Employee motivation theory and practice

Application of employee motivation theory to the workplace

Job satisfaction - is there a trend?

This is the title of a study carried out by the US Department of Labor among 1500 workers, who were asked to rate the job factors, from a list of 23, which they considered important starting from the most important factor.

Their findings (Sanzotta (1977)) are contained in the table below.

Job Satisfaction Findings
White-collar workers Blue-collar workers
A. Interesting work A. Good pay
B. Opportunities for development B. Enough help and resources
C. Enough information C. Job security
D. Enough authority D. Enough information
E. Enough help and resources E. Interesting work
F. Friendly, helpful coworkers F. Friendly, helpful co-workers
G. See results of own efforts G.Clearly defined responsibilities
H. Competent supervision H.See results of own work
I. Clearly defined responsibilities I. Enough Authority
J. Good pay J. Competent supervision

It is interesting that out of the 23 job factors listed for the survey, yet with the exception of two items (white-collar workers' choice (B) and blue-collar workers' choice (C)) groups selected the same top ten factors, although with different rankings. It is significant that good pay was considered as the most important factor by the blue-collar workers, but it ranked as the least important for white-collar workers.

Individualize motivation policies

It is well known that individual behavior is intensely personal and unique, yet companies seek to use the same policies to motivate everyone. This is mainly for convenience and ease compared to catering for individual oddities (Lindstone (1978)). 'Tailoring' the policy to the needs of each individual is difficult but is far more effective and can pay handsome dividends. Fairness, decisiveness, giving praise and constructive criticism can be more effective than money in the matter of motivation.

Leadership is considered synonymous (Tack (1979)) with motivation, and the best form of leadership is designated as SAL, situation adaptable leadership. In this style of leadership, one is never surprised or shocked, leadership must begin with the chief executive and it is more a matter of adaptation than of imparting knowledge. Ultimately, it is the leadership quality which leads to the success of a company through team building and motivating its people.

'The one-minute manager'

A contemporary bestseller (Blanchard & Johnson (1983)) aimed at managers who seek to make star performers of their subordinates. To start with, the manager sets a goal, e.g. one page read in one minute, and it is seen to be achieved by 'one minute' of praising or reprimand as the case may be. But to be effective, these must be given (a) promptly, (b) in specific terms, and the behavior, rather than the person, should be praised or reprimanded.

The concept is basic and it makes sense, although the book seeks to 'dramatize' it. 'One minute' praising is seen to be the motivating force. Everyone is considered a winner, though some people are disguised as losers, and the manager is extolled not to be fooled by such appearances.

'Lessons from America's Best-run Companies'

Another bestseller, In Search of Excellence (Peters & Waterman (1982)). Several criteria, including analysis of annual reports and in-depth interviews, were used to pick 14 'model excellent companies' out of an initial sample of 62 companies. As expected, most of the action in high-performing companies revolved around its people, their success being ascribed to:

  • productivity through people;
  • extraordinary performance from ordinary employees;
  • treating people decently.

Personnel function and in particular leadership were considered the most critical components. If the leaders in an organization can create and sustain an environment in which all employees are motivated, the overall performance is bound to be good. The three essentials for creating such an environment are:

  • fairness;
  • job security; and
  • involvement.

Of all the resources available, the human resource is clearly the most significant, but also the most difficult to manage. Excellence can only be achieved through excellent performance of every person, rather than by the high-pitched performance of a few individuals. And motivation is, undoubtedly, the crux.


There is no simple answer to the question of how to motivate people. Can money motivate? Yes, but money alone is not enough, though it does help. We have discussed some of the pertinent theories bearing on human motivation and this is balanced by some of the practical factors which can lead to excellence. Human resource remains the focal point and leadership the critical component, and motivation has to be 'tailored' to each individual. The next section deals with an important mode of motivation, namely financial aspects of rewarding employees.

Next | Employee rewards