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A Motivational Theory for employee behavior? - I don't think so.



I was preparing to teach a chapter on work-place motivation to my Management class last week when it came to me. Can anyone really explain what motivates people?

Most people got a taste of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Theory (A.H. Maslow, R.D. Frager, and J. Fadiman, Motivation and Personality, 3rd Edition, 1987) somewhere in their education. It suggests that employees do things to satisfy unmet needs beginning with Physiological needs (air, food water), followed by Safety, Social, Esteem needs, and eventually Self-Actualization (self-fulfillment). There are obvious flaws with Maslow's Theory for a change in circumstances or personal values can alter behavior from being needs-driven but it is still taught as a general framework.

Next comes Douglas McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y of motivation which suggests that some employees will try to avoid work and must be closely monitored (Theory X) or that some employees enjoy work and accept responsibility and exercise self-direction (D. McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960). This simplistic, either-or assumption about human nature is weak at best and probably should not find its way into modern textbooks (IMHO).

From McGregor, we move on to Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory (F. Herzberg, B. Mausner, and B. B. Snyderman, The Motivation to Work; New York: John Wiley, 1959) which posits that some factors are related to job satisfaction (intrinsic) while others are associated with job dissatisfaction (extrinsic). He recognized intrinsic factors as motivators (Achievement, Recognition, Enjoyable Work, Responsibility, and Growth) and extrinsic ones as dissatisfiers (poor supervision, poor relationships, inequities in pay, low status, and poor security). An interesting observation by Herzberg was that the factors that led to job satisfaction were separate from those that led to job dissatisfaction. Eliminating factors that led to job dissatisfaction would not necessarily make a job more satisfying but would lead to "no dissatisfaction" while the absence of intrinsic factors could lead to "no satisfaction". In Hertzberg's Theory, money is not a motivator of behavior. Yet, I can remember many instances of executives engaging in extreme work hours striving for that all-important, year-end bonus. It certainly seemed like at motivator in those instances.

David McClelland and associates proposed the Three Needs Theory which states that three acquired (not innate) needs are major motives to motivation (D. C. McClelland, Power: The Inner Experience; New York: Irvington, 1975). The Three Needs Theory proposes the the need for achievement, the need for power, and the need for affiliation drive behavior in work situations.

Goal-Setting Theory (J. C. Naylor and Dr. R. Ilgen, Goal Setting: A Theoretical Analysis of a Motivational Technique, Research in Organizational Behavior; Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1984) is the proposition that specific goals increase performance and that challenging goals result in higher performance than easy goals. There is considerable support for this idea in multiple studies; but also, many exceptions have been identified such as lack of goal acceptance, lack of confidence in one's ability to do the goal, and cultural differences.

Reinforcement Theory (B. F. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior; New York: Free Press, 1953), ignores factors such as goals, expectations, and needs, and focuses on what happens to a person when he or she does something. According to the theory, people will perform desired behaviors if they are rewarded for doing so. However, while reinforcement can influence behavior, it isn't the only explanation for employee motivation.

Equity Theory (J. S. Adams, Inequity in Social Exchanges, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology; New York: Academic Press, 1965), proposes that employees compare the input-outcome ratios of their work with relevant others; and, if inequities are discovered, lower or higher productivity can result. I can envision that if someone in the same job with similar goals received much higher pay, that it would be demotivating.

Expectancy Theory (V. H. Vroom, Work and Motivation; New York, John Wiley, 1964), states that an individual trends to act in a certain way based on the expectation that the act will generate a given outcome and the attractiveness of that outcome. That seems fairly obvious to me but very limited as to application.

So why are there so many theories of workplace motivation? Why is there so much disagreement on what influences behavior? It occurs to me that it is because people are too diverse and complex for generalized theories. Even if I understand a theory and it is appliable to a specific situation, it does not mean I understand what drives a specific individual's behavior.

I really like the example about motivators Michael Useem presents in his book, (The Leadership Moment; Times Business 1998). In it, he explains why several famous track stars strove to break the 4 minute record for the mile. Even though each runner was motivated to break the world record, we still may not know how or what to motivate them to do so.


As one can see, in attempting to motivate an employee to perform a particular task, it is insufficient to simply understand motivational theory. The art of motivating people is to know the person. What are their personal needs, goals, and values.

Be aware that a change in the current situation can change motivational drivers of individuals in an instant. Perhaps there is a crisis at home or an illness, or some extreme good fortune. Motivational theories may help our conceptualization of what influences behavior, but they are insufficient without a detailed knowledge of the individual.



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