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Organisation Psychology – Work Motivation

Answers the Question 

What determines Work Motivation?

How it Began

Work Motivation is a vibrant area of organisational psychological research and study.  Since the early 1990s progress has been significant, with different streams of research and theories coming together to form a big picture of work motivation.  This includes such broad categories as Content (person variables), context (situational variables) and change (temporal variables).

There are various theories which attempt to formulate explanations of employee motivation.  Most of these theories can be divided into the four broad categories of need-based, cognitive process, behavioural, and job-based.

Need-based theories focus on an employee’s drive to satisfy a variety of needs through their work. These needs range from basic physiological needs for survival to higher psycho-emotional needs like belonging and self-actualization.  Key theorists in this area include Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs  and Atkinson & McClelland’s Need for Achievement Theory

Cognitive Process theories attempt to explain human behaviour by understanding the thought processes that drive human behaviour. The assumption is that humans are logical beings that make the choices that make the most sense to them.  Key Theories include Equity Theory, Expectancy Theory, Goal Setting Theory and Social Cognitive Theory.

Behavioural Theories apply the tenets of behaviorism developed by B.F. Skinner which promote reinforcement of employee behaviours that an employer believes are beneficial and discouragement of those behaviours that are not. Compensation and other reward programs are examples of behavioural reinforcement, Performance Management processes can also be used to address undesirable behaviours in the workplace, but over use of punishment can negatively impact employee’s perception of fairness in the workplace.

Job Based Theories state that the key to motivation is within the design of an employee’s job itself.   Key Theories include Frederick Herzberg’s Motivator–Hygiene Theory, Hackman and Oldham’s Job Characteristics Theory (JCT), Self Regulation Theory and Work Engagement Theory.

Alongside the field of organisational psychology other subjects such as economics, communication and sociology have been incorporated expanding understanding of the impact on work motivation and behaviour in areas such as non-conscious processes and multilevel, multifaceted social context.

Important developments in have examined how work motivation is shaped by needs and motives, personality traits, culture, and non-work factors.

Key Terminology

Work motivation – a set of forces that originate both internally and externally to an individual’s being, to initiate, determine the form, direction, intensity and duration of work-related behaviour.

Motivation – a person’s internal disposition to be concerned with and approach positive incentives and avoid negative incentives.

In Brief

Motivation is the force that initiates, guides and maintains behaviours in the work place. It is what causes individuals to take action, whether to eat to satisfy hunger, decide to attend college to earn a degree or finish a report in time to hit a deadline. The forces that lie beneath motivation can be biological, social, emotional or cognitive in nature.

A motivated employee is a productive employee. And a productive employee is a more profitable employee. When people aren’t motivated, they become less productive, less creative, less able to add value to an organisation.

Academic Researchers have developed numerous different theories to explain motivation and whilst each individual theory tends to be rather limited in scope understanding the key ideas behind each theory produces a better understanding of motivation as a whole.  Whilst psychology is some way off, of producing an integrated theory of work motivation the rapid progress made in this area have resulted in work motivation theories that apply to real-world problems in specific contexts.

What Does this Mean for Organisational Development?

Most employees spend less than half their time at work being genuinely productive. For the organisation’s leadership, this is frustrating and expensive.  However, usually it is the organisation itself which is the major cause of the problem. Almost all employees will be highly productive if they feel enthusiastic and motivated.

Organisational performance is dependent on what motivates employees.  Work Motivation can often be used as a tool to help predict behaviour as part of the diagnostic intervention in the OD cycle.  Motivation varies greatly among individuals and can be improved with a combination of understanding ability and studying environmental factors which will influence behaviour and performance. Because of motivation’s role in influencing workplace behaviour and performance, it is key for OD practitioners to understand and to design the work environment to encourage productive behaviours and discourage those that are unproductive.

Key features of organisational employee processes which will impact on motivation include;

Reward – Reward systems have a significant impact on employees’ level of motivation. Rewards can be either tangible or intangible and the incentives on offer will guide the focus of employee attention and effort. Check for conflicting goals which might be causing confusion, such as team and individual goals which can impact team dynamics.  Important forms of intangible rewards such as praise and recognition have the greatest impact when they soon follow the desired behaviour and are closely tied to the performance. Helping organisations use praise effectively, especially in regards to areas of work that the employee has control over can have a significant impact on work motivation. The use of status symbols, such as a corner office, and increased autonomy and freedom used well can demonstrate trust in an employee, decrease stress and improve job satisfaction.

Remuneration – Salaries play a crucial role in the tangible reward system. Remuneration not only attracts new talent to an organisation but helps retain talent to. The level of compensation will reinforce an employee’s belief about the value that the organisation places upon them.

Design of work – There are multiple ways to leverage job design principles to increase motivation and focus on providing employees with more input and an opportunity to maximise their sense of personal achievement. Jobs which provide intellectual stimulation, opportunities for creativity, and greater discretion over work-related activities allows employees to learn new skills, provides greater levels of variety, control, intellectual challenge, and creativity.