Employee Motivation, the Organizational Environment and Productivity

Historical perspective on productivity and employee motivation

Historical perspective on productivity improvement

The growth of the social sciences

So far mention has been made only of developments relating to production, management, organization technology and science. No mention has been made of the impact of these developments on people and the way in which they react and are likely to react in the future.

The social sciences can now offer explanations in the behavioral field that could be valuable but have so far been largely ignored by management services practitioners. In some countries, for example, Sweden, job design has been approached taking into account the human attitude and there has been no loss of performance.

As long ago as the 1920s there was opposition to the scientific management principles and discretion was removed from individuals as a way of centralizing control and authority into specialized functions. On occasions this was clearly in the best interests of the workforce but often it was not. Benefits went disproportionately to the company and the individuals' experience of work was dehumanizing as they were treated as extensions to the machines.

It was soon realized that there were many things which scientific management had not taken into account, for example, the importance and influence of formal and informal groups at work. Many internal divisions exist in organizations as they grow and these militate against the attainment of a goal or objective.

Prior to 1940 the predominant theory about employee motivation was the classical management approach. Until this time the focus of attention had been almost exclusively on the jobs which individuals performed and how they could be improved. Incentive schemes were advocated and devised that related reward closely with the kind of effort required. Failure to achieve expected results was deemed to be a fault of the method or the training of the individual.

In the 1920s the British Industrial Fatigue Research Board studied the complex issues involved in considering productivity and motivation that were just not being recognized or understood. Later in America, Elton Mayo and his Harvard colleagues examined fatigue in their search for a rational explanation to differences in performance at a Philadelphia textile mill. These studies showed that motivation was outside the boundaries of the systematic, logical and rational model of Taylor.

What was found and has been substantiated many times since, is that people have;

  • multiple needs,
  • feelings and
  • personal goals

that are not always consistent with the

  • good job design,
  • exact standards and
  • performance measures

obtained from traditional techniques and approach.

During the course of Mayo's studies, which were to last ten years, he managed to switch the focus of attention away from the individual and physical considerations to the importance of groups at work requiring sociological and psychological consideration. Much of Mayo's research is often forgotten as the fact that performance increased under observation is popularized but still of significance to management are his findings that:

  • workers thought and acted not as individuals but as a group;
  • workers would sacrifice their self-interest in the face of group pressure;
  • money is not the sole motivator. (This prompted Mayo to comment: "Factory managers are going to someday realize that workers are not governed primarily by economic motives.")
  • supervisors have significant influence on output.

His recommendations reflected these findings and were that:

  • managers must not ignore the informal organization but ensure its norms are in harmony with organizational goals;
  • man is basically motivated by social needs, not economic ones;
  • work is rationalized by employees and meanings are sought in social relationships at work;
  • in order to influence the behavior of individuals managers must focus on the work group rather than individuals;
  • effective supervisors are those who satisfy subordinates' social needs.

Mayo's work is now part of management folklore and it has made some managers reject the views of the traditionalists and turn instead to 'human relations' management as the answer to "How do I motivate employees to work hard?" Which theory management chose was largely dependent upon beliefs about human nature, later categorized by Douglas McGregor into theories X and Y.

The mistake that was made by managers was the replacement of the traditional theory with that of the human relations school as if one was a perfect substitute for the other, when in fact they were part of the same continuum.

Next | Continuing evolution of approaches