Motivation as a mechanism HR Management

Managers seeking answers to the riddle of how to improve performance will often look to motivation theory for assistance. Links are frequently made between a motivated workforce and high levels of productivity (often, it would seem, with very little empirical evidence to support such a claim). This connection serves to drive managers to strive towards motivating their employees in an attempt to engender positive attitudes and improve performance.

But are such links so clearly defined, and even assuming there is a tenable connection, how do you actually motivate a workforce which, after all, comprises many employees each with their own agenda and ‘hot buttons’? Getting it right is not always easy! An independent consulting firm in the USA recently conducted a survey of employees’ attitudes which indicated that while most workers were happy with their pay and benefits, fewer than 50 per cent thought their boss was doing a good job of motivating them. This, the research suggested, applies to all levels – shopfloor and boardroom; interestingly, similar results have been found in the UK (Makin et al., 1996: 111).

  • Defining motivation

A precise definition of motivation is elusive since the concept involves numerous characteristics and perceptions of the employee and the current situation. But it is characterised by a certain level of willingness on the part of the employee to increase effort, to the extent that this exertion also satisfies some need or desire. At a basic level it can be seen that motivation is about ‘motives’ and ‘needs’.

Motives are the internal drives and energies of an employee; they direct behaviour, which results in outcomes. Any single outcome (higher performance levels at work) may be the result of multiple motives (the feeling of achievement, the desire to purchase a new car). Needs as internal drives are also important and can be physiological (I need sleep, I need warmth), social (I need the company of others) or based on self-esteem needs (I need to gain the respect of my peers for what I do) (Rosenfield and Wilson, 1999: 75).

There are a number of competing definitions, so identifying the one that is just right in relation to reward management is practically impossible. It is better therefore to consider the common underlying assumptions which suggest that motivation is:

  • an individual phenomenon – people are unique, and this means that motivation theories usually allow for uniqueness to be reflected in behaviour;
  • intentional and results in behaviours that are the result of conscious choices;
  • a multifaceted concept, which involves (a) factors that arouse people to action (b) choice of behaviour and (c) choices about the persistency and intensity of behaviour;
  • valid as a theory because it helps predict behaviour by explaining what prompts the behaviour of people, which means that it has very little concern with simply describing or categorising behaviour.

An understanding of motivation is important within reward management and the development of reward strategies for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, it enables organizations to ‘humanise’ work for employees so that work is inherently more satisfying, the assumption being that organisations have a moral obligation to make work as satisfying and enjoyable as possible. Secondly, an appropriate understanding of motivation allows organisations to make the jobs more satisfying for employees within the company.

The underlying assumption is clearly that if employees are happier at work then they will be more productive. Finally, we argue that such an understanding enables management to control the behaviour of subordinates more effectively and therefore enables management to ‘pull the right strings’ in order to secure the ability to set the organizational goals and secure their achievement.

  • Content and process theories of motivation

Motivation theory can be classified as representing either a content (needs) or a process approach to motivation. The former helps us to understand what people will and will not value as work rewards; they attempt to identify the specific factors that motivate people. The assumption is that employees have needs which they seek to satisfy inside and outside of work. In this respect we can say that content theories are concerned with the HOW.

Alternatively, process theories offer a more dynamic approach and are more interested in understanding the process of developing motives rather than trying to offer a static analysis of needs. In process theories of motivation there is less emphasis on specific factors (or content) that causes behaviour. For example, a content theory might suggest that ‘Increases in pay can improve satisfaction and performance’, while a process theory would explain why that might be the case.

Thus we can suggest that process theories are concerned with the WHY. The following section discusses the most well-known content or need theories, and provides an indication of the different needs that employees bring to the working environment. Managers should consider how they can create a working environment in which employees have the opportunity to satisfy their important needs.

  • The work of Frederick Winslow Taylor (1865–1917)

Taylor believed that the use of money as a motivator linked to various objectives would offer the best motivation for performance. In Taylor’s commentary, money was the primary motivator; as such we can suggest that he espoused the rational economic needs concept of motivation. Workers would be motivated by obtaining the highest possible wages through working in the most efficient manner possible – thereby satisfying the employee and the employer.

Taylor’s approach to work and motivation has two underlying assumptions: firstly, that all people are rational, and secondly, that they are driven by the need for financial rewards and not interest in the actual work. From this basic proposition he concludes that the natural state of people is one of laziness and hedonism combined with greed.

  • The Hawthorne studies

A major revision of ‘needs’ theory came from work undertaken in the USA in the 1920s and 1930s at the Hawthorne works of the Western Electric Company. This work gave rise to a new school of management thinking (human relations), which suggested that employees have social needs which are as important as economic needs; these studies concluded that social relationships were significant in the satisfaction of the human need for social contact.

Thus the key managerial tool for motivation became:

The major contribution of this work in understanding employee motivation at work has been to focus attention on the design of jobs and tasks in an effort to make them attractive and interesting. As O’Doherty notes, these studies ‘discovered, like Taylor, that work groups would systematically control and restrict output in order to maintain what they considered to be a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ (2001: 191). While the mechanisms identified in these studies underlie much of the current ‘teamworking’ culture, their negative findings are lost in the euphoria of controlled participation as an effective instrument for the determination of appropriate reward systems.

  • The work of Abraham Maslow

The first comprehensive attempt to classify needs was undertaken by Maslow in the 1940s. In essence Maslow’s theory consists of two key parts: the classification of needs and how these classifications are related to each other. The needs, he suggested, are classified in a hierarchy which is normally represented in the form of a pyramid with the more basic physiological needs lying at the base and each higher level consisting of a particular class of needs:

  • physiological
  • safety
  • belongingness
  • esteem
  • self-actualisation.

According to Maslow, employees work their way up the hierarchy but each level remains dependent on the previous level. Therefore, if you are motivated by the possibility of being able to ‘self-actualise’ at work but are suddenly made redundant, the whole system collapses as the need to, for example, survive assumes priority. The theory, especially in relation to reward and performance management, has an uncomplicated appeal because its message is clear – find out what motivates your employees at each of the levels and, more importantly still, at which level each employee is operating, and develop a reward strategy accordingly.

However, evaluations have revealed a number of significant flaws which suggest that ‘needs’ do not always group the emotional, non-rational, and sentimental aspects of human behaviour in organisations, the ties and loyalties that affected workers, the social relations that could not be encompassed by the organisation chart but shaped behaviour regardless. (Wilson, 1999: 25). together in the ways predicted.

From this follows the proposition that the theories are unable to predict when a particular need will be manifest because there is no clear relationship between needs and behaviour, so that,for example, the same behaviour could reflect different needs, and different needs the same behaviour. This criticism is further developed as we note that ‘needs’ are generally imprecisely defined in part due to the notion of need as a biological phenomenon being problematic.

These theories ignore the capacity of people and those around them to construct their own perceptions of needs and how they can be met (Arnold et al., 1998: 248/9). Despite these limitations, Maslow’s thinking remains influential and continues to influence management deliberations in respect of job design, pay and reward structures. Huczynski and Buchanan (2001: 242) highlight this by indictaing that ‘Many subsequent management fashions, such as job enrichment, total quality management, business process re-engineering, self managing teams, the “new leadership” and employee empowerment incorporated his ideas in the search for practical motivational methods’.

  • The work of Fredrick Herzberg

Herzberg (1966) looked, not at motivation directly, but at the causes of job satisfaction and dissatisfaction in an attempt to more fully understand what motivates people at work and from his research proposed a ‘two factor’ theory. The two factors were

  1. Motivators. These were such things as ‘a sense of achievement’, ‘an opportunity for personal growth’, ‘the sense of having done a job well’, ‘having responsibility’, and ‘achieving recognition for your work’.
  2. Hygiene factors. These included such things as money, working conditions, job security, company policy, and quality of supervision and interpersonal relations. Motivators and hygiene factors are qualitatively different and have different effects. If the objective is to remove dissatisfaction, then the organisation will need to improve the hygiene factors.

However, improving them beyond the level at which dissatisfaction disappears will not result in an increase in satisfaction. The only way satisfaction can be increased further is by giving more of the motivators. The converse also applies in that giving more of the motivators may not, by itself, remove dissatisfaction. For Herzberg, therefore, the opposite of satisfaction is not dissatisfaction, it is merely no satisfaction, and equally, the opposite of dissatisfaction is not necessarily satisfaction, simply no dissatisfaction.

  • Job characteristics approach

The job characteristics approach is based on the idea tha individual differences are important moderators in the way employees respond to the nature and design of work, irrespective of any performance/reward element. Working from Herzberg’s idea that work itself and hence the way in which it is organised are important motivators, Hackman and Lawler (1971) and Hackman and Oldham (1980) set out the first structure of the jobs characteristics model which is the basis of the job design approach to motivation.

They argue that there are five core job dimensions: skill variety, which is concerned with the number and type of different activities the job involves; task identity – the extent to which the employee has some responsibility for the ‘whole job’; task significance – essentially how meaningful the job is considered to be by others; autonomy, which refers to the freedom the employee has to determine how to undertake the work; and finally feedback, which refers to the level of information the employee receives about the work and their performance.

These five ‘core job dimensions’ create three ‘psychological states’ which are founded upon the meaningfulness of work, the extent to which the employees experience responsibility for the outcomes of their work and the knowledge of the results of their actual effort. Where these three ‘psychological states’ are positively experienced, i.e. there is meaningfulness in the work, the employee does have a sense of responsibility for what they do and they receive appropriate feedback, they are more likely to experience high work motivation, and general work satisfaction.

Working in teams may satisfy some of the criteria for motivating employees, but rewarding teamworking is complicated (see discussion below). Incentive schemes based on the discrete performance of a particular work group attempt to encourage flexibility and cooperation among members of the group, and to some extent provide opportunities for the employees to decide for themselves how to achieve the required results.

Such schemes seem to be most effective when the work groups/teams are seen to be stable, mature and naturally forming. In these situations we can argue that such teams will be clearly identifiable as a performing unit with performance outcomes that can be directly measured for each team as they have a significant degree of autonomy and are composed of employees whose work is interdependent. Such interdependence can only really be found where the groups are made up of employees who are flexible, multi-skilled and good team players. (See Armstrong, 2002.)

Roberts (2001: 520) states that ‘the introduction of team-based payment schemes may lead to several problems’. Peer pressures to conform and the need to consider others may result in a reduction of effort by the whole group, a sort of ‘I’m not working hard if the others aren’t going to’ attitude. Employees may also resist the transfer out of high-performing into less effective teams because of the potential loss of individual earnings. This may be to the detriment of the organisation as an employee’s learning and knowledge are confined to one team and not shared or transferred throughout the organisation. Finally, the move to a team-based reward strategy may require a change in the way employees operate; no longer will their individual efforts be paramount – their pay will not be wholly related to their own efforts, but to the combined efforts of the team.

  • The work of Douglas McGregor

McGregor (1957) set out two general sets of extreme propositions about motivation which he labelled Theory X and Theory Y respectively, and which still form an important element of reward management vocabulary today. In brief we can say that Theory X sets forth the following propositions which can be applied to the development of a reward and performance management strategy.

It suggests that the average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it wherever possible because such behaviour reflects a basic human characteristic, dislike of work. Owing to this characteristic, most people must be coerced, controlled, directed or threatened with punishment to get them to put the necessary effort into work. This offers an explanation for the development of a managerial cadre as most people prefer to be directed by hierarchical superiors, want to avoid responsibility at work, have relatively little ambition and want security more than anything else.

Alternatively, it is suggested, we can say that ‘Theory Y’ sets forth the following propositions. It argues that the average person does not inherently dislike work. The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest. Employees may appear to be recalcitrant and uncooperative, but this is an outcome of their experience of management’s traditional approach to work organization and control.

Therefore external control or threats of punishment are not the only or the most appropriate motivators as employees will exercise self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of objectives to which they are committed. It follows that the most significant rewards are intrinsic to work and relate to the satisfaction of higher-order needs such as the satisfaction of ego and self-actualisation. If conditions are right, it is possible to integrate the achievement of organisational goals with the satisfaction of employees’ higher-order needs and improve individual performance.

From this perspective it is seen that the average human being learns, under proper conditions, not only to accept, but actively seek responsibility. Avoidance of responsibility, lack of ambition and emphasis on security are generally consequences of their individual experience of management’s traditional approach and are not inherent human characteristics. Therefore it can be said that in the right conditions, most people are capable of exercising imagination, ingenuity and creativity in the solution of organisational problems.

  • Criticisms of content theories

A number of points of criticism of content or needs theories is summarised in the following discussion. At the foundation of these theories, it is claimed, lies the suggestion that each school of thought focuses on a single factor to the exclusion of all others – money, social needs or psychological growth. It is assumed within these theoretical frameworks that if reward managers can identify the key motivational factor then an employee will ‘naturally’ become committed to the goals of the organisation.

Hence, as it is assumed that commitment to these goals would be in an employee’s best interests, anyone who was not motivated by that factor would be irrational, abnormal or dysfunctional; in other words, these theories take on a unitarist perspective and see conflict as undesirable or illegitimate. The theories assume that the task presented to reward and performance management systems is to identify motivational strategies which can, indeed should, be applied in any context for any organisation if management choose to do so (e.g. all jobs can be rationalised, redesigned or enriched).

As it is very difficult to predict when certain needs become important, there appearing to be no clear relationship between needs and behaviour, we can argue that the application of ‘standardised’ solutions is neither possible nor desirable. It is clear that as the different needs are very difficult to isolate, define or describe and further that any suggestion that needs have a biological origin is problematic, performance management involves issues to which there is no ‘off the shelf’, one-size-fits-all response.

However,it can be seen that these theories do tend to assume the application to all people regardless of the historical or social context of a single set of solutions. The theories tend to overestimate the importance of intrinsic factors and work itself. The argument here is that for some people work may not be a central life interest, whilst neo-human relations theory assumes that work is the only site for the realisation of self-actualisation and social needs.

Hence content theories tend to assume that all employees have the same type of engagement, or psychological contract, with the organisation. The influence on motivation of an employee’s subjective orientation to work and felt ‘meaning’ of work is insufficiently considered. Thus neo-human relations tends to ignore cognition, the construction of perceptions of needs, how those needs are best met and meaningful action by employees.

For example, when we observe ourselves or others behaving in a certain way it is often very difficult to explain it by referring to the desire to satisfy one particular need as people construct their own perception of needs and how they can best meet those needs within a particular situational context. Ultimately content theories consider what things may motivate rather than why, which we need to know in order to develop an effective reward and performance management strategy.

  • Process theories of motivation

The second group of motivation theories, the process theories, focus on how behavior change occurs, or how an individual comes to act in a different way. Significant in understanding this set of theoretical constructs are the concepts of justice and fairness.

  • Procedural justice and distributive justice

During the late 1980s and 1990s, equity theory expanded to address theories of organizational justice (see Greenberg, 1987). A distinction is drawn between distributive justice and procedural justice. Distributive justice concerns whether employees believe they have received or will receive fair rewards. Procedural justice reflects whether employees believe the procedures – the actions or measures – used in the organisation to allocate rewards are fair.

For example, is the reward system impartial, not favouring one group over another? Does it take into account all the relevant information? Is there a system for detecting and correcting errors? So, if employees believe they are poorly paid relative to others in a similar job in another organisation, they may perceive distributive injustice. However, if at the same time they believe that the employing organisation is actually making available as much reward as is possible and is operating a fair system of distribution, they may perceive procedural justice.

It is generally accepted (Arnold et al., 1998: 255; Makin et al., 1996: 139) that distributive justice is associated with individual outcomes, such as satisfaction with pay, while procedural justice is associated with organisational outcomes, such as organisational commitment. Motivation tends to be lowest when injustices in both procedural and distributive procedures are experienced.

Distributive justice

Blau (1994: 1253) refers to five possible pay referent categories against which employees may assess fairness:

  • social (e.g. family, friends, relatives);
  • financial (i.e. the extent to which one’s current income meets one’s current financial needs);
  • historical (i.e. one’s current income in comparison to income received in the past);
  • organisation (i.e. pay comparisons within the company);
  • market (i.e. pay comparisons outside the organisation).

If the two ratios (i.e. input and output or wage/effort) are not equal then the employee will take action to attempt to restore a sense of equity and maintain motivation. To achieve this, Adams (1963) suggests that employees may change inputs (they can reduce effort) if they feel they are underpaid, or they may try to change their outcomes (ask for a pay rise or promotion). More subtly, they could psychologically distort their own ratios and/or those of others by rationalising differences in the wage/effort bargain (inputs/outcomes) in part by changing the reference group to which they compare themselves in order to restore equity.

Procedural justice

Individual judgements of the fairness of the process of allocating rewards are the second key determinant of an employee’s reaction to a pay scheme. Research suggests that an understanding of how pay is determined affects an employee’s satisfaction with both the processes and the outcomes of the pay scheme (Dulebohn and Martocchio, 1998; Lee et al., 1999).

Bringing together the work of Leventhal (1976), Lind and Tyler (1988) and Folger et al. (1992), we can propose that procedural justice within reward schemes can be enhanced where decisions are transparent to all concerned and based on complete, accurate and timely information. Linked to this, the system should ensure that the procedures are neutral as well as consistent across time and people in the sense that they are free from bias, the pursuit of self-interest and dishonesty.

In achieving this aim the procedures will treat all parties with politeness, dignity and respect as decisions are made which will be compatible with prevailing moral and ethical standards. The reward system ought to be based on trust, with procedures that reflect the concerns, values and interests of all parties, as the underlying beliefs are founded on an intention to treat all people in a reasonable and benevolent manner.

Judgements of procedural justice and distributive justice can affect motivation, satisfaction, organisational commitment and judgements of the effectiveness of the reward and performance management scheme (Lind and Tyler, 1988; McFarlin and Sweeney, 1992; Dulebohn and Martocchio, 1998). Essentially, it can be suggested that currently most reward schemes satisfy some the above criteria and hence some employees and not others.

Organisations must therefore ensure that although employees may be dissatisfied with the outcomes, they perceive the procedures leading up to the allocation as ‘fair’. Arnold et al. (1998: 256) suggests that the role of justice in motivation has become more apparent in recent years due to the downsizing, delayering and restructuring that has occurred within organisations. Over recent years these developments have meant the deal or the ‘psychological contract’ (see discussion below) employees felt they had with the employing organisation has been broken by that organisation.

The psychological outcomes of this process appear to be that some employees experience a strong sense of injustice which may influence their level of commitment to the organisation in terms of actual work performance and ‘good citizen’ behaviours. Procedural justice appears to play a large part in determining reactions to a broken psychological contract, as does an employee’s perception of why the organisation fell short of their expectations.

  • Equity theory

The equity theory of motivation is based on the principle that since there are no absolute criteria for fairness, individuals generally assess fairness by making comparisons with others in similar situations. Therefore the motivation to put effort into a task will be influenced by the individual’s perceptions of whether the rewards are fair in comparison to those received by others. To assess fairness an employee is likely to make a comparison between the level of inputs and outputs they are making compared to the level of input and output they consider the comparator to be making.

Inputs are often multiple and consist of things an employee may bring to the task – education, previous experience, effort, while outputs are the rewards for the inputs – salary, performancerelated pay incentive, praise. Inputs are essentially costs while the outputs are the benefits. If, following the subjective comparison, a feeling of inequity prevails, this can give rise to tensions and feelings of psychological discomfort. This may result in a desire to ‘do something about it’ and take action designed to lessen the tension being experienced. Adams (1965) suggests that there are six basic options available to an employee:

  • Modify inputs.
  • Seek to modify outputs.
  • Modify perception of self.
  • Modify perception of comparator.
  • Change comparator.
  • Leave the situation. (Adapted from Rollinson, 2002: 235)

Adams (1963) suggests that adopting one or a combination of the options may result in a feeling of restored balance or equity resulting in the employee accepting the situation. This theory is straightforward and easy to understand; however, it cannot cover every contingency. For example, some employees are far more sensitive to perceptions of inequity than others. There is some evidence to suggest that even where inequity is perceived to exist, employees have some tolerance providing the reasons for the inequity are explained and justified.

This has three major implications for human resource managers when they are designing performance management and reward schemes. Firstly, it is important to be aware that employees will make comparisons; further, because comparisons ar subjective, care must be taken to relate similar jobs in terms of the wage/effort bargain; and finally, if managers wish to avoid inaccurate conclusions about equity it is necessary to be open concerning the basis on which the rewards are made.

Generally speaking, it is important for managers to be aware of what employees perceive to be fair and equitable and to recognise that this will vary from group to group. By taking adequate consideration of the employees’ perceptions, by providing an adequate explanation of any changes in work process or design and by ensuring that policies etc. are applied consistently and in an unbiased manner, employees are more likely to believe that the organisation is trying to reduce any perceived inequality and that they are being treated fairly in comparison with the treatment received by others.

For the human resource manager, equity theory illustrates how important it is to provide a performance management and reward system in which the outcomes are perceived by individuals to be relevant and to acknowledge the truth that different employees value different things. Secondly, it is clear that human resource managers need to (re)design current compensations systems in order to avoid the performance-destroying effects of perceived inequities which result from employee perceptions that the wage/effort bargain provides insufficient rewards, and thirdly, that these redesigned systems need to avoid overrewardin performance as this does not necessarily result in higher productivity or improved performance.

  • Expectancy theory

The content theorists (Maslow, Herzberg, Alderfer and McClelland) can lead you to believe that most behaviours are under the voluntary control of a person and are consequently motivators. Because behaviours are voluntary, expectancy theory suggests that employees look at the various alternatives and choose the alternative that they believe is most likely to lead to those rewards that they desire most; simply that individuals are rational actors who, in employment terms, follow a path of economic maximisation.

The fundamental concepts important to expectancy theory are that the anticipation (expectation) of what will occur influences the employee’s choice of behaviour. We can therefore suggest that the theory sets out the twin propositions that individuals have the expectation that some outcome will occur, and that this outcome has a value (anticipated satisfaction) to the individual.These are called expectancies and valences and underlie the argument developed by Vroom (1964). Vroom interpreted motivation as a process in which employees select from a set of alternatives based upon the anticipate levels of satisfaction. He called the individual’s perception of this relationship instrumentality.

The first-level outcomes result from behaviour associated with doing the job itself and include productivity, absenteeism, turnover, and the quality of productivity. The secondlevel outcomes are the events (rewards or punishments) that the first-level outcomes are likely to produce. Commonly accepted second-level outcomes are merit pay increases, group acceptance or rejection, and promotion.

In expectancy theory, valence as well as instrumentality is important. Valence refers to the preferences for outcomes as seen by the employee. Valences can be either positive (preferred) or negative (not preferred or avoided). A potential zero valence can occur when an employee is indifferent to attaining or not attaining the outcome. The theory considers two types of expectancies important. Effort–performance expectancy is the employee’s perception of how hard it will be to achieve a particular behavior and the probability of achieving that behaviour.

Performance–outcome expectancy assumes that in the employee’s mind, every behaviour is associated with outcomes. From a human resource management perspective, it can be argued that expectancy theory proposes that employees ask themselves three questions:

  1. What’s in it for me?
  2. How hard will I have to work to get what’s in it for me?
  3. What are my real chances of getting the reward if I do what my boss wants?

An employee assigns a value to an expected reward, considers how much effort will be required and works out the probability of success. If the perceived reward is adequate for the effort required, the employee may make the effort. However, when performance accomplishment is reached, resulting in either intrinsic or extrinsic rewards being received, the employee compares the reward to the accomplishment and assesses the extent to which an equitable reward is perceived.

Where the assessment of the wage/effort bargain is perceived by the employee to be ‘fair’, satisfaction results and the process generates positive feedback. If, however, the performance accomplishment does not result in the anticipated rewards or the perception is of inequity and dissatisfaction, the process generates negative feedback. There are criticisms of expectancy theory which argue that the theory attempts to predict a choice or effort.

However, because no clear specification of the meaning of effort exists, the variables cannot be measured adequately. As a process theory it does not specify the outcomes relevant to a particular individual situation and therefore offers little guidance to the human resource manager seeking to design a performance management and reward system as there is an implicit assumption that all motivation is conscious. The employee is assumed to consciously calculate the pleasure or pain that he/she expects to attain or avoid and then a choice is made. The theory says nothing about subconscious motivation.

  • Goal-setting theory

This approach to motivation has been demonstrated by Locke and Latham (1984) and is based on a simple premise: performance is caused by a person’s intention to perform. Goals are what a person is trying to accomplish or intends to do and, according to this theory, people will do what they are trying to do. What follows is clear:

  • A person with higher goals will do better than a person with lower goals.
  • If someone knows precisely what they want to do, or is supposed to do, that person will perform better than someon whose goals or intentions are vague.

These two basic ideas underlie the propositions of goal-setting theory which begins by stating that there is a general positive relationship between goal difficulty and performance. This, however, does not hold for extremely difficult goals, which are beyond an employee’s ability, only for challenging goals which generally result in improved performance compared to easy goals.

Thus, using this prism we can argue that specific goals lead to higher performance than general or vague ‘do your best’ goals. Specific goals seem to create a precise intention, which in turn aids individual employees to shape their behaviour with the same precision. Further, the theory proposes that knowledge of results (feedback) is essential if the full performance benefits of setting more difficult goals are to be achieved.

Hence feedback offered in an appropriate manner can have a motivating effect on the employee. It is suggested that the beneficial effects of goal-setting depend, in part, on the employee’s goal commitment; that is, their determination to succeed and unwillingness to abandon or reduce it. These four principles establish the core of goal-setting theory and make it possibly one of the more consistently supported theories of motivation.

Locke et al. (1981) suggest that financial incentives can enhance performance by raising the level of the goal or by increasing an employee’s commitment to a goal which can be achieved where the employee is involved in establishing the required performance. We can therefore argue that, in the workplace, the value of goal-setting is enhanced by the provision of adequate, timely feedback.

Goal-based theories of motivation emphasise the importance of feedback in order to:

  • increase the employee’s feeling of achievement;
  • increase the sense of personal responsibility for the work;
  • reduce uncertainty; and
  • refine performance.

However, many systems do not systematically provide for line managers to communicate feedback on performance to those employees for whom they have responsibility. This may be for many reasons such as leadership style, protection of power bases or the information system not providing data for management functions. Often employees are provided with feedback ‘by exception’, typically when performance has fallen below a certain acceptable level and managers are themselves under pressure to improve performance. However, managers have to maintain a careful balance in providing feedback

  • too little, too late can be demotivating but too much and too frequently can be ‘stifling’ and perceived as indicative of a lack of trust or respect.

Austin and Bobko (1985) identified four respects in which goal-setting theory had not been fully tested. First, goals which reflect the quality of work, rather than the quantity, were rarely set in goal theory research, Yet, in many employees’ work, quality is as significant as quantity, if not more so. Secondly, jobs often have conflicting goals where achieving one may mean the neglect of another. Equally, it is important to recognise that employees and the organisation may have conflicting goals and this could undermine, or at least complicate, the setting of goals.

Thirdly, in research the focus has been on the setting and achievement of individual goals; in organisations the emphasis may be on the achievement of collective or group goals. Two further limitations of goal-setting as a motivational technique are concerned with learning new tasks and organisational culture. Earley et al. (1989) suggested that goal-setting may be harmful where a task is new or unfamiliar or where a considerable number of strategies are available to approach it. They suggest that in such situations, the desire to achieve the goal may deter creativity, experimentation and innovation in problem-solving.

  • Criticisms of process theories

A key criticism of process theories is that they tend to assume an overly rational view of human decision-making. For example decision-making is often habitual or unconscious rather than conscious and rational. Furthermore, when making choices people do not have complete knowledge of the possible results of their behavioural options, and are not normally aware of the full range of options available to them.

Another weak assumption of process theories is that individuals have a comprehensive and consistent scale of values with which they might evaluate the value of the various outcomes they are able to identify. Ultimately, process theories do not consider why an individual values or does not value particular outcomes, only how the motivation develops.

Although there are various problems with each set of motivation theories, surveys of what motivates people show predictable patterns:

  • a boss you can respect;
  • a job that is worthwhile and of interest to you;
  • enough basic pay;
  • some degree of personal challenge;
  • the opportunity to progress;
  • being part of a good team of people;
  • being well trained to do the job;
  • having sufficient resources to carry the job out;
  • having a reasonable degree of stability and security;
  • being involved in deciding how to do the job and organise the work.

Like content theories, process theories all have certain similarities and differences. Expectancy theory, equity theory and goal-setting all recognise that motivation and subsequent behaviour are affected by individual differences and features of the organization environment, its culture, supervisory, mentoring, training, appraisal and development systems.

In addition, process theories emphasise the importance of acknowledging that employees make decisions concerning their behaviour and that these decisions are based on previous experiences and evaluation of the rewards obtainable for behaving in a certain manner.

  • Motivation, reward and implications for the management of people

Shamir (1991) proposes that the general motivation of employees is affected by a number of interlinking factors. At a basic level we can identify that motivation is linked to the extent to which job identity is perceived to be important for self-definition relative to other possible alternative social identities in the self-concept. This perception is in part dependent on the extent to which the job offers opportunities to increase self-esteem and self-worth and therefore the extent to which job behaviours are congruent with the self-concept.

Looking forward, levels of motivation are affected by the extent to which future job possibilities are congruent with desired possible selves. Any successful performance management and reward system will need to take into account each of these employee-defined elements whilst noting that an employee’s general motivation will be lowered by the extent to which the job or environment contains elements that are detrimental to the person’s self-esteem or self-worth.


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