Take steps to help motivate your employees

Years ago, Clark Hull, a famous psychologist who taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1916-29, developed a profound theory about what motivates people.

At the time, he was admired around the world for bringing science and math into the human condition.

Years later, in 1968, Frederick Herzberg, a psychologist who became one of the most influential names in business management, wrote the article “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” for the Harvard Business Review.

Today, in 2013, employers continue to ask the same question. But it’s complicated. Gen X and Gen Y are demonstrating that their “code” is much different than Hull’s ideas from the 1920s and Herzberg’s from the 1960s.

I want to try to put this in perspective by bridging some gaps between old and new motivational thinking.

Let’s start with a compromise between the two.

Ability x Effort = Motivation (Plus or Minus Attitude)

This equation recognizes that employee motivation isn’t one-dimensional. What may be low motivation to perform for one employee may be high motivation for another. How do we know?

Ability is the consequence of several factors such as intelligence, experience, education, training, natural talent, and any specific physical requirements to complete the task. An employee’s ability might be high or low.

Effort is the degree of physical, psychological or emotional resources that a person puts forth to complete a task. It can range from high to low.

Multiply ability by effort and you end up with a presumed level of employee motivation. By the way, as an employer or manager, ask yourself: What levels of ability and effort can you truly influence in your business? A positive attitude enhances an employee’s level of motivation, and a negative attitude diminishes it.

For example, John works “fine tuning” a robotic unit that drills precision holes on a nautical lift apparatus used at shipyards around the world. It’s a $500,000 unit. He’s very good at robotics and works hard. He was recently passed over for a promotion to supervisor. So he decides to do a subtle misalignment of one out of 300 holes on the lift.

Result? The unit fails final inspection and must be re-tooled. That’s attitude! John, by the way, was fired after 20 years with the company.

Here’s where Gen X and Gen Y come into play. They can have all the ability in the world and put forth a reasonable degree of effort. But with a lousy attitude, they would describe their motivation level as “it is what it is.”

So that’s where we are today. What would Hull and Herzberg say about all of this?

Need deprivation

Among Hull’s strict mathematical formulae is a basic concept that an animal or human that is deprived of a basic need will be motivated to satisfy the need.

In the workplace, environmental sources of need deprivation could include poor lighting, loud noise, obnoxious odors, work isolation, or an office that’s too hot or too cold. Human sources could be punitive supervisory practices, bullying by a co-worker, any type of harassment or discrimination, and – no surprise – sleep deprivation.

We all need restful sleep. Today, there’s growing evidence that many Americans, for a variety of reasons, aren’t getting the sleep they require to work efficiently.

Think about it. You or a highly motivated employee might be sleep-deprived. What happens? You have trouble concentrating, you become inattentive, you lose focus and basically just “hang in there.”

But restore restful sleep and you become rejuvenated, exhilarated and have lots of energy. So you will do what you can to get enough sleep. That could be reducing stress, not arguing just before bedtime, or not abusing drugs or alcohol.

That might sound easier than it is, but I think we can all agree that they’re serious detriments to employee productivity. They are all distractions that affect employee motivation.

So the basic message to an employer is to remove sources of need deprivation, and replace them with an enriched, true motivational working environment. Employers can’t, unfortunately, do anything about sleep deprivation.

The workplace environment

Herzberg has focused almost exclusively on the workplace environment. I’m not aware of anyone today who has matched his genius on the subject of workplace motivation.

I want to focus on what he calls vertical job loading. He says these are the only significant job motivators. All others – like more pay, bonuses, benefits, perks and the working environment – fall into another category. It’s important for employers to hear this.

Here are six principles of job loading:

  • Assigning employees specific tasks or projects, enabling them to become experts in the area to which they are assigned. The motivators are a sense of responsibility, perception of growth, and real organizational advancement.
  • Introducing difficult and more strenuous challenges. The motivators are growth and learning.
  • Distributing company information directly to employees, not through supervision. The motivators are internal employee recognition, important to enhance feelings of self-importance and esteem.
  • Giving more authority to employees which, in turn gives them a genuine sense of job freedom. The motivators are responsibility, recognition and achievement.
  • Giving an employee a precise area of work responsibility that is not shared by others. The motivators are responsibility, recognition and achievement.
  • Making employees more accountable for results. The motivators are responsibility and recognition.

The final word

The message I get from these classical experts is that need deprivation is bad, attitude is very important, and the intangibles in a business will motivate employees much more than “instant gratification” tools.

So how many times, as an employer, do you walk up to an employee and thank him? Or recognize her for a job well-done and tell her to take the day off?

Do you give them more responsibility by asking them to learn about and participate in another area of your business? Do you make them accountable for a project or task they’ve never had to worry about before?

The truth about motivation is that you can lead the horse to water but you can’t force it to drink. People are motivated, or not, for a variety of complex reasons. All we can do as employers is what’s within our power so that our employees will be as motivated as possible.

It stands to reason that, as employers, we need feedback – not from third parties but from our employees directly. Hence, good reviews, or an anonymous survey here and there, can help us accomplish that.

I love this one. An employee announces she’s leaving to take another job. Instead of asking the age-old question, “Why are you leaving?” try asking: “What’s the best thing you liked about working here, and what’s the worst thing about working here?”

Until the next time, let’s all try to better understand employee motivation.

Harry S. Dennis III is the owner of TEC Wisconsin/Michigan. TEC is a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at (262) 821-3340.

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