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Motivational Techniques That Work

During the past several years, the field of motivational theory and practice has been heavily saturated with seminars, a wide variety of self-study packages, and articles in professional journals.

While these offerings may differ in both content and approach to motivational techniques, they have one thing in common. They give the impression that any manager can quickly become proficient in the art of managing others by reading a book or completing one course. It simply does not work this way.

The reason that motivation cannot be instantly learned is that the subject is highly complex. Unlike a mathematical formula, the myriad factors of motivation are never black or white, but usually shades of gray.

Industrial/clinical psychology and applied psychiatry have made tremendous strides in understanding human behavior. New discoveries and applications toward understanding human behavior are being announced with increasing frequency in these inexact sciences. Still, it is possible to become reasonably proficient in the art of motivating others. While this skill is indeed complex, the average supervisor, through a comprehensive understanding of motivational elements (the dynamics of motivation, motivators, and motivational techniques), can become an effective leader of others in the workplace. With patience and applied practice, this skill can be obtained within a relatively short time span.

The Dynamics of Motivation: While there exist several useful definitions of motivation, for our purposes we will define it as an individual’s desire to do something based upon a need. When a person is confronted with a need (either perceived or actual), he or she usually is motivated to perform specific actions for some sort of gratification. Once a particular need has been satisfied, the motivation to continue the actions diminishes and remains at “zero level” until the need arises again. In order to fully appreciate this phenomenon, we must further examine motivational theory and analyze the unique characteristics of individual needs. These characteristics can be described as follows:

  • Some needs are definitely short term, hence easily satisfied.
  • Other needs are long term, and thus more difficult to fulfill.
  • Need levels and their degree of intensity vary greatly among individuals.
  • Need levels rarely remain fixed throughout a person’s life span.
  • Need satisfaction (fulfillment of needs) is a constantly changing, dynamic process.
  • The perception of needs is highly personal; what one individual perceives as a need may not be regarded as such by another.

There are several categories or zones for classifying needs.

Basic or Survival Zone: This zone comprises the basic needs for most individuals, including needs such as air, water, food, and shelter. When evaluating these needs, it is important to think of them in a very fundamental sense and not as influenced by the personal tastes and desires of individuals. For example, a glass of water and a bottle of rare Italian wine taste quite different, yet both will quench a thirst.

We tend to take these need-satisfactions for granted until they are taken from us. For example, we all take breathing for granted, yet we would certainly panic if our air supply were cut off for more than a few seconds. Similarly, while the need for shelter is usually fulfilled for most people, it takes only a few moments of walking in a blinding snowstorm to experience the discomfort of being deprived of shelter.

Under normal circumstances, needs classified within the basic or survival zone are usually well-satisfied for the average person. The perception of these needs is rather short-lived, and such needs are easily satisfied. The desire for these short-lived needs, once satisfied, will diminish only to return when the need resurfaces.

Safety or Security Zone: At a higher level are a cluster of related needs connected to our own safety and security. Within this zone, all of us have needs such as being reasonably secure in our daily job. While the majority of needs in this zone are common to all, it is interesting to note that their effect on individuals can vary widely. For example, a 45-year-old supervisor would probably be vitally interested in the organization’s pension/retirement plan, while an 18-year-old new employee might perceive the year-end bonus as far more important. The key variable is how an individual perceives a given situation, not what someone else believes to be true.

Relationship or Ego Zone: It is widely accepted that needs within this zone are the most complex and are not as easily satisfied as either basic/survival or as safety/security needs. In this broad area, we find the following kinds of relationship needs that fulfill our own ego requirements. Examples of relationship needs include:

  • Need for a personal sense of importance.
  • Need for belonging and acceptance from others.
  • Need for achievement.
  • Need to be loved and cared for.
  • Sense of identity.

While all of these needs can vary in intensity among individuals, it is important to bear in mind that we all seek need-fulfillment in these areas. Furthermore, need-satisfaction in the relationship/ego zone is sought not only in the business world but in social situations as well. The extent to which an individual perceives need-fulfillment in this zone directly impacts upon his/her mental well-being and will ultimately have a corresponding impact upon job performance. Recognizing the perception factor can directly aid in the complex process of managing others in the workplace.

Our need level within each zone is heavily influenced by either external factors which directly impact us or by our own perception. We can convert this information for use in supervisory management in the following way. External stimuli are factors over which we have little or no control that impact upon our lives in the workplace. Conversely, one’s own perception of the situation may be influenced by others (e.g., the supervisor at work), and hence must be thoroughly understood by all those who manage others in the work environment.

To illustrate the importance of this last point, consider both safety/security and relationship/ego zones and consider how the supervisor’s influence can have a direct impact on need-fulfillment as perceived by the employee. In some respects, it is far easier for an individual to at least partially cope with factors that originate from external sources than with one’s own perception. For example, consider a situation affecting the relationship/ego zone in which a promotion went to a more experienced person. While this could be severely disappointing in the short term, the affected employee could quickly rebound to previously high motivational levels given the proper explanation. On the other hand, unless specifically trained in effective management techniques, a supervisor (many times inadvertently) can directly “make or break” an employee's career with the company. Moreover, a supervisor may not even be aware of a particular employee's attitude. (Reality check: Can you think of an example from your own experience fits that situation?)

To complicate matters even further, there are numerous cases where both internal and external factors are not clearly defined but, in fact, are closely intertwined. Even between zones, there is rarely a clearly defined need, and what was perceived as a relationship or ego need today might well be seen as a pressing safety/security need tomorrow. Consider the classic example of the comparison between a recession and a depression: "A recession is when my next door neighbor loses his job - a depression is when I lose mine!"

Reviewing the Dynamics of Needs: Reasonable need fulfillment is central to motivation. As mentioned earlier, motivation can be defined as an individual's desire to do something based upon a need. Motivation is a complex process, since some needs are real while others are merely perceived. Furthermore, most needs are never completely fixed, but vary in intensity and duration depending upon both the outlook and perception of the individual at a particular moment. Lastly, most people's needs are affected not only by their personal lives but also by factors originating from the workplace. Motivating others is challenging. Yet being able to do this is one of the primary responsibilities of a first-line supervisor, and hence a vital area of concern for managers.

What Does Motivate People? Based on studies in a wide variety of professions, organizational psychologists have reached a number of conclusions on what motivates workers. When the environmental factors are not adequately provided for (e.g., the pay is low or the environment is oppressive), workers become frustrated. Even when these factors are adequately provided for, however, there will usually be no important positive effect as these factors do not to elevate an individual's desire to do his job well. Content-related factors, commonly referred to as motivators, on the other hand, can stimulate workers to perform well by providing a genuine sense of satisfaction.

A manager seeking to bolster the sagging morale of his or her employees, therefore, will enjoy only limited success if he or she focuses solely on the environmental factors by increasing pay, improving the physical arrangement, or making supervision less rigid. If the employees' lounge is renovated, employees may become less frustrated, but they won't necessarily work harder because of this change. To truly motivate employees, a manager needs to focus his or her attention on restructuring jobs so that employees can derive more satisfaction directly from their work.

Examining Motivators More Closely: But how does one go about restructuring a employee’s job to take advantage of these motivating factors? Taking a cue from organizational psychologists, a manager must strive to meet the following criteria in restructuring a job:

  1. Meaningfulness. Employees must feel that their work is important, valuable, and worthwhile. If employees believe that their work is unimportant, it won’t really matter to them whether or not they do it well. If employees believe that their work has a significant impact upon the rest of the company, they will work hard to see that the impact is positive.
  2. Responsibility. Employees must feel personally responsible and accountable for the results of their work. If employeess are simply carrying out the plans and instructions of a supervisor, they will derive little personal satisfaction when things go well. If employees have complete control over the planning and implementation of daily tasks in their department, they will feel satisfied when the company is thriving due to their efforts.
  3. Knowledge of results. Employees must receive regular feedback on the results of their efforts. If employees exert a major effort on an activity but receive no indication as to whether or not it was successful, they will gain no satisfaction. Employees can only derive satisfaction from positive feedback.

The remainder of this article will be devoted to describing specific examples of how to apply these criteria.

Clarifying Goals: Before employees can be satisfied with their efforts, they must clearly understand what is expected of them. The organization must have goals that employees can use to evaluate their accomplishments. To be effective an organization’s goals must:

  1. Be compatible with the personal goals of employees. Employees will work hardest to accomplish organizational goals that are similar to their own goals. Some organizations achieve a close fit between organizational and personal goals by involving the employees in developing the goals. Other organizations accomplish this by holding planning conferences between the manager and individual team members. In these conferences, employees outline their personal interests and career goals. Methods can then be developed in which individual employees can work toward the accomplishment of their and the organization’s goals at the same time.
  2. Provide a moderate challenge to employees. Experiments have shown that most workers respond best to moderately difficult goals. The goal must neither be so ambitious that it cannot possibly be attained, nor so easy that it can be accomplished with little effort. Appropriate goals must be established for the program as a whole as well as for individual employees.

Encouraging Self-Control: A key to outgrowing an ineffective style of management is shifting control over employees’ performances from the manager to the employees. Ideally, employees and a manager could agree upon a set of goals for a department at the beginning of the year. The employees would then assume full responsibility for planning and implementing daily activities to achieve these goals. At the end of a set time period — the less experienced the group the more modest the goals and the shorter the time period — the employees would be held accountable for having accomplished the goals. Employees would work hard, not because they were being closely watched by the manager, but because they were personally committed to achieving the goals.

Organizations have developed many ways of supporting employees in controlling their own performance. One organization has the employees write and periodically revise their job descriptions and the rules for various departmental areas. Another provides employees with sufficient petty cash so they won’t have to keep running to the manager to buy necessary supplies and equipment. A third has employees bring problems with co-workers before their peers so that employees can learn to solve their own problems.

Not all employees will be willing or able to function independently. Some will always feel more comfortable having someone else take the lead and issue directions. Other employees may be ready to accept responsibility, but not for a whole department. These employees could have their self-control supported by being assigned full responsibility for a project, or for performing a specific function.

Providing Feedback: When employees are asked what satisfies them, they happily cite incidents such as: “When customers beam after finally receiving a satisfactory response to their complaint”; “Seeing departmental teamwork steadily increase”; or “When a manager comments on how a department’s performance is dramatically improving due to hard work.”

Given the high motivational impact of such incidents, a manager must give high priority to ensuring that they occur as often as possible. To get an idea of how a manager might achieve this, the hundreds of motivating incidents supplied by employees were analyzed. The majority of these incidents were found to fall into two primary categories which are listed below. Within each category are listed ideas that a manager can use to encourage that type of motivation.

Promoting Employee Development: One of the most important ways a manager can help motivate employees is to provide them with opportunities to improve their skills. The more skilled employees are, the more likely they are to experience, and be rewarded by, incidents of success. The manager must help employees identify their specific training needs and secure appropriate training resources. These resources may be in the form of reading material, in-house training sessions, or outside workshops and courses.

Encouraging Broader Involvement: Most employees will tend to feel better about themselves and more excited about their work if they are involved in their profession outside the department. If employees are involved in the overall management of their organization, they will have a stronger sense that efforts are an integral part of a vital profession.

At the organizational level, employees’ involvement can be broadened by keeping them continually informed on the status of the organization as a whole, by assigning them limited administrative responsibilities, as well as by involving them, whenever feasible, in major organizational decisions.

Motivation — A Final Perspective: The message of this article is that employees are their own best source of motivation. If an employee’s work is properly structured, he or she will be motivated by the results of their own labors rather than by external rewards and punishments. The manager’s prime concern must therefore be to help employees achieve control over and receive feedback from their work.

This is not to say, however, that the manager need not be concerned with environmental factors such as wages, personnel policies, and physical environment. Highly motivated employees will be tolerant of unavoidable inadequacies in these areas. But if conditions deteriorate markedly, especially if this appears to be due to the indifference of management, employees’ motivation will be canceled out by their growing frustration. Thus, in motivating employees by concentrating attention on job content, the manager must not ignore the employees’ basic needs.