When performance doesn't improve, motivation didn't work

March 20, 2006
Only when performance leads to outcomes of higher value can we say that attempts at motivation are successful.

The best way to guarantee our continued economic well being is to maximize the productivity of the assets under our direct control. When it comes to human assets and the motivation thereof, the whip-and-chair approach is not very effective in a litigious society. There are more sophisticated ways to foster a staff culture that produces freely of their own volition, being creative and proactive in solving problems. That is what it takes to make a supervisor look good.

Common sense tells us that staff superstars are significantly more productive than those operating at average levels of performance. Formal research confirms this sense we have about people and their value to the organization. For instance, the top performers contribute to productivity and profitability in many ways. Among the attributes of the best:

  • They process new information quickly.
  • They comprehend and remember.
  • They apply new knowledge to the task at hand.
  • They can be cross-trained quickly.
  • They interact well with others.
  • They exhibit a higher level of maturity.

Anyone who has ever witnessed a superstar in action can extend this list. Managing and supervising a top performer is much easier, perhaps because of the existence of mutual trust.

However, not everyone can be a superstar. You cannot jam 100 percent of the population into the top 50 percent of any performance scale. The reality of life is that every company has employees that should never have been hired in the first place, but we generally don't or can't do anything about it. The rational way to deal with these people is to work within the limits the person brings to the job.

Because we can't get everyone into the upper half, it is the role of management to ratchet up performance across the board so that the performance constituting the 50th percentile increases. Effective leadership motivates people and guides them in achieving corporate goals. Technical expertise becomes less important while people skills gain in importance as one ascends the hierarchical ladder.

The right stuff or the Peter Principle?

Every member of any corporate supervisory structure naturally believes they have the innate people skills required to keep the staff fired up at peak levels of productivity. After all, didn't they achieve stature and executive status by doing the right things at the right time in front of the right people? They believe they are the best of the best. By extension, they just know they are good at motivating people.

But if they are truly the best at leadership, why is there so often concern and disappointment over the actual performance of a business unit? Perhaps everyone has something to learn before the benefits of effective motivation can be enjoyed. Learning to motivate another person is the role of management. That other person learning to embrace a motivated lifestyle is the flip side of the issue.

Psychological underpinnings

Psychological theoreticians have several definitions of motivation. One source calls it the "psychological processes that cause the arousal direction and persistence of voluntary actions that are goal-directed." Another says, "motivation is the forces that energize, direct and sustain a person's effort." Still another calls it the "psychological processes that cause arousal direction, and persistence of voluntary actions that are goal directed." Whatever it is, motivation and goal-directed behavior cannot be measured, only observed. When we see it, we know what we are looking at.

Herzberg's Two Factor Theory

Of the theories that claim motivation is influenced by the type of tasks a person completes at work, Herzberg's seems to be the most relevant for plant professionals because it was originally developed on the basis of engineers and accountants. The general idea is the concept of pairs of factors. They are called satisfiers and dissatisfiers. There is also the idea of intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

Extrinsic factors include such concepts as salary, working conditions, quality of supervision, company procedures and the like. Extrinsic factors are thought to operate on a continuum from low dissatisfaction to high dissatisfaction. Intrinsic factors include ideas like achievement, advancement, responsibility, recognition and the like. Intrinsic factors run the range from low satisfaction to high satisfaction.

Note the difference between the two--low dissatisfaction is not the same as high satisfaction, nor is low satisfaction the same as high dissatisfaction. The theory says that extrinsic conditions result in dissatisfaction when they are absent. However, when they are present, they do not motivate employees.

Extrinsic factors must be built into the process simply to ensure the employee maintains some position at the "not dissatisfied" end of the continuum.

When intrinsic factors are absent, they do not lead to dissatisfaction. On the other hand, those intrinsic factors, when present, result in motivation and performance. These are what really move people to reach and exceed corporate goals.

McClelland's Learned Needs Theory

This theory argues that people are motivated by unmet or unsatisfied needs, of which McClelland posits three:

  • Need for achievement.
  • Need for affiliation.
  • Need for power.

It is not clear whether we are born with these needs or if they are learned from the society and culture in which we live. Nevertheless, the theory contends that the need for achievement can be learned.

Research on high achievers shows that such people prefer to set their own performance goals. They dodge both easy and difficult tasks in favor of those that are achievable with some manageable level of effort. High achievers need immediate and reliable feedback to measure how well they are doing.

Finally, they like to be responsible for solving problems. Their focus on success, rather than the avoidance of failure, leads them to set more realistic goals. Having high achiever traits has been shown to correlate positively with success in lower-level management jobs.

Another drive, the need for power, makes a person concerned with controlling the environment--and the people in it. We are talking personal power here. Those with a highly developed need for power seek to dominate others as an end to itself. Some might feel this is a dictatorial approach to life and work, but if it is channeled in the corporate direction, these people exercise their power in the attainment of corporate goals. Research shows that a high need for power correlates positively with success in upper management.

Hackman and Oldham's Model

In the ideal world, employees are self-motivated to do better for nothing more than the sheer joy of knowing they are doing better. Hackman and Oldham are concerned with the conditions under which a given job produces the self-generated motivation that is independent of external factors.

Their research mentions three key conditions for this to occur. First, the work must be experienced as meaningful on a personal level. The employee must care about the importance of the outcome. Second, the employee must feel a sense of personal responsibility for the work and outcome. This means the employee feels good about good outcomes and bad about bad ones. Third, there must be some feedback mechanism about the outcome so that the employee knows whether to feel good or bad.

Feedback is a powerful tool too often mishandled and heavily weighted on the penalty side. Remember, it is easy to extinguish budding motivation but sometimes difficult to make it take root. Be sure that the penalties for failure are much less that the penalty for doing nothing.

Fostering greater motivation

As interesting as it is to know about the theories of human behavior, theoretical knowledge alone does not make a staff that produces freely of their own volition. If you are dissatisfied with the performance of those under your direct control, make some changes. Doing things the same old way and expecting different results will only lead to frustration for everyone involved.

One way managers influence motivation is through job design. They change the process or the job description in a way that simultaneously increases the employee's satisfaction and performance. They take a critical look at the individual tasks the staff is expected to accomplish and ask questions. Is there unneeded redundancy? Does everything done here actually add value? Is the work process still doing things the way they were done years ago? Can more variety be put into a job function? Is job rotation a possibility?

This is not a case of coddling malingerers. Managers must be sensitive to individual differences and must continuously monitor the needs, abilities, goals and preferences of those under their command. Structure jobs to provide the employee with a sense of fairness, achievable challenges, diversity of duty and opportunity to satisfy internal needs.

Most people in most jobs easily see the direct connection between the level of effort they exert and the performance it produces. That simple connection, however, is not sufficient for corporate excellence. Very few jobs make the more important connection between improved performance and outcome. Absent a reward that reinforces the motivation to exert extra effort, a rational employee will not continue.

Make it happen

In general, goals are outcomes that attract the individual. It is probably a rational person's perception of one or more deficiencies (needs) that motivate them to perform. Effective motivation demands that the life not be crushed out of creativity as it is being born. If you can win hearts, minds and respect, if you can teach people the art of self-motivation, your staff will produce of their own volition.

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