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Modern Science of Employee Motivation

MotivationEdward Kiledjian2 Comments

As a manager, you are constantly adjusting your team for optimal performance. There are dozens of different factors that affect employee performance but one key element is motivation. Anecdotally you know that a motivated and enthused employee will outperform a sluggish indifferent one. 

There are plenty of so called experts selling their own blend of snake oil. Motivation can be as complicated or as simple as you make it. This entry will not be all encompassing and I will likely write future articles to complement this one. 

When I was first put into a management position, my old-school boss gave me lots of unsolicited advice. One of his favorite saying was “an employee does the minimum work to keep his job and an employer pays the minimum to keep the employee”. Now isn’t that a positive statement? 

So how does motivation impact on-the-job performance? 

In field research has clearly shown that an employees performance is a function of their ability times their motivation. 

Ability is fairly easy to ascertain and/or test. You can look at academic background, work accomplishments, administer standardized testing, etc. Motivation is a little more intangible. 

The foundation on which your motivational efforts will be based is what I call the motivational fairness doctrine. These are elements that do not directly motivate but the lack of them does prevent motivation. Elements that are part of the fairness doctrine include:

  • Clear and fair expectations communicated with the employee
  • Treating the employee with respect and with integrity
  • Satisfying the basic needs of the employee (job security, salary, benefits, etc) 

Interesting research 

There is no lack of research into motivation but here are some summaries I think are useful to mention here. 

The Minneapolis Gas Company conducted a 20 year employee survey (ended 1965) to determine what employees wanted from their jobs. The surveyed population included 31000 men and 13000 woman. Interestingly they discovered that what their employees wanted most (in order of importance) were:

  • Job Security
  • Carrier Advancement
  • Type of Work
  • Proud of the company 

Another study of industrial employees (conducted by Kovach in 1987) yielded:

  • Interesting work
  • Appreciation of work being done
  • Feeling of being in on things 

An unconventional view of motivation

 Reward or pain?

Most old-school managers believe that an employee’s motivation is simply determined by an appropriate reward for “good” behavior and appropriate pain for “undesirable” behavior. 

We know what this model simply does not work. Particularly the pain part. The negative end of this stick creates a hostile work environment not conducive to efficient work. 

So what works?

As a manager, your new role is that of a coach and enabler. I won’t go into too much detail into most of the requirements as they are simple and self explanatory. If you have questions, feel free to post them below. 

Operate with integrity and principle. The first thing you must do is earn the trust and respect of your employees. Just as you have high expectations from them, realize that they have high expectations for you. Take the time to think about what this can mean in your environment. Ask yourself how you can be more loyal to your employees? You will see that they will reciprocate. 

Instead of the reward of pain approach, why not recognize the high performers. Shower them with praise and recognition. Give the others something positive to work towards. Think about how you can implement some type of recognition system and how that recognition can be marketed to other teams or divisions. This should be an ongoing process and not a one off exception. It is important not to recognize someone just because you “have to”. If there is no one to recognize this month or quarter, that’s ok too. 

In your role as an enabler, you should identify any organizational irritants that may slowdown, negate or prevent peak performance. Your employees need to believe that you are an enabler and agent of change. Find processes, procedures or other red tape and find a way to fix it. 

Personal development is up next. As a manager, you should regularly meet each of your employees and must have a clear understanding of their goals and aspirations. Sometime this is more difficult than it sounds because the employee may not know. You may need to coach and work with them to help them identify their true goals. Once identified, it is important that the employee believe that you clearly understand and that you take steps to help them achieve it. Sometimes this can be helping them find a mentor in another domain that they are interested in and other times this may be widening their horizon thus allowing them to try new things. 

The power of persuasion

Remember that whatever the employee does must be their choice. As a coach, you must use the power of persuasion to help guide the employee in the right direction. 

I won’t cover persuasion techniques in this entry but I strongly recommend you read a couple of books about it.