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.
- 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.
- McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory – Team Management Training (bjconquest.com)