An employee leaves shortly after receiving a raise. A team exceeds an ambitious stretch goal. A top achiever’s performance slides for no apparent reason. Sometimes managers are surprised by these outcomes, which may be due to a mismatch between a manager’s beliefs about employee motivation and what actually motivates a particular employee. Complicating matters, what motivates one employee may not motivate another. Understanding how managers believe employees are motivated and how employees are actually motivated may lead to positive organizational outcomes.
Recently, researchers at the University of San Diego published a study in the Journal of Business Administration Research that developed and validated a psychological test to assess which motivational theories a manager believes in called the motivation beliefs inventory (MBI). The researchers explain that managers tend to hold erroneous beliefs about what motivates employees, overemphasizing certain factors, such as job security and compensation, and underemphasizing others, such as meaningful work and growth.
Using the MBI, managers’ beliefs can be assessed along four key motivation theories that have emerged since the early twentieth century: reinforcement theory (RT), expectancy-valence theory (EVT), achievement motivation theory (AMT), and self-determination theory (SDT).
Theories of Motivation
Reinforcement theory is based on using positive and negative reinforcements to incentivize employees to behave in a desired manner. In expectancy-valence theory, motivation can be determined by first examining the emotional desirability, attractiveness, and anticipated satisfaction of a particular outcome. A manager must then assess the likelihood of a particular course of action, such as assigning a particular project to an employee to bring about a desired result at a given time in the future.
Achievement motivation theory (AMT) purports that meeting three separate psychological needs motivate an individual: achievement, affiliation, and power. It is comprised of:
(1) socialized needs for achievement, affiliation, and power;
(2) striving to achieve something novel or record-breaking;
(3) challenge level of a goal;
(4) competing to win.
Finally, self-determination theory (SDT) posits, “individuals are naturally inclined to engage in and increase competence within their environments.” SDT suggests that the most important factor in motivating individuals is to create a positive environment that allows autonomy. In contrast to Reinforcement Theory, employees under SDT will be most successful and satisfied with their work in situations that are free of incentives and punishments.
The Three M’s
Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School discusses similar origins to motivation as the motivation beliefs inventory. She believes that mastery, membership, and meaning are the three “M”s that motivate employees. Kanter’s view intersects most with achievement motivation theory, both on mastery (achievement) and membership (affiliation). When discussing mastery, she advocates enabling people to develop deep skills and shape their future through stretch goals. In fact, behavioral economist Dan Ariely asserts that the more difficult the challenge the prouder a person feels of their achievement. This also aligns with achievement motivation theory in that the importance of the achievement is further magnified for the most challenging goals.
Kanter’s second “M,” membership, also aligns with the affiliation component of achievement motivation theory. The traditional view of affiliation focuses on pleasing others and gaining their approval. However, Kanter’s view of this sense of belonging is different. She believes that honoring individuality within the work community provides deeper connections than what she calls “superficial conformity.”
For Kanter’s third component she focuses on meaning rather than power, as in achievement motivation theory. However, these two concepts have more in common than initially meets the eye. Employees find their work meaningful when they understand the larger purpose of their daily tasks. As a manager, explaining the positive impact that an employee’s work has on the world is important. While in some industries and functions this may be more challenging than in others, an adaptation of this would be to show the positive impact that the employee’s function has on the organization itself.
According to achievement motivation theory, power is associated with the need to influence and have an impact on others. In fact, while Kanter’s concept of meaning focuses solely on impact, the power concept in achievement motivation theory adds another dimension through the need to influence and impact others. Also, the concept of power requires the work to simply have an impact, while meaning requires that impact to be positive.
So what can we do with this knowledge and growing opportunities to understand ourselves and others motivations with tools such as the MBI?
4 Steps to Understanding Your Own & Others Motivations:
1) Understand Your Perspective
Use comprehensive tools such as the MBI to develop a better understanding of your own assumptions of motivations in the workplace. Spend time to analyze the general factors that motivate people and your perceptions of motivation in the workplace. Try to recognize any biases you may hold and what motivates you personally; Incentives? Autonomy? Impact on your organization? Working with others? Objectively piece together your own motivation beliefs puzzle as you build your self-awareness.
2) Distinguish Between Perception and Reality
Are your assumptions about others’ motivations correct or incorrect? As The University of San Diego researchers note, managers often hold erroneous assumptions about employees’ motivation triggers. A good tool to determine if your past motivation techniques were successful can be found in past outcomes. What motivation techniques (incentives, autonomy) led to particularly great outcomes for an employee? What motivation factors were present when an outcome was negative? Each employee is motivated differently and a pattern should emerge about their preferences.
3) Put Yourself in Their Shoes & Initiate an Open Dialogue
Leave behind your own mindset and try to enter your employees’. Acknowledging that you have your own perceptions was the first step. Now you need to quiet that perception to understand someone else’s. Taking the time to be in the same mental space as your employee can have immense benefits.
After you have identified a plausible pattern and done your best to understand their perspective, open a discussion with your employee about your interpretations. This may help illustrate the differences between your motivation beliefs and theirs, as well as allowing you to hear what your team member thinks he or she needs.
4) Recalibrate Based On Your Findings
Reflection and discussion should bring clarity to your own views and the beliefs of your team members on what motivates them. Apply this new knowledge to adapt your leadership style. Use tools such as task allocation, incentives, and granting autonomy depending on what motivation style works best for each team member. While individuals are motivated in different ways, remember to remain fair and objective to maintain a sense of equity.
5) Track Your Results
As with any change, track the results of your motivation tools and outcomes. Positive outcomes will be amplified if you can identify and continue to implement them. Negative outcomes will be minimized by tracking their causes and discontinuing use of those tools.
To motivate employees effectively, managers would be well-served to develop awareness of their own views about what motivates employees. The motivational beliefs inventory may assist in this goal. After assessing their own beliefs in general, managers should also consider what factors motivate each of their employees. As managers assign various tasks and responsibilities among team members, they should seek to align those allocations with the factors they believe will motivate each of their employees.