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Looking to Increase Employee Performance? Motivation Is Critical

by Dick Grote

What's an organization to do when all of its honest and genuine efforts to motivate Sally and Sam to come to work on time, work safely, deliver efficient services, and act as if they were happy to be a part of the team, fail? There is no shortage of pop-psych books and motivational speakers who'll tell you a thousand-and-one ways to light a fire in Sam's belly. But what do you do when the fire goes out and none of those thousand-and-one ways seem to work any more? What do we really know about motivation?

Does Anything Work?

Given the constant barrage of pep talks and posters, slogans and free advice on the topic of motivation, there should certainly be at least a couple of core principles that predictably work every time. Aren't there? Or are we stuck with the notion that everybody's an individual, and what's a turn-on for Sally is likely to be a turn-off for Sam?

Rather than speculate, let's gather some data. Think back through all the jobs you've ever had, and bring to mind the job you had that produced the greatest amount of motivation in you. It doesn't matter what the job was — it might be the job you have right now; it might be a part-time job you had in high school. Doesn't matter.

It also doesn't matter what the word "motivation" means to you. However you choose to define the term is fine. Simply bring to mind the job that you had when you had the greatest degree of job satisfaction, excitement, enthusiasm and turned-on-ness.

Now that you've got the job clearly in mind, quickly jot down the factors that caused you to feel so motivated, so satisfied, and so turned on. If you're like most people, the factors you listed are highly predictable — and so are the ones that didn't make your list.

On your list appear such items as recognition, opportunities for achievement, freedom and autonomy, challenge, the chance to learn and grow, and the work itself. What was missing? You probably didn't write down such important items as job security, benefits, working conditions, and the organization's policies and procedures.

It turns out that the missing link in understanding motivation is understanding that there are two very different factors at work. On one hand there are the things that motivate us, that turn us on, that cause us to feel satisfied with the job. On the other are those things that dissatisfy us, that turn us off, that demotivate us. There are two separate variables at work, and you have to attack both of them. Psychologist Fred Herzberg stated it best, "Job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction are not flip sides of the same coin. They are entirely different coins, and the wise manager uses both those coins to buy better performance."

What Is Motivation?

A good working definition of motivation is this: motivation represents a measurable increase in both job satisfaction and productivity. The motivated worker does his job better and likes it more than those folks who are not so motivated. What generates real motivation is the first set of factors mentioned: opportunities for achievement and accomplishment, recognition, learning and growth, having some say in how the job is done, and worthwhile work. Those are the items that generate strong feelings of loyalty, satisfaction, enthusiasm, and all those other important attributes we want to see in those whose pay checks we sign.

But you can't get away with working exclusively on the satisfiers scale. You have to make sure that you clean up the job to reduce or eliminate those things that cause people to be unhappy and quit.

Wait a minute, some of you are saying — where does money fit into this scheme? Pay is the ringer in the equation; the one factor that shows up as both a source of satisfaction and a source of dissatisfaction. People are dissatisfied with their pay when they feel it isn't commensurate with their efforts, or is distributed inequitably, or doesn't reflect the responsibilities of the job, or is out of touch with market realities. If you don't pay competitive wages, people will be unhappy and they will quit. But no matter how much you raise salaries, you won't generate motivation and job satisfaction, because job satisfaction is a function of the content of the job.

Look at it this way: Hire me to wash dirty dishes and pay me chickenfeed and I'll be unhappy and demotivated. But raise my wages to a princely sum and guess what — I'll still hate washing dirty dishes. But I won't complain any more about my crummy compensation; I probably won't quit; and I may even improve my attendance record (if you pay me my munificent wages on an hourly basis). What you have bought with the generous pay increase you provided me was not real job satisfaction. All you have bought is the absence of dissatisfaction. They are not the same thing. If you really want me to be a happy camper, you'd better change the nature of my work.

And changing the nature of the work is the true key to motivation. The message is clear: do everything you can to get rid of the things that generate employee unhappiness, recognizing that no matter how big an investment you make you'll get precious little in return. All your money will buy is the absence of dissatisfaction. Listen up — you have no choice! You must pay people competitive wages, you must provide a healthy, safe and attractive work environment, you must give at least as good insurance policies and vacations and retirements plans as people could get working for the bagel joint down the street. If you don't, people will quit and you won't be able to hire replacements. But all you'll get for the fortune you spend in this effort is a bunch of people who have to search hard for something to complain about.

If you want genuine motivation, though, you've got to look at the job itself. Does the work provide me with the chance to really accomplish something? Does my job allow me to do something that makes an actual difference? Do I have a lot of say in how I do my job or am I totally constricted by standard operating procedures? Can I learn and grow and develop on this job, or will I be tightening the same nut on the same bolt for the next thirty years? Do I get any recognition when I do something particularly well?

Providing recognition of good performance is the best place to start. Recognizing good performance any time it's encountered — with just a "Thanks" or a literal pat on the back — can be enough to get the motivational engine working. Sally and Sam will need more than just an attaboy, but acknowledging excellent work every time it appears is a wonderful place to start the engine of motivation running.

Copyright © 2006 Dick Grote

About the Author

Dick Grote is a management consultant in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in helping organizations design effective performance management Dick Grote is a management consultant in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in helping organizations design effective performance management systems and build leadership excellence: www.GroteConsulting.com. He is the author of the management classics, Discipline Without Punishment, The Complete Guide to Performance Appraisal, and The Performance Appraisal Question and Answer Book. His most recent book, How to be Good at Performance Appraisals, was published by the Harvard Business School Press in 2011.

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