Frederick Herzberg: Two-Factor Theory for Motivation

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How Will You Measure Your Life?" by Clayton M. Christensen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to learn about Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory? What are hygiene factors? How can this theory help you find a fulfilling career? 

Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory points out the difference between factors that cause job satisfaction and factors that cause job dissatisfaction. Understanding how these work independently and how to apply the theory to your own life can help you with career fulfillment.

Learn more about Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory below.

Frederick Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

Many people think incentives are the key to being satisfied at work, and they opt for jobs on the basis of the incentives they offer. Similarly, companies offer incentives in hopes of getting employees to do what they want them to. Both employees and employers are likely to be disappointed because incentives don’t make people happy in their jobs.

The first step to figuring out what motivates you is understanding two theories of motivation: the incentive theory and Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor motivation theory.

Incentive Theory

The incentive theory argues that people do what you pay them to do (that is, they do what it’s in their financial interest to do). For example, if you want executives to act in the best interests of shareholders, then align their interests with those of shareholders—for instance, tie executive compensation to stock prices so that execs make more money when stock prices go up (making shareholders happy). Executives focus on what their financial incentives tell them to.

This theory of aligning interests with incentives has been the rationale for huge executive compensation packages. Managers often adopt the same approach. It’s appealing because it’s simple—you can basically manage people by a formula.

Even parents often use incentives in an effort to get the behavior they want from kids—for instance, offering money for good grades.

But there’s a flaw in the incentive theory. It can’t explain why people working for nonprofits or serving in the military work hard without incentives or substantial pay. If not money, what motivates them? Another theory explains it.

Frederick Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory

This theory by Frederick Herzberg argues that certain factors in the workplace cause job dissatisfaction, while other factors cause satisfaction. Understanding the difference between hygiene factors and motivators is key to understanding Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory. The two sets of factors work independently of each other. 

What are hygiene factors? : The first set of factors is hygiene factors. These are things that, if not handled properly, will generate dissatisfaction. They include compensation, job security, status, work environment, management practices, and company policies. Companies have to address these factors or people will be dissatisfied. 

Pay is a hygiene factor (not an incentive). It has to be sufficient to prevent dissatisfaction—however, it won’t create satisfaction. Improving hygiene factors removes dissatisfaction, but it doesn’t make people happier or more satisfied. Dissatisfaction and satisfaction are separate measures, rather than existing on a continuum from unhappy to happy.

The second set of factors—those that create satisfaction—is motivators: These are things that make people love their jobs, including challenging work, responsibility, learning, the chance to grow, and the chance to make a meaningful contribution. The motivating factors are mostly inherent in the work itself and in the person doing it, rather than external like hygiene factors.

As you can see, the difference between hygiene factors and motivators is important in understanding this theory.  

(Shortform note: For more on how motivation works, read our summary of Drive, by Daniel H. Pink, here.)

Understanding Career Unhappiness

In his book, How Will You Measure Your Life, author Clayton Christensen realized that many of his former Harvard Business School classmates had struggled in their personal lives, and often didn’t enjoy their work despite significant professional accomplishments. A few, including Jeffrey Skilling of Enron, ended up on the wrong side of the law.

Motivation theory explains why many of Christensen’s classmates were unhappy in their careers—they chose them primarily on hygiene factors like compensation and job security, perhaps for good reasons such as paying off college loans, affording mortgages, and supporting a family.

But they’d gone to business school for reasons driven by motivation factors, not hygiene factors—for example, becoming entrepreneurs or solving social problems. Many people told themselves they’d stay in an unsatisfying job just for a few years until they became established financially. But as their incomes grew and they established commensurate lifestyles, they became dependent on their jobs and began to resent them, knowing they chose the jobs for the wrong reasons.

Money in itself isn’t to blame for professional dissatisfaction—it’s when people make money their highest priority, and continue to focus on making more money as the only goal after hygiene factors have been met. In some professions—for instance, trading—money is an indicator of success (traders make big money when they’re right). But people are nonetheless unhappy when they don’t have other motivators.

Applying the Two-Factor Theory

Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor motivation theory suggests that when seeking a job or career that will make you happy, you should look beyond whether a job meets basic hygiene factors and ask whether it meets motivational criteria. For instance, ask yourself:

  • Do I find this work meaningful?
  • Will I be able to learn and grow?
  • What are the opportunities to achieve and be recognized?
  • What kind of responsibility will I have?

It’s easy to fixate on the perks of success—salary, title, office—thinking they’ll make you happy, especially when friends and family see them as indicators that you’re a success. But focusing on hygiene factors beyond a basic level triggers a never-ending quest for more.

Don’t confuse correlation with causality in considering whether you’ll be happy in a job—hygiene factors such as money may correlate with a job you like, but they’re not what generates happiness; they’re more of a byproduct.

Focus on the factors that make you love coming to work each day—and the hygiene factors, after a certain point, will take care of themselves. When you love coming to work, you have an advantage over people just putting in their time: You’ll be motivated to do your best, and you’ll excel at what you do.

As you can see, Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory can help you to work out whether you are happy in your career. 

Frederick Herzberg: Two-Factor Theory for Motivation

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Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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