What Motivates People?

May 6, 20146:48 pm1197 views

Motivation is one of the core functions which Human Resource Management (HRM) concerns itself with. Beyond simply planning for human resource needs; recruitment & selection; training & development; benefits & compensation; payroll administration, welfare, collective bargaining and dealing with most aspects of industrial relations, HRM is fundamentally concerned with understanding, managing and shaping the dynamic employee–employer relationship. This is the psychological contract that exists between the employing organisation and their employees.

This is why motivation is such a critical yet ill-defined part of HR processes. More often than not, it is the ‘carrot-and-stick model of motivation’, the Incentive Theory of Motivation, that managers and employers revert to (e.g. offering financial bonuses or components for performance), financial incentives may not always the best motivator. To transcend this, HR professionals and industrial-organisational psychologists need to look to the psychology of management; the interaction and effects of work on the worker and vice versa.

Within the field of management psychology, the greatest attention is directed at four basic problems that are extremely relevant to HR processes and strategy: motivation, leadership, interpersonal relations and personnel selection. While there are several different theories of motivation, motivation in the HR context relates to the activities of a worker and how it determines goal-oriented actions in a professional context.

The Problem of Motivation

Daniel Pink, an author, journalist, speechwriter and public speaker, reexamined the basis for workplace changes, productivity and management. Considered by Harvard Business Review to be one of the Top 50 Most Influential Management Gurus, his work has examined the foundations of motivation in the workplace.

Using the example of the Candle Problem and it’s relevance to modern management knowledge, he shared a finding regarding the use of financial incentives to motivate workers:

“Now I want to tell you about an experiment using the candle problem, done by a scientist named Sam Glucksberg,who is now at Princeton University in the U.S. This shows the power of incentives. Here’s what he did. He gathered his participants. And he said, “I’m going to time you. How quickly you can solve this problem?” To one group he said, “I’m going to time you to establish norms, averages for how long it typically takes someone to solve this sort of problem.”

To the second group he offered rewards. He said, “If you’re in the top 25% of the fastest times, you get five dollars. If you’re the fastest of everyone we’re testing here today, you get 20 dollars.” Now this was several years ago. Adjusted for inflation, it’s a decent sum of money for a few minutes of work. It’s a nice motivator.

Question: How much faster did this group [with incentives] solve the problem? Answer: It took them, on average, three and a half minutes longer. Three and a half minutes longer. Now this makes no sense right? If you want people to perform better, you reward them. Right? Bonuses, commissions, their own reality show. Incentivize them. That’s how business works.But that’s not happening here. You’ve got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, and it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity.

And what’s interesting about this experiment is that it’s not an aberration. This has been replicated over and over and over again, for nearly 40 years. These contingent motivators — if you do this, then you get that — work in some circumstances. But for a lot of tasks, they actually either don’t work or, often, they do harm. This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored.”

Examining the dynamics of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, he found a mismatch in the knowledge of science and . He concluded that what he termed the “business operating system” – a set of assumptions and protocols beneath businesses – was build around extrinsic motivation, using only external incentives. While suited for mechanistic work, the reward-and-punishment approach was mostly counter-productive when applied to knowledge work.

Extrinsic incentive systems caused workers to focus and narrow their perspective. For mechanistic, highly linear tasks and occupations, this was highly effective. It worked because the rule set was simple and the objective was clear and tangible. But for work requiring innovation and versatility, this inhibits problem solving. Extrinsic rewards narrowed focus and restricted the possibilities considered in problem-solving. Very often, economic incentives and performance-related pay mechanisms backfired, especially when applied to knowledge work.

In short, contemporary business operating systems lead to executives and managers making misinformed decisions and policies about their talent and people, as well as the nature of work. This is because they operate on a foundation of outdated and unexamined assumptions rooted in tradition and organisational inertia, rather than on science.

Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose

Pink proposed a different approach to arousing motivation in people was to restructure business operating systems around a core of intrinsic motivation. This approach uses a triad of principles: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Pink defined them as:

  • Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

Focusing on autonomy during his TED Talk, he highlighted the companies that used it often benefited greatly from it, citing Atlassian and Google as major MNCs that have adopted and encourage autonomy as a principle, practice and protocol of their business operating system. He also cited ROWE, short for Results-Only Work Environment, as another innovation in HRM and business practice, being adopted by Best Buy, JA Counter & Associates and many others.

When autonomy was committed to, outcomes were generally positive, for the organisation as well as employees. Employee engagement, productivity and worker satisfaction increased, while the turnover decreased. While there will certainly be problems that emerge when attempting to apply such principles and systems across different cultures and sectors, the evidence available presents a very compelling case for adopting these principles and the management systems they underpin.

Resources & Further Reading

Kydd, C.T. and Oppenheim, L. (1990) “Using Human Resource Management to Enhance Competitiveness: Lessons from Four Excellent Companies”, Human Resource Management, Summer,Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 145–66.

Seyidov S.I. (2000). Psychology of Management. Baku: Chashioglu

Sims, R. R. (1994). Human resource management’s role in clarifying the new psychological contract. Human Resource Management33(3), 373-382.

Rasim, T. S. (2008). The Role of Psychology in Human Resources Management.Europe’s Journal of Psychology4(4).


Article Contributed by HR in Asia‘s Team.

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