The Psychology of Employee Motivation
Managers in all industries, now more than ever, are looking for effective ways to motivate employees in order to build a sustainable and resilient company foundation. In order to create employees that are motivated enough to grow and engage customers, companies must understand motivation as a human need and how it applies to a work setting.
Employee motivation is an essential ingredient to achieving success within your organization; motivated employees directly correlate to performance, job satisfaction, and employee retention. As a result, the ability to motivate and engage employees is a vital and necessary skill for managers in any industry.
Before managers can effectively implement an employee motivation program, they must understand, one, the nature of motivation and its implications, and two, what being motivated looks and feels like with regard to their employees.
To understand motivation and its implications, managers need to be aware of people and how they think. For this, we pose the question: “What does psychology, the study of human mind and behavior, tell us about motivation?”
In psychology, the term “motivation” can be defined simply as the reason for engaging in a particular behavior; basically, motivation is the “why” behind any given action. A vast amount of research concerning motivation theory has been conducted over the course of decades, with many diverging theories. Despite this, however, there are three generally accepted schools of thought in regard to motivational psychology. The first, attributed to Sigmund Freud, is known as “Theory X.” This theory assumes the worst motives in people, adopting the pessimistic perspective that people are lazy and lack ambition; they are self-seeking, avoid work at all costs, and do the bare minimum. The implications drawn from Freud’s viewpoint necessitate motivating employees through external factors such as reward, manipulation, or punishment.
Douglas McGregor developed a second theory which is known as “Theory Y.” McGregor assumed the best motives in people, and optimistically believed people to be genuinely interested in work, learning, and overall self-improvement. His theory implicates that people are internally motivated and work for themselves, not out of fear or reward; thus negating any need for externally motivating factors.
Finally, a third major motivation theory is Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” The basic principle behind this theory is that human beings are motivated by meeting their most pressing needs first. Maslow’s hierarchy contains five levels, and, theoretically, each successive level can only be attained by meeting those beneath it. They are (in order from lowest to highest): physiological needs, security needs, social needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization. According to Maslow, employees’ lower level needs would have to be met in order for them to achieve a higher functioning level of motivation.
The theory, or combination of theories, managers ascribe to will directly affect how they motivate their employees. So, the imperative question now becomes: “How will these motivational approaches make employees feel, and consequently, perform?”
As observed by Freud and McGregor, generally speaking, motivation can feel one of two ways — positive or negative – as employees are motivated both by negative and positive factors. For example, a negative motivating factor is fear – fear of failure, fear of losing favor, fear of losing a job. If an employee is being consistently motivated by fear, he feels unsatisfied, under-appreciated, and ineffective. Conversely, if an employee is motivated by positive factors like a desire to gain appreciation, or even better, to share in the success of the company or team, he will experience satisfaction, worth, and increased productivity.
If an organization adopted Maslow’s approach to motivation, it would seek to meet the most basic needs of their employees in order to equip them for higher levels of performance. While providing resources to meet one’s physiological needs such as food, shelter, and clothing is as simple as writing a paycheck, helping employees achieve higher levels like social and self-esteem needs are more complicated. Still, these needs can be remedied through various vehicles like employee interaction and genuine praise, appreciation, and recognition from supervisors. If an organization can free their employees from the pressures of fulfilling lower level needs, their employees will feel comfortable and capable to operate at their greatest potential.
In conclusion, managers must act as motivators. The question is: How can you be an effective one? Research often finds that internal motivating factors prove more effective than any externally motivating force. The goal, then, is for organizations and managers to create environments where
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