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OPINION: Getting a handle on what motivates employees

As an employer or manager, this subject commands substantial time, energy and commitment. To make matters more challenging, it is an issue that is constantly changing. In today’s economic climate, merely keeping the job is probably a significant motivator. To successfully motivate employees, managers should often review and understand the needs of employees. Although there are as many individual needs as there are employees, the needs put forth by psychologists Abraham Maslow, Frederick Herzberg and David McClelland are often cited in management textbooks.

Abraham Maslow is well-known for his so-called Hierarchy of Needs Theory. It states that people have five basic needs, and that the lower level needs must be met in order for a person to move up to the higher needs. Think of it as climbing up a ladder. The first step relates to physical needs, such as water, food and air. Safety needs, such as security and safety, come next. From there, one moves up to psychological needs of acceptance and belonging. Next comes the need for self-esteem, which is the need for a person to feel good about oneself and what he or she is doing. At the top of the needs ladder is self-actualization, the need to realize one’s potential as a human being. It seems that the current popular psychology is all about self-actualization. Often we hear about how great it would be to find our passion in life and then find a job that matches that passion. Wow. What a concept. That means we would never have to work again. Maslow proposed that once a need is met, it is no longer a motivator, and that the lowest level of unmet need is the primary motivator. Thus, the idea is to find that unmet need of the employee and offer to satisfy it. This could be different for every employee or it could be the same for an entire group.

Frederick Herzberg’s approach is known as the Motivator-Hygiene Theory. It states that people have two sets of needs: motivator needs and hygiene needs. Motivator needs relate to the job itself. An employee’s outcomes are related to work things, such as responsibility, interesting and rewarding work, growth in the job and accomplishment. So to have a highly motivated workforce, the employer should provide jobs and a work environment that meets these criteria. Hygiene needs, on the other hand, relate to the physical and psychological context of the workplace. Things such as pay, working conditions and relationships with others are part of hygiene needs. Herzberg’s theory states that hygiene factors operate independently of motivator factors.He says that preventing dissatisfaction is as important as encouraging satisfaction.

David McClelland’s work deals with achievement, affiliation and power. Affiliation is about the individual’s concern for establishing and maintaining good personal relationships, being liked and getting along with other people. The need for achievement is the employee’s desire to perform challenging tasks and to meet personal standards for excellence. This type of employee needs frequent feedback. The need for power is related to the extent that a person likes to control others. This need is especially germane in management positions, especially upper management positions. Obviously, the relevance of each of these needs depends on an employee’s position in the workplace.

So, there you have three textbook theories. Now, let’s get back to the real world. What motivates an employee is based on the individual and on the circumstances. Surveys about employee motivation seem to reveal constantly changing motivators. For example, how you were perceived in high school might have something to do with your motivation and satisfaction at your job. In June 2008, CareerBuilder.com asked over 6,000 full-time workers age 30 and older to categorize their high school persona, and then compared those personas in terms of job level, salary, industry and job satisfaction. Categories included personas such as student government, athlete, geek, honor society, cheerleader, drama club, teacher’s pet and class clown. Here are some of the results:

• 81 percent of teacher’s pets and 76 percent of cheerleaders said they are satisfied with their jobs overall;

• Geeks and class clowns had the greatest number of workers who reported dissatisfaction with their jobs at 21 percent and 18 percent, respectively;

• 59 percent of teacher’s pets and 57 percent of athletes reported they are generally satisfied with their career progress; and

• Student government members and geeks had the greatest number of workers who reported dissatisfaction with their career progress at 32 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

What about executives? In May 2008, Catalyst, a nonprofit organization interested in women’s workplace issue, and the Families and Work Institute released a study, “Leaders in A Global Economy: Finding the Fit for Top Talent” that looked at what motivates top executives to stick with a company. Below are the overall ranking of factor that cause executive to stay with a company, the first three being the more important to women

• Having a challenging job;

• Having a supportive workplace;

• Having a good fit between life on and off the job;

• Being well compensated;

• Working at a company that has high values; and

• Having the opportunity for high achievement.

In summary, managers and employers need to constantly stay in tune with what motivates their employees and respond accordingly to maintain a high performance workforce.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.

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