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How to Motivate Employees?

Individual behaviors, whether within the culture of the workplace or outside of it, emerge from a complex combination of personal experience, perceptual orientation, innate talents, attitudes, beliefs, internalized social codes and more. In all of their activities — recruiting, hiring, evaluating employee performance, etc. — successful human resource managers understand individual needs and desires within the context of the organization’s efficiency, productivity and profitability. The key to maintaining such an understanding is a solid grounding in the principles of human motivation.

What Is Organizational Behavior?

As part of the training they receive in their Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree programs, human resource managers study organizational behavior. This scientific approach to the interrelationships between group and individual behavior has identified two main categories of motivating factors: the extrinsic and the intrinsic. What distinguishes these forms of motivation? What role does each play and how? Why do employees make the decisions they do? And to what degree do these motivations interact to define your corporate culture?

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivations are rewards. Incentives such as performance-based raises, bonuses or promotions constitute classic examples of extrinsic motivations. In today’s business environment, however, options to work from home or otherwise reduce the employee’s commute, benefits packages (health benefits, retirement options, etc.), and even how well the company’s policies align with a given employee’s social, political and/or religious values can also be considered extrinsic motivators. Depending on your company’s industry, acquiring good talent may be less a question of offering starting salaries within a specific range and more a matter of pledging to match employees’ charitable donations.

In theory, extrinsic motivation works via the proposition of a desired outcome. The company wants to see a 10 percent increase in quarterly marketing conversions. To achieve that goal, managers offer overtime and bonuses to employees who directly contribute to this goal. Three important suppositions are at work in this example:

  1. The rewards are contingent. If the desired outcome is not achieved, the reward cannot be delivered.
  2. Extrinsic motivation entails an exchange. Both staff and management achieve their desired outcomes, but both parties must tender something of roughly equal worth (hours and labor for higher earnings).
  3. Without these incentives, employees would not likely be willing or able to achieve the desired outcome on their own. This idea was perhaps best (and most influentially) expressed by MIT’s Douglas McGregor in a classic text titled The Human Side of Enterprise. There, McGregor writes that “The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he [or she] can.” Further, “Because people dislike work, most people must be coerced, controlled, directed and threatened with punishment to get them to put forth adequate effort.”

Extrinsic motivators need not be inherently negative, however. Great coaches, both on and off the athletic field, stoke their charges’ competitive fires using a system of rewards. (Think of the stickers that decorate the helmets of many collegiate football stars). But the most outstanding reward that coaches hold out is the feeling that comes with winning — a sensation that is, in the final analysis, subjective.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivators are likewise subjective. These motivations are unique to the individual. Perhaps an employee thinks that a certain task (e.g., maintaining a professional tone in all business-related correspondence, regardless of how mundane or trivial the messages may seem) is fundamentally important to the integrity of the organization. Perhaps an employee derives pleasure from a certain kind of work, or from work that they are good at. Perhaps an employee who loves learning new things performs best when given a new challenge.

In all these cases, we can view the intrinsic motivation as a kind of self-management. That is, the employee does not need to be coerced, controlled or directed by external forces — negative or positive. The employee only needs to be granted a certain amount of autonomy. Intrinsic motivations are strongly correlated with activities such as play, exploration and the satisfaction of curiosity. In creative industries, from software design to advertising, intrinsic motivations matter a lot. Personality assessments, team-building exercises and brainstorming sessions are all tools human resource managers can use to better comprehend the intrinsic motivations that characterize the company’s personnel.

Of course, as individuals grow, they change. And, as they change, so do their intrinsic motivations. Kenneth W. Thomas notes in “The Four Intrinsic Rewards that Drive Employee Engagement,” whatever an employee’s expectations or definitions of a reward, the self-management process involves four key steps:

  1. Committing to a meaningful purpose.
  2. Choosing the best way of fulfilling that purpose.
  3. Making sure that one is performing work activities competently.
  4. Making sure that one is making progress to achieving the purpose.

In other words, intrinsic motivations can still drive the accomplishment of particular goals. Activating those intrinsic motivations does require that human resource managers think about and communicate with the rest of the organization differently. Moreover, human resource managers must exercise care in ensuring that their employees’ extrinsic and intrinsic motivations do not come into conflict. Multiple studies (as documented by Roland BĂ©nabou of Princeton University) demonstrate that weakening employees’ intrinsic motivations exerts a long-term negative effect on their performance — and ultimately, the company’s bottom line.

Learn more about how you can help shape workplace culture and lead change within your organization with an MBA focused on Human Resource Management from Louisiana State University Shreveport.



Princeton University and Institute for Advanced Study: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Ivey Business Journal: The Four Intrinsic Rewards that Drive Employee Engagement

The Wall Street Journal: Motivating Employees

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