Original Research

Generational differences in workplace motivation

Marita M. Heyns, Marilyn D. Kerr
SA Journal of Human Resource Management | Vol 16 | a967 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajhrm.v16i0.967 | © 2018 Marita M. Heyns, Marilyn D. Kerr | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 21 June 2017 | Published: 08 August 2018

About the author(s)

Marita M. Heyns, Optentia Reseach Focus Area, North-West University, South Africa
Marilyn D. Kerr, North-West University Business School, North-West University, South Africa

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Orientation: Despite increasing age diversity in the workforce, organisations still know relatively little about how potentially diverging motivational needs of the various generations might influence motivational strategies and organisational performance.

Research purpose: To explore the relationship between multigenerational workforces and employee motivation within a South African workplace setting from a self-determination theory perspective.

Motivation for the study: The pursuit of performance excellence requires an understanding of the enablers of optimal performance. In South Africa, the workplace landscape is changing fast as younger generations are joining the workforce in rapidly growing numbers. These younger employees are often believed to differ quite drastically from the older generations in terms of their values and priorities, which necessitates a deeper understanding of the motivational drivers of the different cohorts as these manifest within a workplace environment.

Research approach/design and method: A cross-sectional survey approach and a quantitative research design were used (N = 164). Two questionnaires founded on self-determination theory were administered, namely the Work-Related Basic Need Satisfaction Scale and the Work Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation Scale.

Main findings: Findings contradict the popular notion that generational cohorts differ significantly from each other in terms of diverging intrinsic and extrinsic motivational preferences that may influence their behaviour at work. With regard to the degrees of satisfaction of the basic psychological needs that drive autonomous, intrinsically motivated behaviour specifically, no practically significant differences were found either. There was, however, one notable difference, namely in the indicated degree of satisfaction of the psychological need for autonomy between Generation Y and Generation X cohorts.

Practical/managerial implications: Management is advised to cultivate a motivational climate that promotes autonomously motivated behaviour in general and to focus on specific known individual motivational preferences that may exist within groups rather than approaching generational cohorts as homogenous groups.

Contribution/value-add: This study contributes to the limited research regarding similarities and differences in the intrinsic versus extrinsic motivational stance of three different generations as these manifest within a workplace setting in an emerging economy country. Findings afford management insight into motivational processes that are most influential among generational cohorts and assist them in adapting suitable motivational strategies that can ultimately improve retention of valued employees.


generations; psychological needs; motivation; self-determination theory


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