Employee motivation theory and practice

Application of employee motivation theory to the workplace

Management literature is replete with actual case histories of what does and what does not motivate people. Presented here is a tentative initial broad selection of the various practices that have been tried in order to draw lessons for the future.

'Stick' or 'carrot' approach?

The traditional Victorian style of strict discipline and punishment has not only failed to deliver the goods, but it has also left a mood of discontent amongst the "working class".

Punishment appears to have produced negative rather than positive results and has increased the hostility between 'them' (the management) and 'us' (the workers). In contrast to this, the 'carrot' approach, involving approval, praise and recognition of effort has markedly improved the work atmosphere, leading to more productive work places and giving workers greater job satisfaction.

Manager's motivation 'toolkit'

The manager's main task is to develop a productive work place, with and through those he or she is in charge of. The manager should motivate his or her team, both individually and collectively so that a productive work place is maintained and developed and at the same time employees derive satisfaction from their jobs.

This may appear somewhat contradictory, but it seems to work. The main tools in the manager's kitbag for motivating the team are:

  • approval, praise and recognition
  • trust, respect and high expectations
  • loyalty, given that it may be received
  • removing organizational barriers that stand in the way of individual and group performance (smooth business processes, systems, methods and resources - see outline team building program)
  • job enrichment
  • good communications
  • financial incentives

These are arranged in order of importance and it is interesting to note that cash is way down the ladder of motivators. Let's look at a couple of examples taken from real life situations.

The Swedish shipbuilding company, Kockums, turned a 15 million dollar loss into a 100 million dollar profit in the course of ten years due entirely to a changed perception of the workforce brought about by better motivation. At Western Electric there was a dramatic improvement in output after the supervisors and managers started taking greater interest in their employees.

Don't coerce - persuade!

Persuasion is far more powerful than coercion, just as the pen is mightier than the sword. Managers have a much better chance of success if they use persuasion rather than coercion. The former builds morale, initiative and motivation, whilst the latter quite effectively kills such qualities. The three basic components in persuasion are:

  • suggest;
  • play on the person's sentiments; and
  • appeal to logic.

Once convinced, the person is so motivated as to deliver the 'goods'. The manager will have achieved the goal quietly, gently and with the minimum of effort. It is, in effect, an effortless achievement.

There has been a considerable amount of research into persuasion / motivation in the field of advertising and marketing. The research is entirely of the applied type, which can and has been used to great practical advantage. Some of the findings in this field were first published in the fifties in a book with the title, The Hidden Persuaders, which became a bestseller.

More contemporary 'persuaders' used by advertising and marketing people include:

  • Faster talk is found to be more effective, since it is remembered better.
  • Brain emits fast beta waves when a person is really interested in a particular presentation. These waves can be detected by an instrument.
  • Subliminal approach using short duration presentation, whereby the message is transmitted below the level of awareness.

Can these findings be used in actual work conditions? AT&T (The American Telephone and Telegraph Co.,) recognizing the importance of hidden needs, at one time succeeded in promoting long distance calls by use of the simple phrase: 'Reach out, reach out and touch someone'. Managers will need to adapt this persuasion / motivation technique to their own situation.

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