November 21, 2007
Forces that move people into action vary massively from person to person. Just like amoebas move away from too acidic environments, some people will work hard to avoid unpleasant conditions; and like ants drawn to sugar, some people will happily carry ten times a normal workload for a chance to score something pleasurable. And, like dumb equines, we are eager to follow dangling carrots in the hopes of someday reaching them. For a society to get anything done, its members need to be herded into moving toward common goals, preferably of their own volition. The heavy task of a manager is then, not to move the workers, but to somehow make the workers move themselves. This is called motivating.
Various researchers have suggested models explaining with varying degrees of success the motivating factors of humans. Let us apply these to MalPrivUni, a largely fictional Ukrainian organization where the management is seriously trying to find good ways to keep employees motivated.
Some highly influential theories are based on the concept of humans hoping to fulfill their own needs. It would be easy to start off with Maslow's notorious hierarchy of needs. Accordingly, people seek to satisfy five categories of needs with a fairly linear progression from level to level. Starting at the bottom, we aim to survive in moderate comfort, then go looking for love and belonging, then try to become famous, adored and envied. Finally, we seek to improve ourselves and tap our talents to the maximum, though more in the spiritual sense than the "optimize the number of pointless thingamajigs I can assemble per sixty seconds" sense.
While Maslow's hierarchy is easy to understand, and is thus widely taught, it has faced some criticism for not adequately explaining all observed behavior. It is not always clear that the need for belonging always need be fulfilled before a person begins seeking esteem, especially in a business context. Not everyone acts the same way when pursuing the same need levels, either. The model is also quite one-dimensional, while in actuality people work on multiple needs at all times, and often forego short-term satisfaction in favor of potential long-term gains.
MalPrivUni could take this into account by assessing which need each employee is hoping to fulfill, and offering the appropriate reward in return for a period of fruitful effort. On the other hand, the managers would do well to understand that once an employee has elevated their consciousness up a level, additional rewards below that level will be ineffective. I have observed that in Ukrainian culture, people tend to lump money in the "Safety" category, hoping to have enough in store in case of illness or when the country inevitably slides to hell due to poor governance. They generally do not, however, view additional money as a token of affection or respect. Except for the younger generation, people also tend to be wary of accepting too much authority, so offers of autonomy aimed at promoting self-esteem and self-actualization should be made with care.
Our textbook details McClelland's Need Theory. It groups human needs more compactly, with a need to achieve, and the social needs to affiliate and to have power. People with need to achieve come alive when faced with interesting challenges, and are interested in improving their performance through feedback. People with need to have power are workplace nazis, happiest when they have a smoothly and efficiently operating hierarchy under their command; the person will wield power despotically or with an eye toward maximizing success under their subjects depending on how individualistic or collectivistic the person is. People with need for affiliation just want to be friends.
Due to the somewhat general nature of this theory, it may be difficult to take into account all individual differences between employee personalities found in a diverse workplace, though useful testing methods do a good job at employee segregation. This theory provides a useful guideline for determining appropriate positions for people. If MalPrivUni finds an applicant with a constructive desire for power and a healthy disregard for affiliation, they should be quickly elevated into management. Applicants with need for achievement are most efficient when presented with a rich range of tasks and a good degree of autonomy in choosing how to best handle them. Affiliation-oriented individuals should probably be used as masseuses and personal secretaries. To mix theories, McGregor's Theory X people are low-achieving weasels, while Theory Y people want to achieve things. Any managers, including Ukrainian ones, benefit from understanding this difference, and gravitating toward hiring decisions favoring people with a need for achievement, chief among these being performance-based pay systems. Interestingly, according to the textbook, McClelland's research "revealed that a country's level of economic development was positively related to its overall achievement motivation." By reinforcing need for achievement, you can apparently help the entire country. Then again, Russia is quite wealthy, but Fons Trompenaars' research on cultural dimensions revealed a distinct lack of desire for achievement.
Frederick Herzberg introduced the world to a wonderful two-factor theory. It convincingly describes a set of higher, motivational factors, and another set of more basic, hygiene factors. Put simply, employees may become dissatisfied by excessive lack of factors like money, quality of relationships, working conditions, and other external sources. Once the employee has enough of each to not feel dissatisfied, further gains by offering more lose effectiveness. Actual motivation comes from within, as the employee enjoys actual job content: challenge, achievement, personal growth, and the recognition that will surely follow.
Scholars remain unconvinced of the omniscient nature of this theory, and certainly it has been misunderstood by well-meaning managers, not doing much good. Wikipedia helpfully points out that satisfaction and dissatisfaction only seemed completely unrelated due to a technical artifact in Herzberg's research; piles and piles of hygiene may offer bonus motivation after all, if with diminishing returns. Also, the exact sources of satisfaction do vary by individual, so some people are less impressed by fancy titles than by thoughtfully provided lunch vouchers. This does not make the theory useless, however, as its many applications have been tested and found to work well.
One problem MalPrivUni, along with most other former Soviet enterprises, is facing, is poor customer service, not to mention treatment of employees by managers as numbers, due to low employee motivation. This can hopefully be changed by making the work more interesting. Finding out what each person is happy or good at doing and letting them do that counts as job enrichment. This increases happiness as well as utilization of employee talents, something the well-trained Ukrainian workforce would well benefit from. Where appropriate, empowering employees by endowing autonomy may open up new avenues for excellence.
The Job Characteristics model is more recent, examining job satisfaction from a psychological perspective. If an employee perceives his work as worthwhile, uses an interesting variety of skills, feels responsible for the results, and has adequate feedback on the work, they will get warm fuzzies and want to keep performing the work. MalPrivUni could improve by making sure channels of communication were always open, so the employees can understand well how they are doing and why their work is significant. While Ukrainian workers may be averse to responsibility in general, it would seem like many would not mind having more flexibility in worktimes, or essentially, more responsibility over their own comings and goings, likely with sufficient invisible oversight.
Victor Vroom's Expectancy Theory gives weight to the so far undervalued perception of likelihood of success. As long as a worker feels the task has a decent chance of being successful and that a desirable reward awaits at the end of the road, they will be eager to see it to an honorable completion. Perceptions vary individually, so it may take some effort to determine what level of challenge the employee still finds surmountable, and what manner of rewards would be delectable. Again, Ukrainian managers could use open communication channels to good effect. Providing some training could also improve employee confidence, allowing them to complete grander projects.
The Goal-Setting Theory suggests that clearly defined goals trigger a basic human goal-orientation instinct. Deadlines, quality standards, and other short-term objectives focus effort while encouraging persistence. The goals need to be specific to be effective. There is a danger of setting inappropriate goals, but by getting the employees involved in setting the goal this risk is minimized, while letting the employees feel more responsible. This is a kind of participative management, which may or may not work for MalPrivUni, depending on how jaded and expectant of authority the employees are.
It may be a good idea to seek synergy through unifying ideas presented by the existing abundance of motivational theories. Pick capable employees, find out what each individual wants, then offer it to them gradually, making sure tasks are clearly understood and feedback flows without obstruction. Beware offering prospects of empowerment, as it may make Ukrainians scurry off like cockroaches into the night. With due care, motivation need not be any harder than herding cats.
Kreitner, Kinicki. Organizational Behavior. Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1995. Third edition.
tutor2u. Motivation in Theory.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.