Employee Motivation, the Organizational Environment and Productivity

Historical perspective on productivity and employee motivation

Historical perspective on productivity improvement

Continuing evolution of approaches

Modern concepts, of which human relations was one, are not completely unrelated to scientific management and classical organization theory, but are evolved from earlier views and represent modifications based on research and experience.

It was not long before the human relations school, recognizing the importance of individual motives and the interaction of groups in organizations, highlighted areas neglected by traditional managers.

They rapidly developed into a movement, and like the scientific managers before them, fell into the trap of being descriptive and prescriptive. Their three main areas of managerial activity were:

  • To encourage employees to be more participative.
  • To implement job enlargement and job enrichment in order to give wider discretion to employees.
  • To improve communications between employees and their managers.

However, it was soon considered that the movement's analysis lacked rigor and considerably oversimplified the complexity of human behavior. The assumptions about individual motives were simple and sterile, with money remaining as an important work-related incentive for employees and conflict treated as an evil to be removed in all circumstances.

It was to counter these weaknesses that the behavioral science approach was adopted. Although at first reaching similar conclusions to the human relations movement, findings were based on research by industrial psychologists who concentrated on motivation of individuals and industrial sociologists who looked at the behavior of formal and informal groups at work.

The period between 1951 and 1971 was the era of rapid growth in management. Managerial employment grew seven times and professional appointments increased eleven times as fast as overall employment. Some managers moderated their 'logical' approach to such things as job design and considered such alternatives as participation, job-redesign, job enlargement and job enrichment. At the same time management theorists and social scientists expanded the work of Taylor and others in the scientific management school or developed, researched and published work based on social science findings. Precious little cross-fertilization appeared between the same covers.

Legendary in the field of behavioral research that utilizes applied psychology to explore motivation are Maslow, Herzberg, Vroom and Lawler, whilst in the areas of leadership that combines the behavioral science approaches of psychology and sociology are writers such as Blake and Likert.

By the mid-1960s and 70s in Britain there was much confusion as to which theory to follow and much conflicting evidence from researchers. Where motivation was concerned, Goldthorpe (1969), for example, was to find that some employees, although they disliked the work which involved repetitive tasks in their Coventry car assembly plant, would put up with them for the money rather than move to more interesting jobs and lower wages in plants nearby.

Experiments at Philips at Eindhoven showed that although output initially rose after enlarging the jobs in radio assembly, workers were unhappy with their new jobs and responsibilities and many left. White (1973) also found that the motivation of managers to work depended very much on two factors - the type of job that was being performed and the age of the jobholder.

These findings show the limitations of approaches such as those proposed by Herzberg and others that advocate a single 'best way' and draw attention to the danger of viewing behavioral science as a provider of packaged solutions.

Proponents of each approach can blame the ineptness of the application for the failures encountered in implementation. This is a standpoint that many managers still hold today, and it is a difficult claim to refute, especially when talking to people who have built their careers on their respective approaches to management problems and become specialists.

When faced with the evidence, it becomes clear that no single panacea exists for problems relating to productivity improvement and the answers, as advocated by the contingency theorists, are situational and dependent on the unique circumstances existing at the time.

Much recent work has gone into diagnosing work situations in order to determine what 'contingent variables' there might be in order to make predictions on 'best fit' or solutions that will have a better chance of success. Considerable work has now taken place along these lines in the fields of management style, leadership, job design, organizational structure, payment systems, industrial relations and motivation.

Next | Present management role