Academic motivation theories in practice

Academic theories behind employee motivation offer a number of suggestions as to factors influencing performance, Vicki Taylor questions how these can work in practice

Case study: B & Q

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Keeping employees motivated is a key task for any human resources department, but finding the best way to do so is another matter. Over the years, psychologists and academics have come up with various theories of motivation that can be applied in the workplace. The question is, do they work in practice, and can they help when designing a benefits package? Two of the best-known theories of motivation were proposed independently by Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg in the 1950s. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model of motivation states that we are all motivated by certain requirements. These have been broken down into five levels: biological and psychological needs, such as food and shelter; safety needs, such as stability and security; belonging and love needs, such as work and family relationships; esteem needs, such as achievement, status and responsibility and self-actualisation needs, such as personal growth and self-fulfilment.

Staff must feel they have achieved one level before moving on to the next. Herzberg, on the other hand, believed people only had two sets of needs known as hygiene factors and motivators. He defined certain basic needs (hygiene factors), as things like acceptable working conditions, good relationships with colleagues and a reasonable salary. He thought people strive to achieve these basic needs, but once the satisfaction wears off, they require other motivating factors such as achievement, responsibility, advancement and personal growth to keep them motivated and happy.

Another theory, proposed by Harvard professor David McClelland in the 1940s, claims people have three needs they seek to satisfy: achievement, power and affiliation. Employees who are most driven by power are more likely to value rewards such as company cars, prestigious job titles and executive share options. Those most driven by a sense of achievement, however, might feel more rewarded by performance-related pay schemes or incentive-led programmes. Doug Crawford, head of employee engagement at HR consultancy Chuimento, explains how perks can fit into Herzberg’s and Maslow’s theories. “Looking at Herzberg, I think a lot of the traditional benefits in terms of healthcare, cars and holidays, are much more hygiene factors. They are what people look for when they are making an assessment about the competitiveness of employment from one organisation to another.”

In other words, employees might come to expect benefits that typically fit into a package and therefore may fail to be motivated after a time. With Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, for employees to reach the higher elements of the hierarchy, such as self-actualisation, organisations need to look at perks that may not be regarded as traditional benefits. This might include flexible working to offer staff a greater work-life balance, or training and development opportunities. As part of an overall benefits package, pay is of very little importance according to Maslow and Herzberg.

The latter’s theory states that it is a hygiene factor which will lose its appeal once staff are earning enough. Maslow, meanwhile, claims pay allows basic biological needs, such as nutrition and shelter, to be met. However, it could also be relevant higher up the scale under the banner of esteem as some individuals will relate the amount they earn to their self-worth. Stephen Humphreys, managing director at Projectlink Motivation, agrees with Herzberg’s theory where pay is concerned. “You have to pay people enough to live [up] to their aspirations and when you go above that it becomes less important. It no longer becomes a motivator once [employees] have reached their comfort level.”

However, Professor Ivan Robertson, managing director of business psychology company Robertson Cooper and a lecturer at the University of Manchester, believes traditional benefits such as pay can act as a motivator, providing employees see the link between what they achieve and the benefits they are given. This is known as expectancy valence theory, as put forward by Victor Vroom in 1964. “If people believe there is a connection between something they do and the reward, whether it is access to a private healthcare scheme, praise from the boss, promotion or career development opportunities, then they will go down that route and behave in that way. They have to find the reward valuable, but the mistake lots of managers make is assuming everybody values the same thing as them.” Robertson also believes theories around organisational justice, which can relate to how benefits are seen to be distributed, can be useful for benefits managers to be aware of. “If [the process] is seen to be transparent and fair, people can be comfortable even if they don’t get some of the benefits in question. If they don’t know how [a benefits allocation] has been arrived at, or they think the process is not fair anyway, then they are going to be much less happy.”

While it is possible to see how theories of motivation can relate to benefits, theorists such as Herzberg and Maslow assume everyone is motivated by the same things, which, in reality, is not the case. You only have to look at people who work for charities or in artistic professions who often receive low pay and few benefits, compared to City workers for whom pay is likely to be a strong motivator. In organisations with a mixture of employee types and job roles, flexible benefits plans can be a good way of accommodating individual factors that influence motivation.

Graham Povey, managing director at Capital Incentives and Motivation, explains: “In this day and age, the best practice is being as flexible as possible. That’s where the whole area of flexible benefits comes into it, because the more you can tailor an employee’s reward package to their circumstances and lifestyle, the more motivated and loyal they are likely to be.” But he adds other factors outside of the traditional benefits package are also important. “On top of that go the softer things around an employee’s life in the workplace [for example] how they get on with their colleagues, what their relationship is like with their manager, whether they have a good working environment,” he says.

William Holden, chairman at Sewells Training and Consultancy, claims that benefits and motivational theories don’t always go hand-in-hand. He believes there are four things employees need to stay motivated and traditional benefits, such as pensions and company cars, often come towards the bottom of the list. “When we [carry out employee] attitude surveys, we find there are four [factors] that come up constantly. Recognition, the value of a manager saying ‘thank you’, comes out consistently at number one. The thing that comes out second is respect. The third area is responsibility and at number four comes reward or remuneration.” So while motivation theories can give rise to some interesting observations, it seems there is no substitute for finding out what motivates particular types of employees, and using these findings to design management HR strategies and benefits packages accordingly.

The XY Theory

Another motivation theory that may impact on human resources strategy is Douglas McGregor’s XY theory first proposed in his 1960’s work The human side of enterprise. It states that there are two approaches to managing people: in an authoritarian-style (theory x) and a participative-style (theory y). Theory x managers are demanding, unconcerned about staff welfare and morale, do not thank or praise employees and withhold rewards. Theory y managers, which McGregor rates as the best type, assume staff are ambitious, self-motivated, and anxious to accept more responsibility. According to Helen Murlis, a director at Hay Group, good managers can also help to boost employee motivation by learning what an individual’s reward levers are. “Something good managers do intuitively and most reasonable managers learn to do is understand the reward levers for individuals [and] how they like to be given praise and recognition. Some people want quite a bit of attention and some don’t want so much. A big turn off and demotivator is having a manager with the leadership style of Attila the Hun,” she explains.

Case study: B & Q

At B&Q, the focus is very much on using learning and development, and performance-related pay as motivational tools. Andrew Moat, reward solutions and service manager, is aware of the theories of motivation from his university days, but doesn’t design reward packages around them. “I am sure that what we do is described in some theory somewhere, but I am not aware of any particular label attached to it. “The single [most important] thing for us is managing people’s careers and what we can do to make sure that people have fulfiling careers at B&Q. [The learning and development] could be anything from day-to-day feedback to organised training and coaching,” he says. Employees are also assessed twice a year under a performance review system which grades people from one to four — one indicating underperformance and four representing top performance. Those who are graded at level one are not eligible for a pay increase or, if they are a manager, a bonus. Staff who receive a four get a bigger than average wage increase. Managers at this level are awarded bonuses. Despite this, Moat does not believe pay is always the best way to motivate staff. “People don’t generally leave or join because of pay, they leave or join because of the opportunities they have at work,” he explains.