Motivation and Leadership

As we’ve discussed, motivation has become a buzzword in the business community. And, now that we’ve looked at some of the major motivational theories out there–Herzberg’s motivator-hygiene theory, path-goal theory, and McClelland’s learned needs theory–we can further explore the important role they play in organizational leadership– especially transformational leadership.

At a high level, motivation is an important leadership skill.  Motivation is defined as “(1) what energizes human behavior, (2) what directs or channels such behavior, and (3) how this behavior is maintained or sustained” (Steers, Porter, & Bigley, 1996, p. 8), or more simply, the “reason(s) I do what I do.”  As such, understanding the motivational process is important to effective leadership.  If one defines leadership as, “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes” (Rost, 1993, p. 102), motivation becomes one of the ways the leader can influence his or her followers.  To put it more clearly, motivation plays a key role in how the leader can energize, direct, and maintain followers’ behavior toward real changes and mutual purposes.

More specifically, Bass (1990, p. 13) defines transformational leadership as occurring “when leaders broaden and elevate the interests of their employees, when they generate awareness and acceptance of the purposes and mission of the group, and when they stir their employees to look beyond their own self-interest for the good of the group.”  In addition to this definition, there are four factors of transformational leadership: (a) idealized influence, (b) inspirational motivation, (c) intellectual stimulation, and (d) individualized consideration (Northouse, 2010).  While motivation plays a role in all four of these areas, the three theories we have discussed play a prominent role in inspirational motivation, individualized consideration, and intellectual consideration.

Inspirational motivation involves leaders creating excitement and enthusiasm around the vision and high expectations through the use of symbols, emotional appeals, and simple messages (Northouse, 2010).  Thomas (2009) explains, “the purpose and vision, then, provided a target that could align the efforts of different people to solve problems and cooperate….the compelling vision was a strong motivational force that inspired people” (p. 23).  When it comes to creating a vision or purpose statement, research has shown that not all purposes are equally effective.

According to Thomas (2009), workers are rarely inspired by purposes that are focused on making a profit or other economic considerations.  This finding is consistent with Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene theory.  Herzberg found that “concerns such as pay, security and work conditions…are less capable of energizing workers to higher levels of performance” (Hill, 2008, p. 174).   Instead, if Herzberg’s theory is followed, the vision or purpose statement should connect to workers’ need for recognition, responsibility, and the opportunity fulfill one’s potential.  For example, Chick-fil-A’s mission statement, “Be America’s Best Quick-Service Restaurant” hits on all of these needs.  The focus on being known as the best speaks to one’s need for recognition and fulfilled potential, and it makes the employees responsible to America for their service.  In addition to playing a big role in inspirational motivation, motivational theory is also important to the individualized consideration factor of transformational leadership.

Individualized consideration consists of “… focusing on the development and mentoring of individual followers and attending to their specific needs” (Powell, 2011, p. 5).  Here there is an emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual.  This factor speaks to how important it is for the leader to take the time to get to know his or her followers on an individual basis and learn their strengths and what motivates them.  For example, if one utilizes McClelland’s learned needs theory, one should identify which of the four needs the individual is primarily motivated by (power, achievement, autonomy, affiliation).  Path-Goal Theory also requires this focus on individuals’ needs.

“To apply path-goal theory, a leader must carefully assess the subordinates and their tasks, and then choose an appropriate leadership style to match those characteristics” (Northouse, 2010, p. 135).  In addition to this connection to individualized consideration, path-goal theory plays a key role in intellectual stimulation as well.

Intellectual stimulation involves supporting “…followers as they try new approaches and develop innovative ways of dealing with organizational issues” (Northouse, 2010, p. 179).  It includes removing obstacles which are preventing growth and progress from taking place (at both the individual and organizational level).  Or, in the words of path-goal theory, “The leader should help subordinates define their goals and the paths they want to take…when obstacles arise…[it] may mean helping the subordinate around the obstacle, or it may mean removing the obstacle” (p. 132).

Overall, motivation is a complicated topic that plays a critical role in effective leadership, specifically in the inspirational motivation, intellectual consideration, and individualized consideration factors of transformational leadership.

Referenced Works:

  • Bass, B. M. (1990).  From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, 18(3), 19-31.
  • Hill, A. (2008). Just Business: Christian ethics for the marketplace. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
  • Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and practice (5th ed). Los Angeles: Sage.
  • Powell, G. N. (2011).  The gender and leadership wars.  Organizational Dynamics, 40, 1-9.
  • Rost, J. C. (1993). Leadership for the twenty-first century. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
  • Steers, R.M., Porter, L.W., Bigley, G.A. (1996). Motivation and leadership at work. (6th ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Thomas, K.W. (2009).  Intrinsic motivation at work: What really drives employee engagement. San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler.

Motivation–It’s NOT all about the Money

Motivation has become a buzzword in the business community.  It is commonly listed as a required skill on job descriptions, and resumes routinely boast of the individual’s “motivational abilities.”  This emphasis on motivation has led to the popularity of motivational authors and speakers—some good and some bad.  Even the popular television show Saturday Night Live has parodied our culture’s fascination with motivational speakers—living in a van down by the river anyone? 

The question becomes why is motivation receiving so much attention?  To some extent, the increased interest in motivation is parallel to the increased interest in leadership and has resulted in the development of many different motivational theories and processes.  Of these many theories, Herzberg’s motivator-hygiene theory, path-goal theory, and McClelland’s learned needs theory all stand out and can play an important role in organizational leadership.

One of the most common ways leaders try to motivate employees is by implementing various financial rewards.  Leaders often hand out more money as a motivational solution because it is relatively quick and easy.  Unfortunately, it is not usually as effective as the leader would like.  Herzberg’s motivator-hygiene theory explains why this is often the case.

The main premise of the motivator-hygiene theory is that every job has hygiene factors and motivators.  Hygiene factors need to be present for an individual because their absence creates an unsatisfying experience; however, increasing hygiene factors does not increase satisfaction, rather it brings the individual to a neutral state (Steers, Porter, & Bigley, 1996).   According to Herzberg, hygiene factors include one’s salary and other financial incentives; “concerns such as pay…are less capable of energizing workers to higher levels of performance” (Hill, 2008, p. 174).  This is because only motivators can create satisfaction.  Motivators include opportunities for achievement, recognition, the work itself, and growth.

Other authors have since agreed with Herzberg.  For example, Pfeffer and Sutton (2007) state, “so making mistakes in pay can cause people to withhold discretionary effort, ideas, and information…financial incentives have a potent impact on performance, but not necessarily in the positive ways that executives and their advisers anticipate” (p. 5).  So in other words, if an individual feels as though he or she is not being paid fairly, he/she will be demotivated.  However, once the equity threshold is met, paying that individual more money will not increase their motivation.  Kohn (1993) also supports Herzberg’s research by concluding, “Managers often use incentive systems as a substitute for…treating workers well – providing useful feedback, social support, and the room for self-determination….” (p. 6).  One way leaders can provide this useful feedback, support, and independence is by utilizing the path-goal theory of motivation.

According to Northouse (2010), path-goal theory involves leaders who “try to enhance subordinates’ goal attainment by providing information or rewards in the work environment…” (p. 125).  More specifically, the way leaders enhance followers’ goal attainment is by understanding their followers’ unique characteristics and challenges and then responding with the appropriate leadership behaviors.  For example, providing a brand new employee with extra attention and precise direction may be helpful as she learns about her position and the organization; however, those same behaviors can be interpreted as micro-managing by someone who has been with the organization for a longer period of time.  Applying McClelland’s learned needs theory is another way to better understand subordinates’ unique characteristics. 

According to McClelland’s learned needs theory, there are four primary motivations, and individuals acquire certain needs based on their experiences.  Therefore, everyone does not share the same prominent needs or combination of needs.  The four motivations are: (a) need for achievement, (b) need for power, (c) need for affiliation, and (d) need for autonomy (Steers et. al., 1996). 

Those with a need for achievement tend to be competitive and have a high standard of excellence.  Individuals with a need for power have a desire to control their environment and be responsible for the behavior of others.  People with a strong need for affiliation want to develop and maintain strong relationships with others, and they get their validation from those relationships.  Finally, those with a need for autonomy want to control their own work and dislike many rules and regulations.  Therefore, while someone with a high need for affiliation may find the opportunity to work with a team on a project motivating, someone with a high need for autonomy would most likely be demotivated by that same prospect.

Overall, Herzberg’s motivator-hygiene theory, path-goal theory, and McClelland’s learned needs theory work well together and have the potential to turn motivation from a buzzword into a powerful organizational leadership tool.   

Referenced Works:

  • Kohn, A. (1993). Why incentive plans don’t work. Harvard Business Review, 71(5), 54-63.
  • Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and practice (5th ed). Los Angeles: Sage.
  • Pfeffer, J. & Sutton, R.I. (2007). Do financial incentives drive company performance? Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Steers, R.M., Porter, L.W., Bigley, G.A. (1996). Motivation and leadership at work. (6th ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill.