Numerous theories on the subject of employee motivation have been developed and published for the better part of this century. While early employers thought of their workers as just another input into the production of goods and services (Lindner, 1998), employees were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with working conditions and malevolent management. As post-war, labor tensions mounted in the 1920s, employers needed to change their approach to employee relations if they were to avoid costly, and sometimes violent, labor strikes. Early motivational theories set the foundation for the development of 20th century concepts, including the move to get “Googled” and motivational techniques based on business strengths found in the corporate toolbox.
Early Motivational Theories
George Elton Mayo, an Australian-born psychologist and Harvard Professor, began significant research in 1927 in an attempt to demonstrate that employees, if appropriately motivated, are more productive and can achieve greater return through appropriate human relationship management techniques (Trahair & Zaleznik, 2005). This research, referred to as the “Hawthorne Studies,” found that employees are not only motivated by financial gain, but also by the behavior and attitude of their supervisors.
During these studies, the employees responded positively to the mere fact that they were receiving attention from their supervisor as a result of the experiment. In his article, Gordon Marshall (1998) noted that “the term ‘Hawthorne effect’ is now widely used to refer to the behavior-modifying effects of being the subject of social investigation, regardless of the context of the investigation. More generally, the researchers concluded that supervisory style greatly affected worker productivity” (para. 1) and that “enhanced productivity therefore depends on management sensitivity to, and manipulation of, the ‘human relations’ of production” (para. 2). This represented a dramatic paradigm shift for employers and theorists alike.
Subsequent to the conclusion of the infamous Hawthorne Studies, five primary motivational theories have developed that have increased the understanding of what truly motivates employees. They are Maslow’s need-hierarchy, Hertzberg’s two-factor system, Vroom’s expectancy theory, Adam’s equity theory, and Skinner’s reinforcement theory. Maslow identified that employees, in general, have five primary levels of needs that include psychological (e.g. air, food, shelter), safety (e.g. security, order, stability), belongingness (e.g. love, family, relationships), esteem (e.g. achievement, status, responsibility), and self-actualization (McLeod, 2007). Maslow further noted that, in order to provide motivation, the lower levels would need to be satisfied before one progressed to the higher levels.
Hertzberg classified motivation into two, distinct factors. He believed that intrinsic factors (or motivators) produce job satisfaction through achievement and recognition while extrinsic (or hygiene) factors produce dissatisfaction. He identified extrinsic factors to be associated with compensation and perceived job security, or lack thereof. Vroom theorized that demonstrated effort would lead to performance which, in turn, would lead to reward (either positive or negative). The more positive the reward the more highly motivated the employee would be. To the contrary, negative rewards would result in a lesser motivated employee.
Adams found that employees want to ensure that there is a sense of fairness and equity between themselves and their co-workers. He believed that equity is achieved when employees are contributing, in terms of input and output, at the same rate. Skinner’s theory was likely the most simplistic, He established that employees will repeat behaviors that lead to positive outcomes and eliminate or minimize behaviors that lead to negative outcomes. He conceived that, if managers positively reinforce desired behavior, it would lead to positive outcomes and that managers should negatively reinforce employee behavior that leads to negative outcomes (Lindner, 1998).
James R. Lindner, Professor of Management and Research at Ohio State University, has conducted extensive research on this topic. In his paper “Understanding Employee Motivation,” he further extrapolated on the five theories, providing a comparative analysis, and offering a summary definition that focuses on the psychological process and “inner force” associated with the accomplishment of personal and organizational goals (Lindner, 1998). 20th Century Concepts
In addition to studying popular theories associated with employee motivation, Lindner (1998) includes the methodology and outcomes of an independent study, conducted at Ohio State University, that sought to rank the importance of ten motivating factors. The results of this study were compelling; with “interesting work” ranking as number one over other more commonly identified motivators, such as wages and job security. In comparing these results with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, among others, he found that the results are mixed, with the highest ranked factor (interesting work) being one of self-actualization and contrary to Maslow’s findings (Lindner, 1998).
This presents a divergent result that challenges Maslow’s assumption that the lower needs must be satisfied before a person can achieve their potential and self-actualize (McLeod, 2007, para.16). This does not negate Maslow’s work, but rather demonstrates that a natural evolution may have taken place with the modern workforce due to the progression of motivation strategies. This is a credit to the work of early theorists, and a call to arms for those that continue this research. Get Googled
But history has yet to definitively answer the question, “what is the best method(s) to motivate employees?” The imprecise answer continues to be: it depends. Many successful organizations incorporate a variety of programs aimed at motivating their employees, based on their specific population. Google Inc., for example, is leading the way to restructure management so that employees can streamline creative ideas that produce blockbuster new products.
They are rewarding employees with perks like onsite swimming pools, allowing employees to bring their pets to work, providing onsite child care, and all the free food employees want (“How Google Inc. Rewards Its Employees,” 2010, Thinking Leaders, para.1). While this may not be realistic for every organization, there is something to be said about the fact that Google, Inc. is consistently ranked by Fortune magazine as the best place in the U.S. to work. However there are things that a company can do to motivate their employees that are low or no cost and likely already exist in their corporate toolbox.
The Corporate Toolbox
Most successful organizations pride themselves on their ability to promote their product or service to achieve the desired level of profitability. They develop strategic plans, set production goals and persuade their customers that they are best of the best in their field. They are advertisers and peddlers of wares. So what does this have to do with motivation? Robert Hershey, Director of James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona and contributing author to the Journal of Managerial Psychology, contends that there is a significant correlation between an organization’s ability to successfully promote their business and thrive at motivating their employees. He notes that “we do not need one more theory of motivation; we need better insight into the psychology of advertising. We can take some tried-and-true product advertising techniques that have been found to be effective and use them in a human resources and management context.
But before we do that, the point must be made that, as a practical matter, our vocabulary and attention require a shift from the motivation jargon of needs, expectancy, two-factor theories, etc., to an emphasis on communications practices, because persuasion requires the transmission of information” (Hershey, 1993). If Hershey is correct, then an emphasis on communication and inclusion would create an environment ripe for employee motivation. One could also argue that, if communication is key, allowing input and empowered decision making is the next logical step to producing a motivated employee. Carolyn Wiley, Professor of Business at Roosevelt University, concurs with this notion and provides the following supporting statements in her article “Creating an Environment for Employee Motivation”: When employees have an opportunity to provide input, this increases their survival rate and their sense of commitment. In many very small companies, a natural sense of ownership often develops among the employees.
However, as companies grow, feelings of ownership and commitment start to decline. To increase commitment as the organization grows, managers must change how they define who retains control. Shared decision making is essential both to company success and employee survival. Workers generally do not resist their own ideas and decisions. Rather, they are motivated to fulfill them. (Wiley, 1992, para.14) While this may seem threatening to traditional leaders, it should not be viewed as surrendering control. Employees that are empowered through inclusion are ambassadors for organizational success.
It is only through mutual success that both the employee and company thrive. It seems so simple, but eludes even the most progressive of companies. Most organizations are more inclined to spend thousands of dollars creating recognition programs, building home office environments, developing bonus structures and hosting employee appreciation events rather than recognizing that most employees are merely looking to be valued. The same attention that motivated the Hawthorne workers applies to the modern employee who just wants to contribute and receive credit for their effort.
There is certainly compelling evidence to indicate that employee motivation comes in many forms. Whether one places their belief in the theoretical assumptions of a Maslow or Hertzberg, their financial backing in the creation of a Google-esque environment, or capitalize on their organizational strengths to communicate and persuade, there is clear agreement that the ability to successfully motivate employees is essential for corporate success and sustainability. The concept of positive human relation management has finally taken its place at the forefront of organizational strategies and, with it, the evolution of employee motivation.
Trahair, R. & Zaleznik, A. (2005). Elton Mayo: The Humanist Temper. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers
Marshall, G. (1998). A Dictionary of Sociology; Hawthorne Studies. Retrieved from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O88-Hawthornestudies.html Lindner, James R. (1998). Journal of Extension; Understanding Employee Motivation. Retrieved from http://www.joe.org/joe/1998june/rb3.php
McLeod, S. A. (2007). Simply Psychology; Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.
Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
How Google Inc. rewards its employees. (2010). Retrieved from Thinking Leaders website: http://www.thinkingleaders.com/archives/517
Hershey, R. (1993). A practitioner’s view of motivation. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 8(3), 10-10. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.arbor.edu:80/login?url=http://search.proquest. com/docview/ 215865845?accountid=13998 Wiley, C. (1992). Create an environment for employee motivation. HR Focus, 69(6), 14-14. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.arbor.edu:80/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/ docview/206781828?ac countid=13998
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