Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What motivates professionals?

And this is an excerpt from an exam I submitted for my MBA. It was graded all right so it made me proud and my wife forgot all those long nights...

Motivation within an individual or group may be defined as a driver that makes the individual or group achieve a set goal in order to fulfill a need (The Association of Business Executives:2008). Research shows its key characteristics being uniqueness to the individual, being under the individual’s direct control, and, probably to a large extent ignored by modern managers, leading not necessarily to higher performance of the individual (The Association of Business Executives:2008). In other words, high levels of efforts by the individual need to be structured according to the organization’s goals and vision in order to gain benefit from them (Robbins:1996).

Motivational techniques are far from being modern business tools only. They have been known to organizations and societies throughout history. At its very basic form, motivation decided between life and death. Upon failure of a crop, starvation would be imminent. Physical punishment, or the lack of, has been a motivational driver throughout the early stages of the industrial revolution. It is indeed still found in many cultures globally and as such very much alive. In more recent times, western style organizations believed that money was the prime motivational force. However, to the surprise of most modern managers, Herzberg found in its studies that achievement, recognition, the work itself, and responsibility are far greater motivators than the actual earned salary (The Association of Business Executives:2008). At the same time, the Cognitive Evaluation Theory teaches us that extrinsic rewards, such as pay rises for performance, automatically reduce intrinsic rewards, such as the pleasure of doing what you do best (Robbins:1996), leaving managers with a priority to find and apply other and better means of motivation.

So what is it exactly that does professionals motivate? And how can management implement proper motivational techniques? This paper argues that each individual is different as an entity, has a different immediate surrounding and therefore has different needs. A logical result being the need of a broad spectrum of to be offered rewards by the organization, with each reward to focus not only on characteristics of the individual employee but also on his/her position within the organization. An almost impossible task for any organization from a financial point of view, however; the sheer cost alone of such a program would exceed most human resources departments’ yearly budgets. Yet, as can be observed over the last few years in corporations across the world, valid attempts have been made by organizations to fulfill the individual employee’s need for reward and thus motivation. These motivational techniques range from various employee involvement programs, over variable remuneration schemes, to so-called cafeteria style benefit plans.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that there are common levels of needs for individuals and that each individual needs to satisfy the lower level in order to meet the higher one (Robbins:1996). Although this theory has been proven inadequate in certain specialized circumstances (for example, modern society sees in many instances the social level as a result of the esteem level instead of the other way round as stipulated by Maslow), the general concept is still believed to be valid. The basic needs in Maslow’s model are taken care of by modern society in the developed world, leaving the concerned individual to satisfy its social needs first. Alderfer calls this need the Relatedness Need in his ERG Theory of 1972. McClelland further strengthened this theory by stating lower levels of organizations relate to a need for affiliation (The Association of Business Executives:2008). The problem that arises now in developed countries is the increased specialization of a number of low level jobs. The associated tasks can be so boring and monotonous with so little interaction with peers on the work floor that only the basic needs (those that are in fact already taken care of by society) can be met. One could argue that in this case indeed a material reward (used as a factual esteem level reward, bypassing the social level) is the only motivation possible, leaving the employee and his/her manager exposed to the consequent reward paradox found in the Cognitive Evaluation Theory.

Of course, work tasks in an organization are seldom stand-alone ones and free from interaction with other business processes. It is therefore important to note that human interaction influences the individual employee in his/her motivation towards his/her to be accomplished tasks. The Equity Theory is the outcome of a research into work floor gossip, so to speak. Employees will always compare their input into work tasks with the consequent outcomes relative to the ones received by their peers (Robbins:1996). Inherently linked to human nature, these outcomes are highly subjective and thus as such perceived by the respective employee, generating additional problems in finding a fair reward system.

Another human characteristic that is closely linked with rewards is to ask the question: “What is there in for me?” This Expectancy Theory states that an employee goes through a series of consequent thinking steps before attempting to express individual effort. First, the employee will ask himself if his to be applied additional effort will be recognized by the organization. If so, will this recognition result in rewards? And last, would I find this potential reward to be personally attractive (Robbins:1996)? The Expectancy Theory touches a concept often neglected in organizations, the one of communication. If an employee feels his work not to be appreciated, no matter how hard he/she tries, he/she will likely not put in that often needed extra effort into his/her next work task and will perform the bare minimums only. Proper communication always needs to end with feedback to the initiator of the action, it is therefore important that the employee’s line manager communicates his/her findings back to the employee. Even if the organization itself does not foresee a specific reward for individual accomplishments, a pat on the shoulder by a line manager often is appreciated as much, a theory underlined by Herzberg’s research.

As valid as all the research into the different motivational drivers may be, it shows one thing in particular: different people have different needs. In order to satisfy those different needs of the respective employees, whilst at the same time apply a fair and tangible reward system, Peter Drucker has proposed a Management by Objectives program. This program emphasizes participatively set goals throughout the organization (Robbins:1996) resulting in not only reasonable and achievable objectives, but most importantly in measurable outcomes.

To illustrate the above, I recall a moment of personal anxiety and enlightenment that I would like to share in this context. When I was heading the operations department for a mid-size company, the company as a whole was faced with the task to implement a newly introduced set of governmental rules and regulations. These new rules had been in the pipeline for some time already, and as always with governmental bodies, delays in announcing the set are directly passed onto the end-user. The timeframe given to implement was so short that the management team of the company actually feared the company facing bankruptcy, being a mid-size company missing the political clout to ask for an extension and lacking the funds for additional project staff. Having worked on the implementation schedule for at least a week and anticipating the failure of the project, I realized that all staff of the operations department needed to come together in a brainstorming session and decide on an action plan. This would not only eliminate floating rumours in the department and present a clear picture of what situation the company was facing, it also would force individual staff to actively set their own goals; goals by which the individual employee could be appraised on, resulting eventually in potential company rewards.

The planned for one session turned eventually into three whole morning meetings. The outcome turned out to be highly unexpected, yet in a positive way. Each and every employee had set his/her own set of goals, sometimes even cross-tasking, so that together the department would finish the project just short of the deadline received. Every employee knew exactly each of his peers’ tasks and could therefore easily recognize bottlenecks and critical paths. To make a long story short, the whole department succeeded in getting ready for the big audit ahead of schedule. The organization decided to reward the whole department rather than certain outstanding individuals, and even with the knowledge that some employees in the department had gone so much further than others in their tasks set by themselves, this outcome was happily accepted by all.

The above example not only demonstrates a Management by Objectives project, it also represents another form of motivating techniques to address the different needs of individuals, a program that is commonly known as Employee Involvement Program. Although there are various forms of Employee Involvement Programs, such as participative management, representative participation, quality circles, and employee stock ownership plans, they all have one thing in common; they grant subordinates a considerable say in the organization’s decision making process thus enhancing employee’s work satisfaction, which in turn underlines Herzberg’s theory.

Variable pay, skill-based pay, and in very recent times, cafeteria style benefit plans where one is able to choose from a range of offered benefits, also reflect the search by organizations to address the individuals’ needs since not all employees want the same thing. Above all, however, there needs to be a equally fair benefit plan in place. A plan, that does not allow any room for conflicting rewards. Perceived unfair treatment would demotivate the negatively affected employee again, effectively reducing the benefits of the originally well intended plan.

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