Motivation theory for school leaders

Whether you are dealing with your own lack of motivation, or are leading those who have lost their “why”, as a school leader, learning about different theories and approaches could help. 


Motivation plays a key role in education. Whether motivating students to complete a task, encouraging staff to try a new initiative, or simply to open your laptop after a long break!

There are various motivation theories that schools can implement to support education staff and school leaders. Whether you are dealing with your own lack of motivation, or are leading those who have lost their “why”, as a school leader, learning about different theories and approaches can help you tailor the way you motivate different members of your team (and yourself) which can improve performance and the atmosphere of the school.

So here are some approaches you can try: 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow states that five categories of human need dictate an individual’s behaviour.

Those needs are:

  • Physiological – personal growth and reaching full potential
  • Safety - feeling safe and secure i.e emotional and financial security
  • Love and belonging - friendships, a sense of connection and intimacy
  • Esteem – dignity, status and respect from others
  • Self-actualisation – personal growth and reaching full potential

Maslow's hierarch of needs

A person can only move on to addressing the higher-level needs when their basic needs are adequately fulfilled. As a leader, it is worth questioning whether the individual experiencing the lack of motivation has the building blocks of physiological and safety needs in order to achieve their full potential.

For example, if a member of staff is on a temporary contract and is worried living costs (but you cannot change the situation) you may be able to work together to find ways to make them feel more secure by sending them on training or CPD that makes them more attractive to future employers.

McClelland’s Three Needs Theory

This model attempts to explain how the needs for achievement, affiliation, and power affect the actions of people. Once you have identified the motivation behind a person, you can choose better suited tasks or approaches to

  1. People who have a need for achievement may prefer to work in a results-oriented way and may appreciate direct feedback on their work, as it provides clarity for future improvements. Here, it may help to ensure that tasks assigned are of appropriate challenge, not too easy or too hard, and immediate face to face appreciation and feedback is given.
  2. People who have a need for affiliation prefer to spend time creating and maintaining social relationships and enjoy being a part of groups. An ideal way to motivate this type of person is to allow collaboration, interaction and avoid competition.
  3. People who have a need for power place a high value on discipline and status and work hard to achieve this. This type of person works well in a competitive environment and thrives upon recognition, so it is important to publicly acknowledge their “wins” without creating a “win/lose” culture. 

Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory

This concept looks at job satisfaction and dissatisfaction and the factors that contribute to improving or decreasing the satisfaction of staff. Factors such as job status, personal growth and recognition helped to improve satisfaction and the ‘dissatisfiers’ were salary, working conditions, relationships within the workplace and rules. Although some of these factors may be out of your control as a leader, having an open and honest conversation with staff surrounding these factors may indicate tweaking of the staff room, providing more opportunities for self-development or simply frequent recognition and thanks to those who need it.


Remember, motivation is personal to every member of school staff. What makes you tick might not be the same for your colleagues. However, understanding motivation theory can help you identify what inspires you or your team to pursue a specific goal or even remember your ‘why’ in teaching.

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