13 Sep 2016 20:16 IST

What we know and don’t know about motivation

Employee motivation isn’t rocket science. All it takes is a change of perception to know what makes people tick

Employee motivation has been the focus of research for many decades. Yet, leaders refer to this as the ‘black box’ and struggle with issues of lack of motivation. The answer to this perceived dilemma is not hard to fathom.

We, as leaders, can learn about and harness motivation if we make a little effort and reflect on our understanding of what motivates people, given the enormous amount of evidence on the subject. Let us address this by focusing on a simple, yet powerful, set of motivation theories: Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y.

McGregor advised that management practices that are widely practised revolve around a manager’s belief system, which is characterised by:

~~ An assumption that employees inherently dislike work and, hence, will avoid work if they can

~~ Employees prefer to be directed and micromanaged rather than take responsibility by themselves

~~ Tend to avoid responsibility, and

~~ People lack self-motivation and require external control and close supervision

These assumptions are what McGregor calls Theory X assumptions. His recommendation is that, in reality, the motivation is a result of a qualitatively different set of assumptions:

~~ For normal employees, work is only as natural as rest or play

~~ People are ambitious and are, therefore, capable of directing their own behaviour

~~ Employees not only accept responsibility, but actually seek it under proper conditions

~~ People are, by and large, self-motivated.

These come under what is termed as Theory Y assumptions. McGregor articulated the power of replacing Theory X assumptions with Theory Y several decades ago in his masterpiece The Human Side of Enterprise.

Today, if you walk into any company and go through the supervisory practices, you will be surprised to learn that even after decades of wisdom, the key to motivation lies in the Theory Y assumptions. Despite this, managerial behaviour does not reflect this at all.

Ironies of motivation

Bob Nelson, among the world’s best known motivation gurus, has studied the “ironies of motivation” extensively. His work is evidence enough that we continue to persist with assumptions that undermine the power of the Theory Yset. Here are some highlights from his study:

1. Lawrence Lindahl studied what employees wanted from their jobs in late 1940 and later repeated this study, with similar results, in the 1980 and the 1990s. Managers identified good wages, job security, and promotion/growth opportunities as primary reasons why they felt their employees worked. Employees, on the other hand, reported intangibles such as appreciation for work done, feeling “in” on things and empathetic managers as what they most wanted from their jobs.

When workers and managers were asked to rank a list of motivators from one to ten in order of their importance to workers, workers rated “appreciation for a job well done” as their top motivator while a manager rated it eighth! Employees rated feeling “in” on things as number two, whereas supervisors rated it last at ten! And then we complain our employees are not motivated.

2. Managers do not tend to focus on employee motivation until it is lost. More often than not, managers are busy handling their daily crises on the job and, as a result, paying attention to employee motivation does not take priority. Only when the employee shows up with his resignation do most managers even start to check out what is wrong. And it does not stop there. Instead of reflecting on their own poor communication and lack of appreciation, they often blame the employees as disloyal, disinterested, and unproductive.

Smart leaders

Smart leaders do the opposite. They understand that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and repair. From AT&T to Motorola, and several others, companies have experimented with self-managing teams for many decades with very positive results.

More recently, two senior leaders from Best Buy came out with what they called “creating a ROWE”- Result Only Work Environment. Employees experience an enormous level of empowerment in such an environment. Daniel Pink, in his masterpiece work and best-selling book Drive, has emphasised the need for offering a fair amount of autonomy to your workforce to get them motivated.

Employee motivation need not be an impossible task. Leaders have to change their basic assumptions about people and what makes them tick.