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Classical Motivation Theories and Key Insights for the Future Of Work

Motivation is getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Even the best technology cannot be implemented without employee motivation. Psychology of the human mind has always been fascinating. What makes a person tick? Why does everybody not respond the same way to the same stimulus? What drives people has been a topic of thought, and research for well over a century, and it is still evolving. With the establishment of human organisations, people tried to find out the answer to what motivates an employee in the organisation; and this gave birth to several motivation theories.

We learnt through a short poll that among all the challenges that exist in the current times, employee motivation tops the list for leaders and managers. Let’s face it, employee motivation is a complex process, and requires an investment of time and energy. Several factors such as attitude, culture, work environment, perceptions, learning, and rewards contribute towards inducing motivation among employees. Motivation is measured through the actions and behaviours of employees. And all of this is in flux at the moment.

In this article, we examine four popular theories of motivation. None of them alone can contribute towards improving motivation, but if we look at the key takeaways from each of them, one is bound to make headway. Now more than ever before, leaders, managers and HR must work together to bring out desired behaviours in their people to achieve high productivity.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory:

Any discussion on motivation begins with Maslow. His theory classifies human needs under these five categories: i) Physiological needs ii) Safety needs iii) Need for love and belongingness iv) Esteem needs v) Need for self-actualisation. According to Maslow, physiological needs must be met first before the safety needs of an individual. And when these two needs are met, humans intrinsically move to seek love and belonging needs and so on.

Impact of the pandemic: The current state of our world has caused many people to be motivated by more basic needs than they were before this pandemic, especially since many people’s employment situations & circumstances have changed. What is classified as a basic need has also changed. For instance, health might now be on top of the list for many individuals, and only when this, and safety needs (including social distancing in the workplace, proper hygiene standards, and flexibility to work from home till necessary etc.) are met can people move on to meeting higher needs.

Takeaway for managers: When Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is applied to work situations, it implies that managers have the responsibility to (i) understand the current motives and needs of team members (ii) make sure that the deficiency needs are met. This may mean proper wages, a secure job, and appropriate wages. (iii) create and maintain a work environment in which employees can deliver to their fullest potential.

Motivation-Hygiene theory by popular psychologist Frederick Herzberg:

Also referred to as a two-factor theory, argues that there are two factors that an organisation can adjust to influence motivation in the workplace — i) Motivators that can encourage employees to work harder. ii) Hygiene factors, that won’t encourage employees to work harder but will cause them to become demotivated if they are not present.

Impact of the pandemic: A reality check here is that expecting employees to be motivated simply by improving hygiene factors will not affect motivation. For example, during the lockdown and work from home situation in Covid-19, companies may be paying employees the full salary and therefore expect them to be motivated. However, in reality, this is far from true. People may be frustrated due to the lack of freedom, or the drudgery of their routines, overwhelmed by their home situation, which requires more attention to the family. So, alternative ways must be devised, and virtual employee engagement is a must.

Takeaway for managers: The research conducted found that motivators are mostly intrinsic and can be found in the job itself. These are achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement and growth. However, areas of dissatisfaction or demotivators were mostly extrinsic factors such as – company policies, administration, supervision, work conditions, salary, security and interpersonal reasons. Motivators & hygiene factors are not opposite aspects of one dimension but 2 different dimensions. Hence to achieve motivation, managers must learn about motivators whilst maintaining constantly improved hygiene factors even when working virtually.

Equity theory

John Stacey Adams’ Equity Theory of motivation explains to us why pay and work conditions alone don’t determine motivation. If an employee finds out that a colleague who performs the same duties as him in the organisation gets paid more, then he may choose to do less work and feel justified about it. The underlying principle of the theory is that people value fair treatment in the organisation as a whole, which motivates them.

Impact of the pandemic: In times of Covid-19, fairness and equality in work have come in the forefront. In the pre-Covid times also employees were strongly affected by situations that appeared to be unfair in the workplace including colleagues’ views and gossip.

Takeaway for managers: Successful team leadership during times of extreme uncertainty and ambiguity requires a foundation of inclusion built with vision, courage, clear communication, diversity, equity, transparency, and resilience. Involving team members as decision-makers and contributors is a key element of inclusion and fosters team spirit. Flexibility is also a necessity for business continuity and supports inclusion. When everyone feels included, a sense of fairness will prevail.

Reinforcement theory:

Based on BF Skinner’s operant conditioning, the reinforcement theory focuses on the consequences of human behaviour as a motivating factor. Skinner’s experiments have shown that positive reinforcement works much more effectively to shape behaviour than negative reinforcement. In the workplace, this could be praise or appreciation for a task well done, or better compensation, promotion, or any other reward.

It distinguishes positive reinforcements from negative reinforcement and punishment, where the former gives a person only what they need in exchange for desired behaviour, and the latter tries to stop the undesired behaviour by inflicting unwanted consequences.

Impact of the pandemic: Employees are constantly dealing with change and that means there are chances of mistakes, inefficiency, low productivity, mood swings even. Therefore, a lot of reasons to reprimand. But on the flip side, there has been a great effort on part of every employee to adapt and remain persistent. As it is due to the lockdown, employee morale is on the lower end. Employees need some quick wins to continue displaying grit and strive for high productivity.

Takeaway for managers: Sincere recognition and appreciation are indispensable tools for engaging employees. If a manager desires to change the behavior of a team member, he must change the consequence of that behaviour. Even if it is a reprimand, it should eventually motivate the employee. Also, this theory states that positive reinforcement provides for better results than negative reinforcements such as reprimands.

Key insights to learn from these time-tested theories

The insights that we can learn to help us boost employee motivation in current remote working times are fairly simple.

1. Don’t ignore the obvious: Motivation is intrinsic. What motivates one employee may not motivate another, and we cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach. So just because there is now an online yoga class for employees, it is not fair to assume all employee wellbeing is addressed.

2. Find out what your employee needs now: Motivation has to be done in the context of the employees’ current environment. Therefore, when needs change, the motivation tool will also need to be changed! If an employee’s current need is to get help with elderly care, reduced work hours or a paid online eldercare course will prove to be a better motivator than maybe even a full pay currently.

3. Keep it fair & positive: Motivation can be built by reinforcement of behaviours. When there is clear communication and transparency, whether you recognise good work or reprimand poor work, it will be seen as just and will reinforce the desired behaviour.

Ultimately motivation is all about support, empowerment and empathy. People want to know that you’re in their corner and that we’re all going through this together. Always read and reassess the pulse. Your employees will undoubtedly be more productive and happier in the workplace, regardless of how long they have to work remotely.

At Yellow Spark, we design customised employee motivation strategies that are based on your employees’ profile and insights. To know more, reach us at contact@yellowspark.in

Author Profile: Aparna Joshi Khandwala is a passionate HR professional. She co-founded Yellow Spark to work with like-minded people who believe in the power of leadership, which is the only business differentiator in today’s time.

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Classical Motivation Theories and Key Insights for the Future Of Work
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Published on:  August 13, 2020