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Motivation Overview
Sources of Motivation
Affirming Behavior

Contact information:

Dr. Richard W. Scholl
36 Upper College Road
Kingston, RI 02881

p. 401.874.4347
f. 401.874.2954

Did you ever consider what is means to be totally free-
free from the opinions of others and the opinions of oneself

~Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, Apocalypse Now

There is a growing realization that traditional models of motivation do not explain the diversity of behavior found in organizational settings. While research and theory building in the areas of goal setting, reward systems, leadership, and job design have advanced our understanding of organizational behavior, most of this work is built on the premise that individuals act in ways to maximize the value of exchange with the organization. In an effort to address these issues, some researchers have turned to self theory as an alternative explanation for organizational behavior. Specifically, social identity theory, self presentation theory, and self efficacy theory, are all fundamentally rooted in the concept of self. What is missing is a model of the self concept that clearly defines these constructs and explains how they can be integrated with traditional work motivation models. Specifically, four reasons fro developing a self-concept based motivation model are:

  1. The need to explain non-calculative-based work behavior;
  2. The need to better account for internal sources of motivation;
  3. The need to integrate dispositional and situational explanations of behavior; and
  4. The need to integrate existing self-based theories in the literature.


In the self concept-based model of motivation developed here, one's concept of self is composed of four interrelated self-perceptions: the perceived self, the ideal self, one's self esteem, and a set of social identities. Each of these elements plays a crucial role in understanding how the self concept relates to energizing, directing and sustaining organizational behavior. Each of these self-representations will be described and their interrelationships discussed.

The Perceived Self

The perceived self includes perceptions of three type of individual attributes. These include traits, competencies and values.

Traits. Traits are labels for broad reaction tendencies and express relatively permanent patterns of behavior. Fundamental to this definition is the assumption that people make internal attributions to individuals who consistently demonstrate a particular behavior pattern in different situations or at different times without apparent external reasons. Thus, traits become shorthand labels that we use to describe the repeated behavioral patterns of ourselves and others. For example, we use terms like ambitious, lazy, dependable, and conservative to describe the essential character of individuals, based on multiple observations of their particular patterns of behavior.

Competencies. A second element in the perceived self is competencies. Individuals hold perceptions of what skills, abilities, talents, and knowledge they possess. These can range from very specific skills, such as the ability to run a turret lathe, to more general competencies, such as the leadership skills to create and manage change. Perceptions such as "I am a good problem solver," "I am an excellent golfer," or "I am excellent at building a database" represent this second major defining element of the individual’s self-concept.

Values. Values are defined as concepts and beliefs about desirable end states or behaviors that transcend specific situations, guide selection or evaluation of behavior and events, and are ordered by relative importance. Individuals demonstrate certain values through their speech and actions.

Dimension of Self Perceptions

An individual's perception of his/her attributes (i.e., traits, competencies, and values), can be describe in terms of two separate dimensions, level and strength.

Level of Self Perception. This dimension 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 a hard worker (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 is the second dimension of the perceived, and refers to how strongly the individual holds the perception of attribute level.

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

The Ideal Self

p class="Body_Text">While the perceived self describes the set of perceptions individuals hold of their actual traits, competencies, and values, the ideal self represents the set of traits, competencies and values an individual would like to possess

Social Identities

Social identification is a process by which individuals classify themselves and others into different social categories, such as “woman,” “Methodist,” and “engineer.” This classification process serves the functions of segmenting and ordering the social environment and enabling individuals to locate or define themselves in that social environment. Thus, social identification provides a partial answer to the question, "Who am I?" Social identities are thus those aspects of individuals’ self concepts that derive from the social categories to which they perceive themselves as belonging.

Self Esteem

Self esteem is the evaluative component of the self. It is a function of the distance between the ideal self and the perceived self. When the perceived self matches the ideal self, self esteem is relatively high. Low self esteem occurs when the perceived self is significantly lower than the ideal self. Since the distance between the ideal and perceived self constantly varies depending on task and social feedback, self esteem is a dynamic component of the self concept and it is always in a state of change and development. There are three types of self esteem:

Chronic Self Esteem. This is defined as a relatively persistent personality trait or dispositional state that occurs consistently across various situations. Chronic self esteem is the result of past experience and focuses on one's competencies. An individual's confidence in his/her competencies directs the individual into situations which will require the use of those competencies.

Task-Specific Self Esteem. Task-specific self esteem is one's self perception of his/her competence concerning a particular task or job. Task-specific self esteem is the result of feedback which comes directly from observation of the results of one's efforts.

Socially-Influenced Self Esteem. Socially-influenced self esteem is a function of the expectations of others and results from communication or feedback from reference group members or society as a whole, concerning the value of an identity and the individual's ability to meet the expectations of the reference group and/or society as a whole.


Self perceptions are determined through interaction with one's environment. Processes of attitude formation, attitude change, and self attribution all contribute to the development of a set of self perceptions. When feedback is unambiguous, plentiful, and consistent, a set of strongly held self perceptions is formed. Ambiguous, lacking, or inconsistent feedback results in weakly held self perceptions. There are two primary forms of information one receives about the self from the environment:

Task feedback

Task feedback comes directly from observation of the results of one's efforts on different task activities. Completion of a project, accomplishment of a goal, and winning a competition are all forms of task feedback

Social feedback

Social feedback is probably the most prevalent type of feedback one receives regarding his or her traits, competencies, and values. It is the feedback one derives from the behavior and communication, verbal and non-verbal, of others. These attributions are communicated to the person in a number of ways.

Direct Attributions. Attributions may be communicated directly in the form of written or oral evaluation, praise, reprimand, or recognition. For example, direct feedback may be regarding a trait (you're too aggressive), a competency (you're an excellent teacher), or a value (you're an honest person).

Indirect Attributions. Attributions are communicated indirectly in a number of ways. An evaluative statement regarding a project or task for which the individual feels responsible is an example of indirect social feedback. Other types of indirect social feedback come in the form of inclusion or non-inclusion of the individual by group members in their activities, the bestowing of positions of status on the individual, and when others accept or fail to accept an individual's influence by acting or failing to act on his or her advice, recommendations, or orders. It is important to note that the feedback provider does not have to intend to provide feedback for the feedback receiver to interpret an action as social feedback.

Development of the Ideal Self

In the early stages of interaction with a reference group, whether the reference group is the primary group (i.e., the family for a young child) or a secondary group (i.e., one's peers or co-workers), choices and decisions are channeled through the existing social system. As an individual interacts with the reference group, he/she receives feedback from reference group members.

Inner Directedness. If the feedback is positive and unconditional, the individual will internalize the traits, competencies and values which are important to that reference group. In this case, the individual becomes inner-directed, using the internalized traits, competencies and values as a measure of his/her own successes/failures. Internalized competencies and values have been suggested as the basis of the ideal self and as an internal standard for behavior. For the inner-directed individual, the ideal self is determined largely through the development of a set of internalized goals and standards, and the individual becomes his or her own audience.

Other Directedness. If the individual receives negative feedback or positive but conditional feedback, the individual may not internalize or only partially internalize the traits, competencies and values of the reference group. This type of individual becomes other-directed and will either withdraw from the group or seek constant feedback from group members. Thus, the establishment of the ideal self is determined through a mix of external, or other-directed standards, and internal, or inner-directed standards, depending on one's orientation to the world. The ideal self of the other-directed individual is developed largely through the established norms and role expectations of reference group members. The audience for one's actions becomes the reference group, in that it is important that reference group members see the individual as possessing accepted attributes.

Development of Social Identities

Individuals establish social identities through involvement with reference groups in social situations. Reference groups provide three major functions with respect to social identities:

  1. The determination of the profile of traits, competencies, and values for a particular social identity;
  2. The establishment and communication of the relative value and status of various social roles or identities; and
  3. The basis of social feedback regarding one's level of these traits, competencies, and values.

Specifically, social identities link individuals to reference groups. These groups establish a set of role expectations and norms which guide the individual's behavior within each of the social identities. For example, the identity of an accountant may be associated with reserve and self control (traits), analytical ability and good memory (competencies), and honesty and free enterprise (values). Individuals who desire to be identified with the reference group will attempt to demonstrate the traits, competencies, and values associated with that identity. These aspired-to traits, competencies, and values serve as the basis for the ideal self. Once established, the attributes then reinforce the identity. The determination of the relevant set of attributes that comprise the identity is not fixed, but rather is the result of an interaction process between individuals and subgroups and members of the relevant reference group. Individual's establish at least two types of social identities:

Global Identity. The global identity is the identity one wishes to portray across all situations, across various roles, and to various reference groups. The global identity exists independently of any specific social identity. The reference group for the global identity includes those members of one's primary group, and the traits, competencies and values which are relevant to the individual are those which are reinforced by the individual's culture.

Role-Specific Identities. Role-specific social identities are those identities established for a specific reference group or a specific social role. It is this process of selecting and "earning" the identity that acts to define one's self to various reference groups. By "earning" the identity, we are describing the process whereby the individual meets basic expectations of the reference group (either formal or informal credentialling) necessary to carry out the role. As an individual begins to interact with reference group members in a role-specific identity, the global identity provides input to this specific identity. However, as an individual remains in a role-specific identity and receives positive feedback from group members, the role-specific identity begins to provide input to the global identity. The reference groups in these social situations (e.g., one's co-workers, friends, etc.) begin to perform the functions which were previously performed by the primary reference group. The individual is now exposed to the traits, competencies, and values which are valued by each new reference group. The identity-specific reference groups also provide the social feedback important in the development of the perceived self.

Identities may be thought to exist in a hierarchy, starting with the global identity and working through role-specific identities. As reference groups become more specific, the identity becomes more specific, and thus the attributes associated with the identity become more specific. For example, an individual may identify him/herself as an academic at one level, a member of the business administration faculty at another, and a finance professor at yet another level of specificity. As participation in a social identity continues over time, the reference group itself becomes the basis of identification, and the success or failure of the reference group as a whole becomes a source of feedback for the individual. As defined by social identity, social identification is the perception of oneness with or belongingness to a reference group. When an individual identifies with a social referenced group, he/she perceives the fate of the group as his/her own. The more an individual identifies with a social identity, the more the individual vests his/her self concept in the identity.


The structure of the self concept may be thought of as a relatively stable set of cognitions that provide the basis for the expectancies, instrumentalities, and valences in instrumental or calculative motivation. However, there is also an expressive component of the self concept, which refers to how an individual processes information (feedback, observations, etc.) and uses the structure of the self concept to filter incoming information and translate this information into action. The major purpose of developing a model of the self concept is to provide a unitary construct that is able to explain both cognitive and acognitive motivational processes. Self Concept based motivation can be integrated with other forms of motivation through the sources of motivation model: This model suggests five sources of motivation.

  1. Intrinsic Process Motivation: Individuals are motivated by intrinsic process rewards when they perform a behavior just because it is "fun". In other words, the motivation comes from the work itself. Individuals enjoy the work and feel rewarded simply by performing the task. There are no external controls regulating the behavior.
  2. Instrumental Motivation: Instrumental rewards are a motivating source when individuals believe that the behaviors they engage in will lead to certain outcomes such as pay, praise, etc. Rooted in exchange theory, the basic assumption is that individuals and organizations constitute an exchange relationship. Expectancy and equity theories are currently accepted models of motivation based on exchange relationships.
  3. External Self Concept-based Motivation: Self concept motivation is externally based when the individual is primarily other-directed. In this case, the ideal self is derived by adopting the role expectations of reference groups. The individual attempts to meet the expectations of others by behaving in ways that will elicit social feedback consistent with self perceptions. When positive task feedback is obtained, the individual finds it necessary to communicate these results to members of the reference group. The individual behaves in ways which satisfy reference group members, first to gain acceptance, and after achieving that, to gain status. These two needs, for acceptance and status, are similar to the need for affiliation and need for power. The individual continually strives to earn the acceptance and status of reference group members. This status orientation usually leads to an ordinal standard of self evaluation.
  4. Internal Self Concept-based Motivation: Self concept motivation will be internally based when the individual is primarily inner-directed. Internal self concept motivation takes the form of the individual setting internal standards that become the basis for the ideal self. The individual tends to use fixed rather than ordinal standards of self measurement as he/she at-tempts to first, reinforce perceptions of competency, and later achieve higher levels of competency. This need for achieving higher levels of competency is similar to what McClelland refers to as a high need for achievement. The motivating force for individuals who are inner-driven and motivated by their self concept is task feedback. It is important to these individual that their efforts are vital in achieving outcomes and that their ideas and actions are instrumental in performing a job well. It is not important that others provide reinforcing feedback as is true for other-directed individuals.
  5. Goal Internalization: Behavior is motivated by goal internalization when the individual adopts attitudes and behaviors because their content is congruent with their value. Some researchers have examined goal internalization as one dimension of organizational commitment.

Whether or not an individual will be motivated by his or her self concept and whether the source of that motivation is internal or external, are dependent on a number of things. As discussed above, an individual may have a high or low self concept, strong or weakly held self perceptions and utilize a fixed or ordinal standard of evaluation. These characteristics lead to individual self concept types and patterns of behavior. In order to demonstrate how the proposed model of self concept-based motivation can increase our understanding of organizational behavior, we will discuss two of these types as examples.

High and weakly held self concept, outer directed, using an ordinal standard.

These individuals are highly competitive and self presentation is important. They have a need to put finger prints on success and to disassociate with failure. A prime concern for these individuals is establishing blame when failure occurs or establishing credits for group successes. These individuals are status and power oriented with a strong need for external or social affirmation.

High and weakly held self concept, inner directed, using a fixed standard

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 thru task performance.


The motivational processes of expectancy, attribution, cognitive dissonance, and reinforcement have all been used to explain motivation. The following section will describe how each of these motivational processes can be understood by using the self concept as a basis of motivation.


The concept of expectancy is the cornerstone of the cognitive school of motivation. Expectancy theory posits that individuals choose among a set of behavioral alternatives on the basis of the motivational force of each alternative. The motivational force is a multiplicative combination of expectancy (i.e., the perceived probability that effort will lead to a desired outcome), instrumentality (i.e., the probability that this outcome will lead to a desired reward), and valence (i.e., value of the reward). In the self-concept framework, individuals cognitively assess the likelihood of given actions leading to levels and types of task and/or social feedback consistent with their self perceptions. The valence of this feedback is based on the value or values associated with the role-specific identity as determined by the reference group. In other words, individual behavior is a choice process that is engaged in to obtain feedback on traits, competencies or values which are important in relation to the ideal self.


The attribution process is concerned with the way in which individuals attempt to determine the causes of behavior. External attributions are those that are made when the observer (self or other) of a behavioral pattern believes that the actor is responding to situational forces, such as the expectation of a bonus. Internal attributions are made when the observer believes that the behavior is the result of some disposition of the actor such as a personality trait or internal value. Since the self concept is comprised of self perceptions of traits, competencies, and values, how the individual and others assess these attributes is important in the maintenance of these self perceptions. In this process, the individual attempts to have others attribute certain traits, competencies and value to him/herself. The traits, competencies and values which the individual wishes to have attributed to him/her are those traits, competencies and values which are valued by the reference group to which the individual aspires. In order to achieve internal attribution, individuals must behave consistently across situations and across time. For example, with respect to competencies, individuals must establish control over task/project outcomes in order to generate the type of task/social feedback which is consistent with their self perceptions. In order for success to be attributed to the competencies of oneself, the other-directed individual seeks this control so that others attribute the outcomes of the task/project to him/herself. On the other hand, inner-directed individuals seek control of the task/project outcomes for their own satisfaction.

Cognitive Dissonance

According to the theory of cognitive, inconsistency between two cognitive elements, whether they represent beliefs, attitudes, or behavior, gives rise to dissonance. Assumed to be unpleasant, the presence of dissonance is said to motivate the individual to change one or more cognitive elements in an attempt to eliminate the unpleasant state. With respect to the self concept, dissonance occurs when task or social feedback differs from self perception. When dissonance occurs, individuals attempt to resolve it by utilizing one or more of the following adaptive strategies which are the primary mechanisms which individuals use to deal with dissonance (i.e., conflict between their self perceptions and social or task feedback). The strategies may be cognitive, or they may take the form of acognitive scripts (i.e., patterns for behavior) which people call upon regularly when faced with disconfirming feedback. These adaptive behaviors include:


Reinforcement theory explains behavior in terms of the reinforcing consequences of the behavior. Individuals learn to repeat certain behaviors because they are rewarded and they discontinue behaviors that are either punished or not rewarded (Thorndike, 1911). Reinforcers are the stimuli that are presented to the individual upon engaging in a behavior and serve to increase the probability of that behavior in the future.  Task and social feedback which confirm self perceptions act as basic reinforcers. The strength of the self perception is a function of the relative amount of prior reinforcement. Perceptions that are consistently reinforced become strong and lead to a strong self concept. When feedback is lacking or inconsistent, the result is a relatively weak self concept. In other words, whether the self concept is perceived to be either high or low on any trait, competency or value, it is the consistency of the feedback which determines the strength of these perceptions. The weaker the self concept, the greater the need for either task or social feedback, and thus the stronger the self concept-based motivation.