An individual’s motivation and productivity are tightly linked. Having motivated employees is important for the long-term success of almost all organizations.
Here we discuss a few important theories of motivation and what you can do to motivate others as well as yourself. If you’re not motivated to read through the theory section, scroll down to jump into how the theories can be applied.
Terence Mitchell, the author of Matching Motivational Strategies With Organizational Contexts defines motivation as the processes that account for an individual’s intensity, direction, and persistence of effort toward attaining a goal.
- Intensity: refers to how hard a person tries
- Direction: refers to where the effort is channeled
- Persistence: is a measure of how long a person can maintain their effort
Theories of motivation
The main theories of motivation fall into two main classes, needs theories and process theories. A basic understanding of these theories is helpful in understanding why certain motivational techniques can be effective.
Need Theories of Motivation
Needs theories of motivation propose a similar idea. When individuals have unsatisfied needs, it results in motivation. For example, if you need money and were asked to do something (within reason), you would do it if money were the reward. Similarly, if you need to be praised, you may work harder at your job to receive recognition from your co-workers or boss.
Need theories of motivation include Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Hertzberg’s two-factory theory as well others. We mention need theories here because some of them are well known, particularly Maslow’s theory. These theories are less supported by scientific research than are process theories of motivation.
Process Theories of Motivation
Process theories look at the broader picture of how to motivate others. Scientific evidence is largely supportive of process theories of motivation. The main process theories are expectancy theory and goal-setting theory.
Expectancy Theory – Widely Accepted
One of the most broadly accepted motivation theories is Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory. It states that a person’s tendency to act in a certain way depends on the strength of expectation that the act will be followed by a given outcome and on the attractiveness of the outcome to the person.
In other words, when evaluating whether or not to exert high effort to a task, we ask ourselves:
- If I make the effort, can I get the job done?
- If I get the job done, will my performance be acknowledged by those who have the power to give rewards?
- Are the rewards attractive to me? Will the reward satisfy my goals or needs?
To date, most research is supportive of this theory.
Goal setting theory, in essence, states that specific and challenging (but attainable) goals lead to higher performance. For example, as a parent, it’s better to tell your son or daughter to strive for an 80% average at school rather than simply saying “do your best.” Goals tell the employee what needs to be done and how much effort will need to be expended. Goal-setting theory is consistent with expectancy theory and can be considered a subset of it. The gist of goal-setting theory is that:
- Specific goals increase performance
- Difficult goals that are accepted, result in higher performance than easy goals
- Feedback yields higher performance than does a lack of feedback
Steps to Increase Motivation
Applying motivational theories, below are steps managers can use to increase motivation:
- Make sure employees have the necessary skills to perform assigned tasks
- Provide training
- Assign reasonable tasks and goals
- Be sure to actually observe or recognize performance
- Be sure to deliver promised rewards
- Find out from employees what types of rewards they value
- Be sure the rewards given are ones that are valued
Management by Objectives – MBO
A popular management technique used in organizations is called Management by Objectives or MBO. Its emphasis is on converting organizational goals into specific objectives for business units and individual employees:
Overall organizational objectives → Divisional objectives → Departmental objectives → Individual objectives
Most MBO programs have four ingredients:
- Specific goals
- Participative decision-making: Manager and employee set goals jointly and agree on how they are to be measured
- Specific time periods: Each objective has an explicit time period (1 month, 3 months, 6 months etc.)
- Performance feedback: Feedback is given to individuals on an ongoing basis so they can monitor and correct their own activities
MBO programs are implemented in many businesses but that does not mean that it always works well. MBO programs are well adapted to countries like the United States and Canada. This is because the key MBO components are well suited to North American cultures.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Not everyone is motivated by money or status. Some people don’t want challenging jobs. Maximizing employee motivation requires designing work schedules, benefits, compensation plans and so on, to reflect the varied needs of workers. For example, workers with families may value flexible work hours and childcare. New immigrants might prefer the option to take extended leave so that they can prolong their visits to family overseas. Some employees prefer job security over additional pay.
Providing a menu of benefit options to employees is important when attempting to motivate them. This is consistent with another theory called expectancy theory. Organizational rewards should be aligned with employee goals.
In today’s workplace, many workers are well-trained professionals with college or university degrees. These types of workers derive a lot of satisfaction from their work and tend to be well paid. This means that money and promotions tend to be low on their priority list. Motivating this type of worker requires a different approach from motivating the typical low-skilled service worker.
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind if you’re trying to motivate professionals:
- Provide them with challenging projects
- Give them autonomy to follow their interests
- Let them structure their work in ways that they find productive
- Reward them with educational opportunities such as training, workshops and conferences – opportunities that let them keep up with their field
- Reward them with recognition
- Demonstrate to them that you’re sincerely interested in what they’re doing
Sure-fire Ways to Demotivate People – 3 Don’ts
For most employees, motivation is influenced by relative rewards as well as absolute rewards. This means that individuals compare their effort and rewards with those of others. Based on this, we can identify practices that tend to demotivate employees. Below we list some “don’ts”.
- If two employees do the same work, don’t pay them different salaries. Especially if there’s a fair chance they’ll find out about the difference.
- For two workers with the same job and different levels of seniority, don’t compensate workers with less seniority more than workers with more seniority.
- Don’t compensate your workers significantly less than workers in nearby companies who do similar work.
Can We Simply Eliminate Rewards?
Some experts say you can use theories (goal-setting theory, expectancy theory) to help motivate individuals. However, some argue that it is a mistake to talk about motivating other people. Scholar Afle Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, argues that “the desire to do something, much less do it well, simply cannot be imposed. All we can do is set up certain conditions that will maximize the probability of their developing an interest in what they are doing and remove the conditions that function as constraints.”
There are countless examples of people working tirelessly for long hours on volunteer activities that yield no external rewards. People will work hard if the job captures their imagination and passion. They require less supervision and put in more effort and devotion than they would if they were waiting to be rewarded every step of the way.
Based on Kohn’s research, he proposes alternative ways organizations can create a motivating environment:
- Abolish Incentives: Pay people fairly and make sure they don’t feel exploited so that pay is not on their minds. This way, they will be more able to focus on goals.
- Re-evaluate how employees are evaluated: Performance evaluation should be more of a continuous two-way discussion to exchange ideas and questions. The discussion shouldn’t be tied to compensation, nor should it be about who gets raises and promotions.
- Create conditions for authentic motivation: Changing the way employees are treated often increases productivity more than changing the way they are paid. Help employees rather then surveilling employees, help them by listening to their concerns and thinking about problems from their perspective. Provide plenty of feedback so they know what they’ve done right and how they can improve.
- Collaboration: People perform better in well-functioning teams where they can get feedback and learn from each other. Provide support to create well-functioning groups.
- Content: People are usually the most motivated when they can learn new skills on the job, have a variety of different tasks and are able to demonstrate competence.
- Choice: Some jobs (such as garbage collecting) are intrinsically uninteresting. For these jobs it may be difficult to provide variety and opportunities to learn new skills. For all jobs and especially the mundane ones, employees should be given as much choice as possible in how the task is completed. This does not mean you should forgo management, rather, involve people in the decisions to be made.
We’ve condensed a lot of ideas in this article. From this, we can list a few simplified guidelines that summarize the essence of what we know about motivating people in organizations.
- Recognize individual differences. Employees have different needs and should not be treated the same way.
- Use goals and feedback. Employees should have specific goals and get feedback about how well they are doing.
- Allow employees to participate in the decisions that affect them. These decisions include setting work goals, choosing benefits packages, as well as how to solve productivity and quality problems.
- Rewards given should reward desired performance. Rewards should be linked to the type of performance expected and employees must see a clear linkage.
- Make sure the reward system is perceived as fair.