decision that she did. If she made the decision solely based on her perceptions of the relative abilities of you and your colleague, then her choice tends to invalidate your perception of competency. However, if you believe that she was keeping you open for more important assignment, then the choice is more validating. When someone does something we view as invalidating, we often ask, “Did she mean to do that?”

Types of affirming behavior

While all behavior is subject to interpretation, here is a list of kinds of behavior that individuals often view as affirming in terms of their acceptance in the group, the value of their competencies, their contribution to the group, and their status within the group. They range from simple signals of acceptance and liking to important signals of strong attachment.

Invalidating Behavior

Invalidators are people who use a set of self esteem reducing mechanisms to make you feel bad and make them feel good.

What Invalidators Do? The goal behind invalidation strategies is to put you down and make you feel inferior, incompetent, or unneeded. Invalidators pretend to support you by acknowledging some important aspect of your self concept (a skill, value, trait). They follow this supporting behavior by pointing out a shortcoming- again and again. The invalidator acts to keep you in a constant state of uncertainty through vagueness and lack of commitment. Just when you think the person likes or admires you, he or she drops the hammer of invalidation with a criticism, insinuation, or implication of your incompetence. This is often accomplished through body language and tone, and when challenged the invalidator is likely to claim that you misinterpreted his or her actions.

Why Invalidators Do It? The nature of invalidating behavior is control and power. Invalidators seek to control those around them. Invalidation is rooted in the insecurity and low self esteem of the invalidator.

Typical Invalidating Behaviors

Self Concept Typology

The self concept motivation model argues that there are two important dimensions of one's self-perceptions. They are level and strength of these self-perceptions.

Level of the Self Concept

The level of self perception refers to the degree to which the individual perceives he/she possesses this attribute. Does the individual see himself or herself as highly introverted (trait), or a very good tennis player (competency), or an honest and fair person (value)? This dimension deals with the issue of where individuals see themselves, relative to their ideal selves, and is directly related to the issue of high and low self esteem. It is manifested in High versus Low self concept. When determining the level of an attribute, individuals use two types of evaluative frames of reference.

An ordinal standard or frame of reference is used when the individual rates or compares himself or herself to others (i.e., how good is he or she relative to others). To be first or the best is the ultimate criterion when using this type of standard.

A fixed standard, whereby he/she rates or evaluates attributes against a goal or predetermined metric or criterion (i.e., to earn a bachelors' degree) can also be used. This may take the form of reaching a set of internalized goals or timetables.

Strength of the Self Concept

Strength is the second dimension of perceived self perceptions, and refers to how strongly the individual holds the perceptions of an attribute level.

Strong. Individuals with strong perceived selves are relatively firm and secure in their perceptions of an attribute level. These strong perceptions of self are a result of consistent and clear feedback and reinforcement regarding the attribute.

Weak. A weak perceived self is reflected in individuals who are relatively unsure of an attribute level, often resulting from conflicting or ambiguous feedback regarding the attribute. There is some uncertainly with respect the individual's perception of level.

These two dimensions of self concept can be combined with the Inner/Other (Self Concept Internal & Self Concept External) dimension of self concept motivation to yield eight basic self concept types. These types are:

External/High/Strong. These individuals have been consistently told by others how good they are. They tend to hold positions of high status in their social and work groups. They are so secure in their ability to acquire continued positive social feedback, they do not feel the need to behave in ways to keep this feedback coming. Since their perception of competency and sense of security is based on long-term continued social support, these individuals are vulnerable to a fall from grace, that is, a situation whereby they lose their status in their organizations and/or communities.

External/High/Weak. These individuals are highly competitive and self presentation is important. They have a need to put their finger prints on success and to disassociate themselves with failure. A prime concern for these individuals is establishing blame when failure occurs or establishing credit for group successes. In other words, is important not only that the group is successful, but that success is attributed to them. These individuals are status and power oriented with a strong need for external validation or social affirmation. When coupled with low self-control, these individual often react emotionally to perceptions of invalidation.

External/Low/Strong. These individuals are hard to motivate. They have been told that they are incompetent so often that this belief is strongly held. Any indication or feedback that they are or can be better is often disregarded.

External/Low/Weak. While these individuals did not have a lot of confidence in their abilities, they tend to seek improvement. They seek to associate with individuals that appear to accept them. Once they find an excepting peer group, they become prone to external influence (peer pressure) by members of this group and are often strongly attached to this group.

Internal/High/Strong. Individuals of this type tend to be confident and self assured. They tend to be sure of their abilities. While they might be motivated to perform at high levels, it is generally because of their identification with the goal and its benefit to others, rather than a means to prove his or her own competency. Therefore, while goal attainment may be important, it is less important that this goal attainment is attributed to their competencies and efforts, leaving them free to accept the ideas of others and give other credit for achievements.

Internal/High/Weak. These individuals set high standards for themselves. Each project is a test of their competency. These individuals seek task feedback and involve themselves in projects that test competencies and allow for this type of feedback. They must have ownership (control) over project outcomes. While they have a high self concept, this is not strongly held and thus they need to continually seek feedback through task performance. They tend to feel guilty when they do not do their best. These individuals are often called overachievers and are said to have a strong work ethic. Their perception of self worth is tied to continuously proving their abilities and values. These individuals tend to be achievement oriented.

Internal/Low/Strong. These individuals are hard to motivate. Constant failure has led to the strongly held low self-perception. Any indication or feedback that they are or can be better is often disregarded.

Internal/Low/Weak. While these individuals did not have a lot of confidence in their abilities, they tend to seek improvement. Since their low self-efficacy is not strongly held, they are likely to engage in activities whereby they can grow and improve. Task feedback indicating competency higher than their self perception can be very motivating to these individuals.

Self Worth

Self Worth is an individual's evaluation of his or her contributions and value. While the self concept is comprised of cognitive, affective and behavioral aspects, self worth or self esteem is thought to be the more limited evaluative component. The Sources of Motivation Model can be used as a basis for determining the metrics or evaluative standards people use in making their self worth determination. An individual's dominant source of motivation often determines the type of standard used in evaluating self worth.

Instrumental Orientation

People with a strong instrumental orientation, that is, those whose dominant source of motivation is instrumental, tend to evaluate their worth in terms of income, net worth, and material possessions. They feel good about themselves when they are good shape financially.

Self Concept External Orientation

SCE individuals let others do the evaluating for them. Their self worth is determined by their popularity, number of friends and status with reference groups. To feel good about themselves, these individuals do what is necessary to please others and gain their liking and respect.

Self Concept Internal Orientation

Those using an internal standard have one of two bases for self evaluation. The first is achievement and validation of competency. Their self worth is determined by the number of things at which they are good. They are driven to challenge themselves to validate high level skills. Feeling good means achieving. The second metric used by self concept internals is affirmation of strongly held values. To them a person of worth is a person who behaves in accordance with his or her values. The so-called “worth ethic” is a form of this standard of evaluation. To individuals holding this value, worth is determined by always working one's hardest and doing one's best. These individuals feel good about themselves when they have tried their best and guilty when they have not.

Goal Orientation

As we age, our standard of self evaluation tends to change. For some, they begin to measure their worth in terms of helpfulness to others and making a greater contribution to their communities and larger groups. Using this standard, the results of one's efforts are important in terms of doing good, special causes rather than their effect on validation of competencies or values or attaining status. Gaining public “credit” becomes less important that the impact of the deed.

Self Concept and related models

For most of us, our relationships are an extremely important part of our social and work lives. From friends, to families, to work groups we all depend upon relationships to help us get things done and for social support. From a self concept perspective, relationships are very important. As relationships develop and move from instrumental relationships (those that are formed for specific tasks) to more expressive relationships (those developed because of the intrinsic satisfaction derived from them) individuals become closer and develop a greater degree of trust. Why do we like some people more than others, and why do we choose to develop stronger relationships with these people? From the self concept perspective, we are attracted to people that make us feel good (we are in a positive affective state when we interact with them). Self Concept Motivation theory predicts that the greater degree to which an individual affirms our self concept, the more we like them and the more we are attracted to that individual. Likewise, we avoid and tend to dislike invalidators with whom we come in contact.

Organizational Culture

The subject of organizational culture and how it impacts the behavior individuals is covered in depth on the Organizational Culture WebNote. In this section, I will explain the ways in which organizational culture and the Self Concept Motivation Model are related. There are three fundamental ways in which these two concepts are related.

Social Identities. How does a culture control behavior through social identities? What is the relationship between organizational culture and social identities? A culture establishes a set of roles (social identities) and establishes role expectations (traits, competencies, & values) associated with each. A culture establishes the status or value/worth to the reference group of each social identity. This tends to establish the attractiveness of an identity/role to members (Think of how the status of firefighters and police officers have recently increased). The establishment of one's identity is a matter of individual choice and acceptance of that choice by the reference group. This implies that individuals select among their variety of social identities (high school kids selecting among jocks, preppy, goths, boarders, and a host of other identities). Likewise, members of these established reference groups act to either affirm or disaffirm these social identities of individuals. The important point is that to understand/predict one's behavior, it is important to understand the identity to which the individual claims, rather than any “objective” determination of the individual's identity.

Enforcement of Social Norms. Social norms are the most basic and most obvious of cultural control mechanisms. In its basic form, a social norm is simply a behavioral expectation that particular people will act in a prescribed way in certain situations. Norms (as opposed to rules) are enforced by other members of a reference or peer group through the use of social sanctions.

Why do individuals comply with social norms? What explains the variance among individuals with a group in the degree of compliance with norms? We can argue that individuals more dominant in self concept external source of motivation (those motivated primarily by means of acceptance, worth and status and other forms of external validation) would be most likely to comply with social norms. Likewise, those characterized by high/weak self concepts would be more likely to comply with social norms than with those with strong self concepts.

Shared Social Values. As a cultural control mechanism the keyword in shared values is shared. The issue is not whether or not a particular individual's behavior can best be explained and/or predicted by his or her values, but rather how widely is that value shared among organizational members, and more importantly, how responsible was the organization/culture in developing that value within the individual. How are values formed/developed within individuals? We like to think that our values are unique to us and an essential part of who we are. However, many of our values are derived from our reference group affiliation? Once we have internalized these values, they become an important element in our self concept motivation as we engage in behaviors that are consistent with these values to convince ourselves and others that we do in fact hold these values.

Emotional Triggers

In our discussion of affective motivation, we discussed emotional triggers. Emotional triggers are events, comments, observations, or task feedback that evokes an emotional reaction. For example, when someone criticizes you, you might get angry. Anger is one of the most common emotional reactions found in organizations. From a self concept motivation perspective, emotional triggers are most often the result of some form of invalidation. It might come in the form of harsh criticism, failure at accomplishing a task, or a disparaging remark about your character.


Many organizations have found a competitive advantage in empowering their workforces. Empowerment takes many forms ranging from allowing employees to set work schedules and implement process improvements to involvement in the strategic decision-making process. Empowerment has been found to benefit the organization in two ways:

Decision Quality. Better decisions through more information, more creative solutions, and more accurate mental models

Decision Acceptance. Increased motivation to implement decisions, often referred to as buy-in.

How is the self concept involved in this empowerment process? First of all, the simple act of asking for one's opinion can be affirming. More fundamentally, when individuals have developed an idea or plan, validation of their competencies comes through the successful implementation of the plan. Therefore, individuals tend to be more motivated towards accomplishing goals when they have developed the means of achieving these goals.

Expectancy Theory

One of the important components of expectancy theory is the expectancy belief (Effort à Performance probability perception) that is, the belief that one's increased effort will lead to increased performance. One of the most important determinants of an individual's expectancy belief is his or her self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the self-perception that one has the required skills to accomplish a particular task.

Control & Politics

Control is a fundamental part of organizational life. Control is often viewed as one of the five most important functions of management. In this context, control means the ability to exert influence over the decision-making and behavior of others. As managers, we need to be able to control people in our organization in order to direct them towards the accomplishment of common goals. For some people, control takes on added significance. Control becomes more than just a means to accomplishing organizational goals; it becomes an important self affirming activity. That is, these individuals need to control others as a means of affirming their own status and self-worth. At the extreme, these individuals are often called “control freaks.” This is similar to McClelland's concept of need for power, where the acquisition of power becomes an important goal in itself, rather than a means to an organization end.

While political behavior is fundamental to all organizations, as different stakeholders vie for what they believe is their rightful share of organizational resources, office politics is often a battle of egos that has little to do with effective organizational functioning. It is the need for power and control as an end in itself that drives a lot of his political behavior.


At its simplest level, conflict can be defined as a breakdown in a decision-making process whereby individuals differ as to which alternative to choose. This is substantive conflict. Substantive conflict is conflict viewed from a rational perspective in that individuals disagree over preferred courses of action based on either differences in preferred outcomes (decision criterion), or differences in mental models (cause and effect beliefs between alternatives in outcomes). However, conflict can also have an emotional or emotive side. While in some cases individuals can handle differences of opinion in a very rational manner, in many cases conflict gets heated as the parties to the conflict trigger an emotional reaction in their counterparts.

Most of the literature on effective conflict resolution argues that conflict is essential to an organization in that it is often the root of innovation and positive change. However, when conflict turns emotive, it can be extremely dysfunctional for the organization. The key to successful conflict management is to encourage substantive conflict while minimizing emotive conflict. How does substantive conflict evolve into emotive conflict? As individuals argue for their preferred course of action they often do so by minimizing the importance of the goals and mental models of others. For example, if I do not want a container port built at Quonset Point and you do, you might challenge my data, challenge my motives (all you are care about is your house value, you don't care about the rest of the state), or challenge my right to even voice an opinion. These actions can viewed an invalidating and have the potential of evoking a strong negative emotional reaction. This is what often happens when we have a fight with a spouse, girlfriend, or boyfriend. In the heat of the moment, we say things to the other party that evokes a strong negative emotional reaction. This fuels the conflict to the point that the substantive issue that started the conflict becomes secondary to the emotive conflict that has now developed.

Problem Solving

An extremely important part of the problem solving process is the identification of the problem. It was argued in the Problem Solving discussion that it is important to identify the problem in terms of outcomes (e.g., the behavioral gap) without identifying causes or attributing blame. For example, is better to state a problem with a particular course as, “students are leaving the course without a complete understanding of employee motivation,” rather than, “the professor is not teaching about motivation very well.” When problems are defined in terms of the skills, motivation, and personality of people involved in the process, it tends to evoke defensiveness in these people and galvanize them against change and improvement.

Likewise, how we diagnose the causes of a problem has the potential of invoking defensiveness when the diagnosis invalidates the self concept of certain people. Therefore, rather than use of diagnosis process as a vehicle for attributing blame, it should be used to identify the behaviors and processes that can be changed in order to bring about a change in the desired outcome. Returning to the above example, we can assert that cause of the student learning problems is “poor teaching.” When the professor is told that he is a lousy teacher, he is more likely to develop evidence of his competency and attempt to shift the blame to students rather than make any corrective changes to his teaching style.


The role of pay and benefits in an organization is most often viewed from an Instrumental Source of Motivation perspective. However, pay is also an important method by which many individuals come to judge their self-worth and affirm their status within the organization. From a self concept motivation perspective, pay is an important part of the social feedback that can either affirm or invalidate one's self concept. I once knew a professor who became enraged over the fact that some members of the department received a $300 merit raise while he received only $150 merit raise. From an instrumental perspective, this issue seems silly. The $150/year difference amounts to a difference of $5.77 (gross) a paycheck. No rational person could view this as instrumentally important. However, he believed that the difference in merit pay meant that the department chair believed that the other faculty members where twice as good as him.