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Is There a Valid Test of Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory? Essay

Department of Behaviour in Organisations, University of Lancaster; on study ieavefrom the Department of Psychology, University of Melbourne There are several ways of stating Herzberg’s two-factor theory of motivation and each version can be tested in various ways. Those who defend the theory argue that researchers who fail to find support for the theory have usually departed from the procedures used by Herzberg. There have been variations in methods of gathering data, categorizing the responses, and analysing the results. These variations may be justified on the grounds that the strength of any theory lies in its logic and in its ability to withstand deviations from a set method. Some tests of Herzberg’s theory are more likely to produce support than others. This was confirmed in a study of London bus crews. However it can be argued that there is more than one valid test of Herzberg’s two-factor theory, though some of these are likely to produce contradictory results.

The Herzberg theory, or two-factor theory of motivation or Motivator-Hygiene (M-H) theory, has given rise to a mass of investigations and experiments in industry and in many different types of organizations. Results do not always support Herzberg; in fact, only about one in three do so. Donald Hebb once said that when it is a question of survival, theories are like women—fecundity is more important than purity. M-H theory has certainly been very fertile—more so perhaps than any other theory in applied social psychology. Many industrial psychologists have not only survived but indeed thrived on the theory. The fecundity of the theory is not in doubt but its purity certainly is highly suspect.

WHAT IS THE THEORY?

The theory is in two parts, each of which can be stated in several ways. Part 1 says that job factors can be separated into two quite distinct sets: the first set consists of factors which contribute to job satisfaction and rarely if at all to job dissatisfaction; these factors are called ‘Motivators’. The second set consists of job factors which contribute to job dissatisfaction and rarely if at all to job satisfaction; these are the ‘Hygienes’. Consequently job satisfaction and dissatisfaction are separate dimensions and not the two ends of a single dimension. This is a flat contradiction of the traditional view in psychology that satisfaction and dissatisfaction constitute a single dimension.

The first difficulty with the theory in practice is that the data usually include a proportion of responses which do not fit this pattern. Some Motivators contribute to dissatisfaction while some Hygienes contribute to satisfaction. Within-factors reversals are far from rare and sometimes outnumber responses in the expected direction. These incongruent responses are attributed to sampling error, which of course is begging the question—rejecting inconvenient data in order to save the theory. The analysis then takes the form of a relative comparison—for Motivators we  predict more satisfaction than dissatisfaction, and for Hygienes we predict more dissatisfaction than satisfaction and test for significance accordingly. What investigators fail to point out is that in doing this they are really reformulating the theory to fit their facts.

The revised theory now says, in effect, that Motivators contribute more to satisfaction than to dissatisfaction while Hygienes contribute more to dissatisfaction than satisfaction. This is reasonable but it makes nonsense of the claim that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are separate dimensions. In fact it supports the traditional view of the single continuum; different job factors produce ranges of satisfaction-dissatisfaction which are to be found at different positions on the same continuum.

Part 2 of the theory is also in two parts. First: paying more attention to Motivators (intrinsic job satisfaction or higher order needs) will increase satisfaction but will not affect any dissatisfaction with the job; or, alternatively, improving Motivators will improve organizational efficiency as shown by higher productivity, better quality, better attendance and punctuality, lower labour turnover… in short, by improved performance. Second: paying more attention to Hygiene factors (extrinsic job satisfaction or lower order needs) will decrease dissatisfaction but will not increase overall satisfaction; or alternatively, there will be no improvement in performance—on the contrary, taking costs into account there will be a lowered organizational efficiency because improving Hygienes will cost the organization more money. Notice that for each part of Part 2, i.e. as regards both Motivators and Hygienes, there are alternative predictions.

Increase of satisfaction or decrease of dissatisfaction are both theoretically trivial extensions of Part 1 of the theory; trivial in that they say no more than is already contained in that model. To be fair to the M-H practitioners they do not rest their case on this alternative; they are concerned only with the effects on performance and organizational efficiency. Job satisfaction is either a by-product or a step towards better efficiency. This may tell us something about the value system in which they operate but it in no way detracts from the validity of this method of testing their theory. One problem must now be faced. Does Part 2 of the theory depend on Part 1? According to House & Wigdor (1967, p.385) if the satisfaction-dissatisfaction dichotomy is false then Part 2 is ‘highly suspect’.

I would argue that if Part 1 is false then Part 2 is irrelevant or must be argued on other grounds. If and only if Part 1 is true, then Part 2 can be tested using the concepts established by Part 1. Another serious difficulty for testing the validity of the theory is the fact that both parts stand on two legs. In Part 1, one leg identifies Motivators while the other identifies Hygienes; in Part 2 one leg predicts the effects of increasing the potency of Motivators while the other leg deals with changes in Hygienes. Does the theory claim that each part can stand on one leg at a time?

If one investigator confirms the Motivator leg but not the Hygiene leg, does Part 1 of the theory stand or fall? And if another investigator follows with the opposite result, confirming Hygienes but not Motivators, does this increase or diminish our confidence in the theory? Similarly for Part 2 of the theory. In any case, testing the effect of putting more weight on the Motivators is a dubious procedure if this is the only change. The effects are not really surprising. The relative ineffectiveness of spending resources on Hygienes, which is what the theory also predicts, may surprise industrial welfare advocates but not cynical managers.

In general terms, statements describing the theory are superficially similar and do not differ greatly from the way set out above. For instance: Whitsett & Winslow (1967, p.393) in explaining M-H theory say ‘dissatisfaction and those factors that contribute to dissatisfaction are separate and distinct from those factors that contribute to satisfaction. Satisfaction is not opposite from dissatisfaction for they operate on separate continua… This is different from traditional thinking…’ As regards Part 2, House & Wigdor (1967, p.371) say ‘The second major hypothesis of the dual-factor theory of motivation is that the satisfiers are effective in motivating the individual to superior performance and effort, but the dissatisfiers are not’. Later they add (p.373) ‘If the dual-factor theory were correct, we should expect highly satisfied people to be highly motivated and to produce more’ which as they point out does not square with the evidence.

But though general statements are similar, precise statements, if made at all, are usually inconsistent or at variance with each other. Sometimes there is no argument—an author assumes that his understanding of the theory is the same as that of others. Or the research design indicates an underlying interpretation of the theory which may be similar to or quite different from that of another study which the author is supporting or refuting; but authors seem to be unaware of this. Arguments about what the theory says may be unspoken and have to be inferred. However, sometimes interpretations of the theory are set out in a way that makes possible comparisons with other interpretations. For example. House & Wigdor (1967) include a rank order of importance for the Motivators and for the Hygienes as part of the theory. This reflects the infiuence of Maslow upon Herzberg and may be a reasonable interpretation of Herzberg’s intention.

On the whole it seems an unnecessary refinement that makes for extra complications when testing validity. Whitsett & Winslow (1967) accuse Burke (1966) of ‘A unique misinterpretation of the M-H theory . . . since M-H theory makes no claim that there should be any fixed order of importance among either motivator or hygiene factors’ (p.41O). As it happens Burke makes no such claim either. Is overall job satisfaction part of the theory? Not according to Whitsett & Winslow (1967) who say: ‘One of the most common and persistent misinterpretations of the Motivation-Hygiene (M-H) theory is the attempt to use measures of overall job satisfaction to make statements purporting to be derived from the theory. The theory does not, and purposely does not, make statements about overall job satisfaction’ (p.395).

In stating that job attitudes must be looked at twice (p.396) they are emphasizing Herzberg’s procedure of conducting separate sets of interviews for good critical incidents at work (revealing satisfaction and hence Motivators) and for bad critical incidents (revealing dissatisfaction and hence Hygienes). Perhaps the most systematic attempt to sort out what the theory really says was made by King (1970) who identified five distinct versions of Part 1 of the theory. Some versions are stronger than others because they entail them. King is not always sure that Herzberg was aware of these versions or which of them Herzberg was claiming to support. King classifies the evidence according to whether it is irrelevant or relevant to these theories, and then subdivides the relevant studies into those which support and those which refute any of thesefivetheories. Table 1 sets out King’s five distinct versions of Herzberg’s two-factor theory.


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