How To Motivate Employees

Motivating Employees – 100 Years of Research and Thought

Larry Wenger asked:




The question of employee or human motivation is one that has intrigued leaders and workplace scientists for generations. What is motivation? It is the willingness to act – to exert an effort toward a goal that fulfills a physiological or psychological need. When we are motivated to act that motivation springs from an internal need that drives an outcome. A simple example is hunger (need) we manage to arrange our lives so that we can connect with food (outcome).

As we think about how to motivate employees in this era of shrinking resources, it is helpful to review the conclusions of five researchers who studied motivation in the workforce: Abraham Maslow; Frederick Herzberg; Douglas McGregor; Victor Vroom and J. Stacy Adams. Here is a quick review of their findings and conclusions that may help you formulate your own thinking about keeping your employees motivated and engaged.

Abraham Maslow
Remember freshman psychology 101. Undoubtedly Maslow’s hierarchy of need showed up there. His theories are built around five basic needs. The most basic need is related to physiology, present in both humans and animals: food, shelter, sex and elimination. Moving up Maslow’s hierarchy or next in line is safety or the need to avoid danger and deter threats. The next three levels are higher level needs unique to the human experience: the need for social interaction and intimacy; the need for self esteem and finally, the need for self-actualization or to experience and live by one’s true self, likes, dislikes, temperament etc. Maslow concluded that these five levels were consequential. You cannot move on to a higher level until each lower level is satisfied. How can we expect employees to engage in our social mission if they don’t feel physiologically safe and secure? For example, they can’t pay their rent.

Frederick Herzberg
Herzberg drew a distinction between the causes of workers being satisfied and those causes which create dissatisfaction. He clearly concluded that it was possible for workers to feel satisfied when they are receiving recognition and have opportunities for growth and achievement and at the same time be dissatisfied about other things that were a part of the work environment like inadequate or broken equipment or dirty restrooms. Herzberg recommended that employers try to achieve the best of both worlds: high satisfaction factors (recognition, growth) and low dissatisfaction factors (poor working conditions, lack of tools to do the job).

Douglas McGregor
McGregor developed two basic assumptions or strategies regarding employee motivation. What he referred to as Theory X purported that people inherently dislike work. They must be coerced and controlled to achieve work objectives. They wish to avoid responsibility and have relatively little ambition. Theory Y is more consistent with thinking in 2010 suggested that people view work as being as natural for adults as play is for children. Theory Y said that people will learn to seek and accept responsibility and will exercise self-direction towards achieving workplace goals and objectives. Looking at your workplace, which theory tends to predominate in philosophy and practice: theory X or theory Y?

Victor Vroom
Victor Vroom developed the Expectancy Theory. This theory of motivation holds that employees perform better when their efforts lead toward the rewards they desire. People do what is in their best interest. Thus workers need to see the link between increasing effort and a desired reward. Vroom recognized that individuals will have different goals and interests; different things turn on different people. Individuals can be motivated if they believe there is a positive correlation between favorable performance and reward; working hard results in success. At the same time, motivation breaks down, when people are working hard but not experiencing success. We usually call this latter situation “burnout.” It is important to remember that working hard does not lead to burnout. Burnout is a function of the lack of success or failure.

J. Stacy Adams

The Adams’ theory is referred to as “Equity Theory.” If employees perceive that their work environment is inequitable, they will act to correct it – to create equity. This reminds me of man I knew who once stole a roll of toilet paper from the company every day. He was “getting even” to make things equitable. More typical ways of creating equity include: reduced quality, increased absenteeism, voluntary resignation and lower productivity. Recent studies indicate that unmotivated workers only provide 2 hours per day of productivity.

When viewed together, here are the implications of these five theories for supervisors.

1. The possibility that you cannot really motivate anyone. While certain premiums or incentive plans may jack up production in the short haul, over the long haul, worker motivation is internally driven. Therefore premiums need to be used carefully and aligned with longer term organizational goals avoiding short term hits.

2. Neglecting working conditions will demotivate employees.

3. Worker perception about fairness is highly individualized and influences job performance.

4. Align rewards with performance.

5. Watch for signs of unfairness and immediately address employees’ concerns for equity. Assist them to understand, find proper direction and correct situations wherein inequity exists.

Disengaged and demotivated workers are serious problems. The end result goes beyond poor quality and low production to staff turnover costing organizations thousands of dollars annually. It translates to performing at or below a mediocre level. Engaged and motivated employees happen when an organization understands and lives the values that form the core of human behavior.



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