Motivation in the Workplace

What you’ll learn to do: Discuss impact of motivation in the workplace

So far in this module, we’ve discussed the components of motivation and some of the most well-known and useful motivational theories. There are more theories out there, and we could go on for quite a while describing them. However, it’s important for managers to understand that all of them seek to predict human behavior and understand the mystery that is motivation, and that all of them bring some amount of clarity to the issue.

Now it’s time to dig in to how exactly motivation impacts the workplace.

Cropped photograph of five students sitting around a table working on their laptops.

Learning Outcomes

  • Analyze managerial responses to motivation theories
  • Discuss the impact of cultural differences on motivation

Managerial Responses to Motivation

Now that we understand a bit more about what motivation is and the theories behind its origins and development, we can put them to work in a managerial setting. Let’s take a look at some managerial responses to motivation.

Management by Objectives

We talked a bit about management by objectives (MBO) when we discussed goal setting as a part of the work component of motivation. Management by Objective is a response to the goal-setting theory as a motivator.

The goal setting theory has an impressive base of research support, and MBO makes it operational. As a reminder, MBO sets individual goals for employees based on department goals, which are based on company goals. It looks like this:

Diagram showing how Company Goals filter down into the goals of three departments. In each department, goals filter down into individual goals.

MBO advocates specific, measurable goals and feedback. There is only implication, though, that goals are perceived as attainable. The approach is most effective when the individual has to stretch to meet the goals set.

MBO can be a participative process. When individuals are consulted in the creation of their own goals, it often results in workers setting a goal that stretch them further. MBO does not require that the individual worker participate, though. The process seems to be about as effective when goals are assigned by a manager to the individual.

MBO is a widely used and successful practice for many industries. Failures occur when unrealistic expectations come into play, or cultural incompatibilities thwart the process.

Employee Recognition Programs

Employee recognition programs cover a wide variety of activities, ranging from private “thank yous” to publicized recognition ceremonies. It strengthens the link between performance and outcome on the expectancy framework. Recognition continues to be cited on surveys as one of the most powerful motivators for an employee.

Types of recognition might include:

  • A personal thank you to an employee from a manager, verbally or in a note
  • A public recognition of an employee, in a company communication or ceremony
  • A team thank you via a lunch bought by the manager
  • A program where customers recognize great service by front line workers

In an environment where there are layoffs and increased workloads all across the country, recognition programs go a long way toward motivating employees and provide a relatively low-cost way to boost performance.

Employee Involvement Programs

Photograph of two people shaking hands over a desk while a third person applauds.Employee participation and participative management, employee ownership, workplace democracy . . . these are all a part of the catch-all term called “employee involvement programs.” Specifically, employee involvement is a process that uses the entire capacity of employees and is designed to increase employee’s commitment to the organization’s success.

Here are a few types of employee involvement:

  • Employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs). A fairly popular employee involvement program, where an ESOP trust is created, and the organization will contribute stock or cash to buy stock for the trust. The stock is then allocated to employees. Research suggests that ESOPs increase satisfaction but their impact on performance remains unclear, as companies offering this option often perform similarly to companies that don’t.
  • Participative management. This is a program where subordinates share a significant responsibility for decision making with their managers. As jobs become more complex, managers aren’t always aware of everything that employees do, and studies have found that this process increases the commitment to decisions. Research shows that this approach has a modest influence productivity, motivation, and job satisfaction.
  • Representative participation. This is an approach where workers are represented by a small group of employees who participate in organizational decisions. Representative participation is mean to put labor on more equal terms with management and stockholders where company decisions are concerned. The overall influence on working employees seems to be minimal, and the value of it appears to be more symbolic than motivating.

If you look at these employment involvement programs through the Theory X & Theory Y lens, the approach certainly leans more toward the Theory Y approach of people management. These programs can also satisfy an employee’s needs for responsibility, achievement, etc., and thus fit well with the ERG theory as well. They can be part of a good balance of motivational offerings.

Job Redesign Programs

Clever redesign of jobs to accommodate employees’ needs for additional flexibility can serve to motivate them. Managers looking to reshape jobs in order to make them more motivating might look toward a few redesign and scheduling options.

  • Job rotation. Employees who have very repetitive jobs can find new motivation in a job rotation program. An assembly line might employ this technique, where a worker might be focused on constructing a portion of an exhaust system for a period of time, and the move over to an area that is devoted to putting together transmissions. This approach navigates the pitfalls of boredom, but it can increase training costs and temporarily reduce productivity as people ramp up with their new responsibilities.
  • Job enrichment. This refers to the vertical expansion of one’s job to include additional responsibilities that allow employees to control planning, execution, and evaluation aspects of their work. Employees can see a task through from start to finish in many cases, allowing for a holistic view of the task and ownership of the outcome. For instance, a group that formerly only handled the development of art for marketing materials might be retrained to meet with clients, get a better understanding of their needs, and then work with a printer to produce the final product. This process generally yields a reduction in turnover and an increase in job satisfaction for employees, but evidence of increased productivity is often inconclusive.
  • Flexible Hours. Flexible hours allow employees a degree of autonomy when it comes to the hours of their workday. Morning people can be up-and-at-‘em at 6AM, and night owls can show up later and work later. Flexible hours often reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and reduce overtime expenses. However, this approach is not applicable to every job.
  • Job Sharing. This program allows for two or more individuals to share a 40-hour work week. Job sharing allows an organization to draw on the talents of more than one person to complete a job and allows them to avoid layoffs due to overstaffing. Conversely, a manager has to find compatible pairs of employees, which is not always such an easy task.
  • Telecommuting. When an individual can work from home, he or she can have more flexible hours, less downtime in a car, the ability to wear whatever he or she wants, and fewer interruptions. Organizations that employ telecommuting can realize higher productivity, enjoy a larger labor pool from which to select employees, and experience less office space costs. But telecommuters can’t experience the benefits of an office situation, and managers can tend to undervalue the contributions of workers they don’t see regularly.

Job redesign and scheduling can be linked to several motivational theories. Herzberg’s two-factor theory supports the idea of job enrichment in its proposal that increasing intrinsic factors of a job will increase an employee’s satisfaction with a job. Flexibility is an important link in linking rewards to personal goals in the expectancy theory.

Variable Pay Programs

Photograph of increasing stacks of coins with plants on top of each stack, indicating growthWhile we’ve already discussed that pay isn’t always a motivator for employees, revamping an organization’s compensation system to incentivize employees can play well into increasing motivation and productivity. Examples of variable pay programs include piece-rate programs, where employees are compensated by the number of units they produce, or profit-sharing plans, where organizations share compensation with employees based on the company’s profitability.

Variable-pay programs increase motivation and productivity, as organizations with these plans are shown to have higher levels of profitability than those who don’t. Variable-pay is most compatible with the expectancy theory predictions that employees should perceive a strong relationship between their performance and the rewards they receive.

These programs help managers address differences in individual needs and allow employees to participate in decisions that affect them. Combining some of these tactics with MBO so that employees understand what’s expected of them, linking performance and rewards through recognition and making sure the system is equitable can help make a manager’s organization productive.

Practice Question

Motivation in Different Cultures

A warning for managers everywhere—motivation theories are culture-bound.

Photograph of someone holding their hands next to one another. A map of the world is superimposed on the hands.The theories you’ve read about have been developed by American psychologists and scientists for the American workplace, and the behaviors suggested are dictated by the American culture. Managers working for international companies who have remote international teams may find it difficult to apply the suggestions of these theories to everyone on their team.

For instance, Maslow’s theory, which suggests that humans follow a needs path from physiological needs to needs of safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization, is a typically American point of view. Greece and Mexico, countries with cultures that look for a significant set of rules and guidelines in their lives, might have safety at the top of their pyramids, while Scandinavian countries, well known for their nurturing characteristics, might have social needs at the top of theirs. If these differences are well understood, managers can adapt accordingly, and understand that group work is more important for their Scandinavian workers, and so on.

What other theories fall short when you stand them up against other cultures? Well, the need to achieve and a concern for performance is found in the US, UK and Canada, but in countries like Chile and Portugal, it’s almost non-existent. The equity theory, which we talked about in the first section of this module, is embraced in the US, but in the former socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, workers expect their rewards to reflect their personal needs as well as their performance. It stands to reason that US pay practices might be perceived as unfair in these countries.

Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and a former IBM employee, conducted some pioneering research on cross-cultural groups in organizations, which led to his cultural dimensions theory.

In this theory, Hofstede defines culture as the unique way in which people are collectively taught in their environments. He looks to compare and understand the collective mindset of these groups of people and how they differ. His conclusions were that cultural differences showed themselves in six significant buckets. Hofstede created an “index” for each category to show where individual cultures fell along the spectrum:

  • Power Distance: this is an index that describes the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. A higher index number suggests that hierarchy is clearly established and executed in society, while a lower index would indicate that people question authority in that culture. (Latin, Asian, and Arab countries score on the high side, while Anglo and Germanic countries score low. The US is in the middle.)
  • Individualism: this measures the degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups. The United States scores very high in this category.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: this is defined as a “society’s tolerance for ambiguity.” Cultures scoring high in this area opt for very defined codes of behavior and laws, while cultures scoring lower are more accepting of different thoughts and ideas. Belgium and Germany score high while countries like Sweden and Denmark score lower.
  • Masculinity vs femininity: in more masculine societies, women and men are more competitive, while in feminine societies, they share caring views equally with men. Anglo countries like the UK and the US tend to lean toward masculinity in their cultures, while Scandinavian countries tend toward femininity.
  • Long-term Orientation vs. Short-term Orientation: this measures the degree to which a society honors tradition. A lower score indicates traditions are kept, while a higher score indicates the society views adaptation and problem-solving as a necessary component of their culture. Asian cultures have strong long-term orientation, while Anglo countries, Africa and Latin America have shorter-term orientation.
  • Indulgence vs. restraint: this is a measurement of happiness if simple joys are fulfilled. Indulgent societies believe themselves to be in control of their lives, while restrained societies believe that external forces dictate their lives. There is less data about this particular dimension, but we do know that Latin America, the Anglo countries and Nordic Europe score high on indulgence, while Muslim countries and East Asia tend to score high on restraint.

The Hofstede Insight website takes the guesswork out of comparing countries’ cultures and can help you understand the collective viewpoint of their people as they relate to these six indices.

The six indices for Brazil, China, Germany, and United States. Brazil has the following numbers: 69 Power Distance, 38 Individualism, 49 Masculinity, 76 Uncertainty Avoidance, 44 Long Term Orientation, and 59 Indulgence. China has the following numbers: 80 Power Distance, 20 Individualism, 66 Masculinity, 30 Uncertainty Avoidance, 87 Long Term Orientation, and 24 Indulgence. Germany has the following numbers: 35 Power Distance, 67 Individualism, 66 Masculinity, 65 Uncertainty Avoidance, 83 Long Term Orientation, and 40 Indulgence. United States has the following numbers: 40 Power Distance, 91 Individualism, 62 Masculinity, 46 Uncertainty Avoidance, 26 Long Term Orientation, and 68 Indulgence.

When you compare Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as we briefly did above, you can see where cultural differences shift the order of needs on the pyramid. We mentioned above that Belgium and Germany score high on the uncertainty avoidance dimension—they don’t like social ambiguity, they want to be able to control their futures and feel threatened by the unknown. So it would make sense that, while “safety” is the second rung of the pyramid here in the United States, it’s a more significant need to satisfy in German culture.

Hofstede’s cultural dimension highlight the importance cultures place on different needs. These dimensions can be used to determine differences in individual needs based on their cultural teachings and beliefs.

Now that we’ve discussed this in some detail, it’s important to understand that not all motivational drivers are culture-bound. For example, the desire for interesting work appears to be important to all workers everywhere. Growth, achievement and responsibility were also highly rated across various cultures. The manager of an international team doesn’t have to approach everything differently. But keeping in mind that cultural differences drive individuals’ needs will help a manager create motivating circumstances for all his workers.

Practice Question