Motivating Employees [Part 1]

 Motivation is often described as the unobservable force that directs, gives energy, and sustains behavior over time and across different and changing situations. Motivation can also be defined as the factors impacting behavior that are not due to personal ability or situations. In fact, motivation can be driven by myriad factors: biological processes, needs, values, group norms, personality emotions, characteristics of the job, national culture and many others. There are two principles which work psychology has found support for.

First, behavior is always goal-motivated, goals being defined as “internal representations of desired end-states.” Therefore motivation is always driven by the desire to achieve a certain goal. Of course, goals are different – there are action goals (mid-level goals driving behavior at a certain time), superordinate (values, needs, what we desire to be as a person), and subordinate goals (biological). No single goal exists in a vacuum, and the strength/importance of an action goal is defined by how closely it relates to superordinate goals (i.e. can it be justified by overarching personality and value structures), and is supported by subordinate goals (i.e., biologically and materially possible).

Second, motivation is created when one wants to decrease the discrepancy between one’s current state and one’s desired state. Discrepancies are unpleasant, and result in arousal and perceived stress. The higher the discrepancy in the goal hierarchy, the greater repercussions it has on behavior. For example, a change in one’s life values after a traumatic event such as cancer diagnosis will change the action-level goals (e.g. appreciating family more) and subordinate goals (e.g. eating healthier to be able to fight the illness).

As regards motivation at work, there are various factors that predict it. Here is a list of them with brief explanations of their influence on motivation:


National culture

Culture is defined as the “collective programming of the mind that distinguished one group of people from another.” Culture shapes values and motives of employees. For example, in a collectivistic national culture, employees would probably like less autonomy, less difficult work goals, and more supervision from their supervisors. In a very masculine culture, such as Hong Kong, employees might like financial rewards more, while in low masculinity culture such as in Finland, employees will be more motivated to achieve job satisfaction, and have autonomy in their work.


Organizational culture

Organizational culture is the shared beliefs and experiences of employees, the way “things are done” in a given company. Every organization has its own culture, usually a function of its founder or leader, and built around the practices that the company adopted during its early days and difficult business crises. The organizational culture helps employees make sense of the situations at work and guides them how to react to them. For example, in a company where there is open-door policy and decentralized decision-making, in case of a pressing matter, an employee is expected to bring it up to his or her coworkers and proceed to finding solution collectively. In this case proactivity is more important than just the bureaucratic filing of the incident to the supervisor.


Compensation systems

Needless to say, when higher compensation is tied in with higher and better performance, the motivation of employees is increased. However, the matter is not so transparent – research shows that when employees face difficult, but interesting tasks, their motivation will be decreased if we give them high salary conditional on their performance. In the future world of independent work and automation, it is highly likely that employees will seek internally-motivating work, a job that satisfies their curiosity and values, thus downplaying compensation’s importance. In fact, the generation of Millennials would rather work an interesting job and be underpaid instead of taking an already stigmatized corporate, highly-paid, and stressful position.


Job characteristics

Each job can be defined by five basic characteristics: skill variety (the degree to which a job requires a person to perform different activities), task identity (the degree to which a job requires completion of a whole, identifiable piece of work), task significance (the degree to which the job has a positive impact on the lives of others), autonomy (the degree to which the job provides freedom how to perform one’s work), and feedback (the degree to which individuals receive feedback from their job, that is the job itself gives them indication whether they are doing it well or not). The motivating potential of a job is a summative equation where the first three characteristics have weights of 1/3, and the last two of 1. Therefore, it is of critical importance that the job provides autonomy and feedback is given to the employee for the job to be motivating.

The dynamics between the five characteristics and motivation is, however, not that straightforward. For instance, a very boring job, i.e. having low skill variety, can be motivating if it has very high significance. Imagine an employee who observes just one camera whole day, the one that looks onto the main entrance of a nuclear plant. If he or she realizes that their job is crucial for the security and health of millions of people, they might be absolutely fine with their job and feel motivated by it. Also, jobs have social and contextual characteristics. Social characteristics can be divided into social support, interdependence, interactions with coworkers and clients, as well as feedback from others.

Contextual characteristics include ergonomics, physical demands, work conditions, and equipment use. For example, a very stressful and difficult job (i.e. high skill variety, knowledge-heavy, and interdependence), can be offset by having high social support from colleagues. Plainly said, when one experiences job stress and the job is very complex, if there is someone at work to share your problems and go for a lunch talk about your hobbies, that is remain humane and listening to your own needs, you are on a good track away from burnout.

Expect our next blog post next week…

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