Understanding Motivation

Written by Joe Driscoll

November 14, 2009

Have you ever experienced a situation in which one person consistently out performed another of equal skill? Have you ever had an employee who was regularly out performed by someone having lesser talents? Do you sometimes wonder why you seem to be the only one initiating new ideas?

The simple answer to these and many more similar questions is “motivation”. But it is here that simplicity stops. While the answer maybe simple, the implementation is as complex as human nature itself.

The success or failure of a business can often depend on the involvement of a motivated workforce. A good manager must have a thorough understanding of the process of motivation in order to be successful in working with other people. A review of several of the leading theories of motivation and behavior can help further that understanding.

Abraham Maslow set forth a theory called the hierarchy of needs. What this theory basically states is that human needs have a certain priority to them and motivation will be strongest when the result of an action will satisfy the next highest need.

Maslow identified five categories of human needs. The first set is composed of physical needs, such as food and shelter. In the working environment these needs are addressed primarily through wages, benefits and the creation of a safe working place. Next comes security needs. Security needs in the workplace can manifest themselves as a desire for labor unions, job tenure, retirement and insurance programs. The next level in the hierarchy is the social needs. Once an individual’s physical and security needs have been at least minimally satisfied, social interaction and acceptance by fellow workers becomes increasingly important.

Stop for a minute and give some thought to the management implications of the hierarchy of needs theory. Take for example the boss who organizes a social function for his employees. He is disappointed that some of them didn’t show and the ones that did were not wild in their appreciation for his generosity. The cause of his disappointment might lie in the fact that he was addressing the social needs of his employees but his business may not have adequately satisfied their physical and security needs. Only those actions which address the next level of unsatisfied needs will generate positive results.

The final two steps in Maslow’s hierarchy are self-esteem needs and the need for self-actualization. Self-esteem needs are satisfied with self respect and the respect of others. Self-actualization is the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy and is represented by the desire to maximize one’s talents regardless of the consequences.

Maslow’s work is a theory, not a formula. It can be helpful in explaining why certain management actions are appropriate and others are doomed to failure. For example, it should come as no surprise that a promotion and new title (self-esteem) will not have a maximum effect on motivation if not accompanied by an appropriate salary (physical) increase.

Psychologist Fredrick Herzberg developed a two factor theory for employee motivation. Herzberg called his work the hygiene-motivation theory. He called those factors that produce job dissatisfaction hygiene factors and those that produce satisfaction motivation factors.

Herzberg’s research indicated that if an employer failed to supply the hygiene factors, items such as salary, job security, proper working conditions and fair management, job dissatisfaction was the result. However, when these factors were supplied at an acceptable level, the result is not a motivated workforce but rather just the absence of dissatisfaction. It is the presence of the motivating factors such as the opportunity for achievement, recognition, responsibility and advancement that will ignite the superior performance that we associate with a “motivated” individual.

In light of Herzberg’s theory it is little wonder that the motivational effect of a salary increase by itself is often short lived. In general, he would conclude that a workforce will become more productive when minimal standards have been maintained for the hygiene factors and increasing numbers of motivational factors are introduced.

Porter and Lawler developed a model of motivation that is built on the premise that behavior and effort are based on the perceived value of the rewards that will result from the work and the probability that those rewards will actually materialize. They stress that rewards have an intrinsic element and an external element. They further state that the perceived fairness of a reward will greatly influence motivation.

The work of Porter and Lawler can provide some basis for understanding the “de-motivating” effects of sales goals and bonus programs that are viewed as unattainable by employees. It would perhaps be more advisable as an initial strategy to establish more attainable goals with correspondingly modest but achievable rewards.

The temptation is great to motivate with the KITA method. Because it’s your business, take the time to ponder the implications of the well established research and look for an opportunity to frontally apply a KITA. Sometimes a pull can be more effective than a push.

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