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An Overview of Employee Motivation: (Part 1)

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Ross Hooper


An Overview of Employee Motivation: (Part 1)

Join us at the WorldsView Academy Johannesburg campus on 19 February 2014, for a critical discussion around 'Frameworks of Motivation'. Find out more

(Read part 2 of this blog on 'A Modern Look at Motivating Employees' here.)

Mainstream Thinking About Motivation

Motivating oneself is difficult, motivating others is even more difficult. With this in mind we need to embark on a journey of sorts - to discover and reveal what motivation truly is and how to harness and fully utilise its benefits for the development of an organisation.

Motivation, according to many definitions, is an employee's intrinsic enthusiasm about and drive to accomplish activities related to work. Motivation is in essence that internal drive and level of energy that causes an individual to decide to take action - usually a positive action that ensures growth, progress and general or direct improvement of conditions or performance.

An individual's level of motivation is influenced by biological, intellectual, social and emotional factors. As such, motivation is a complex, not easily defined, intrinsic driving force that can also be influenced by external factors. Ultimately every employee has activities, events, people, and goals in his or her life that he or she finds motivating.

Motivation is about some aspect of life that exists in each person's consciousness and behaviour. The trick for employers is to figure out how to inspire and ensure employee motivation at work. To create a work environment in which an employee is motivated about their role and their work, involves both intrinsically satisfying and extrinsically encouraging factors. Employee motivation is thus the combination of fulfilling the employee's needs and expectations from work, and the workplace factors that enable employee motivation - or not. These variables make motivating employees rather challenging. Over the years motivation has been defined as:

  • the psychological process that gives behaviour purpose and direction;
  • a predisposition to behave in a purposive manner to achieve specific, unmet needs;
  • an internal drive to satisfy an unsatisfied need;
  • and the will to achieve some selected goal or objective.

Motivation is operationally defined as the inner force that drives individuals to accomplish personal and organisational goals.

Like Albert Einstein once said: "Weakness of attitude, becomes weakness of character." Which essentially means that if your employees have a negative attitude or exhibit unengaged behaviour, then they will become unmotivated (if not already), and hence unproductive.

Employers understand that they need to provide a work environment that produces and enables motivated people. But, many employers fail to understand the significance of motivation in accomplishing the mission and vision of the organisation. Even when they understand the importance of motivation, they lack the skill and knowledge to provide a work environment that truly fosters employee motivation and organisational health. Employers and organisational leaders should keep updated with the latest and most useful motivation methods and techniques, but also be brave enough to experiment with new ways of motivating their workforce. Whilst also remaining cognisant of the tried-and-tested theories and approaches to ensuring one's employees are continually motivated about their work and their life in general.  


Some Mainstream Motivation Theories

Five major approaches that have led to our understanding of employee motivation are:

  • Maslow's (1943) need-hierarchy theory,
  • Herzberg's two- factor theory (1959),
  • Vroom's (1964) expectancy theory,
  • Adams' (1965) equity theory,
  • and Skinner's (1953) reinforcement theory.

According to Maslow, employees have five levels of needs: physiological, safety, social, ego, and self- actualising. Maslow argued that lower level needs had to be satisfied before the next higher level need would motivate employees. Herzberg's work categorised motivation into two factors: motivators and hygienes. Motivator or intrinsic factors, such as achievement and recognition, produce job satisfaction. Hygiene or extrinsic factors, such as pay and job security, produce job dissatisfaction.

Vroom's theory is based on the belief that employee effort will lead to performance and performance will lead to rewards. Rewards may be either positive or negative, the more positive the reward the more likely the employee will be highly motivated. Conversely, the more negative the reward the less likely the employee will be motivated. Adams' theory states that employees strive for equity between themselves and other workers. Equity is achieved when the ratio of employee outcomes over inputs is equal to other employee outcomes over inputs. Whilst Skinner's theory simply states that those employees' behaviours that lead to positive outcomes will be repeated, and behaviours that lead to negative outcomes will not be repeated. Managers should positively reinforce employee behaviours that lead to positive outcomes, and managers should, carefully and tactfully, negatively reinforce employee behaviour that leads to negative outcomes. Managers and leaders obviously need to learn to be context-specific when communicating and interacting with employees, and remain calm and understanding yet still be firm.


Moving Towards a Modern Understanding of Motivation

Daniel Pink's (2009)persuasive theory on what motivates us  (in work, school and in our personal lives) is backed by four decades of solid scientific research on human motivation, and highlights an extreme mismatch between the human capital practices that businesses use and the practices that really work. Below (and following on in the next article) is a summary of Dan Pink's theory on motivation, how it applies to the business world, and how the human capital practices in the organisation can be updated so as to have the most motivated and productive employees possible.

The 20th Century Motivation Model

In the early 1900's, the practice of scientific management was born. The brainchild of Fredrick Winslow Taylor, scientific management was based on the premise that all work consisted largely of simple, uninteresting tasks, and that the only viable method to get people to undertake these tasks was to incentivise them properly and monitor them carefully. Put simply, in order to get as much productivity out of workers as possible, one must reward the behaviour one seeks, and punish the behaviour that should be discouraged amongst workers - otherwise known as the carrot-and-stick approach.

This theory assumes that the main drive which powers human behaviour is the drive to respond to rewards and punishments in our environment. As Pink (2009) notes, this suggests "human beings aren't much different from horses - that the way to get us moving in the right direction is by dangling a crunchier carrot or wielding a sharper stick." However, scientists began to encounter situations during their experiments where the reward-punishment drive wasn't producing the expected performance results. This led to the discovery of a possible third drive for human behaviour.

This third drive (and other thinking by Pink) will be expanded upon in the next blog post, along with the pros and cons of the carrot-and-stick approach, and a look at the more modern (and postmodern!) approaches to motivating employees - to ensure one's organisation is truly healthy and effective. 

Read part 2 of this blog on 'A Modern Look at Motivating Employees' here.


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