The fortnightly column that gets under the skin of the biggest issues facing
the HR profession
In the last Harvard Business Review, some of the most famous bosses in the
US shared their secrets for motivating workers. "Start with the
truth" suggested Carly Fiorina of Hewlett Packard. "Work quickly
through pain," averred Hank McKinnell of Pfizer. Others offered "the
encouragement of risk" and the ever reliable "caring for the little
The advisers may be eminent, but the advice is crass enough to ensure an
epidemic of lethargy. Motivation has always inspired unassailable platitudes.
The reason is that advancements to the understanding of it are exceptionally
rare, coming at the rate of about one or two per century. They are usually put
forward by scholars who have spent a lifetime probing the feelings of cohorts
of employees, much like Darwin’s examination of glow worms. Even then,
companies tend to ignore them.
The last advancement came in the 1960s, with the work of industrial
psychologist Frederick Herzberg. He saw that companies get their workers to do
what they want, principally by means of ‘the kick in the ass’, otherwise known
as KITA. The KITA is more often than not positive, through the provision of
incentives and counselling services, but it can be negative, in other words,
‘do it or you’re sacked’.
No sane manager could do without KITAs, but equally, it is clear that while
the KITA may change behaviour, it does not truly motivate. Motivation, Herzberg
argued, was a kind of internal motor, and concerned the intrinsic nature of the
work, lying in factors such as achievement, recognition, satisfaction,
responsibility and personal growth.
His answer to the problem of motivating people to do boring work better was
what he called ‘job enrichment’, which means widening the scope of
responsibility, for instance, or designing roles in a way that enables workers
to see their part in the overall production process.
It is an insight that applies just as much to modern helpline gulags as to
Fordist production lines: the quality of the experience is the key to improving
productivity; motivation must begin with the job itself, not the things built
But times are tight, pressures multiply, and good job design doesn’t sound
terribly strategic. In fact, contract culture often seems to be propelling
working life in the other direction, towards narrower task definition and doing
the same thing faster – towards job impoverishment. Meanwhile, HR departments
are reluctant to look at the inherent qualities of jobs, hoping instead to find
motivation-boosters in fashionable theories of commitment.
Employee commitment is one of the red herrings of the age. For a start,
commitment must be a two-way street, leading to difficult questions about the
nature of an organisation’s loyalty to its workers. Commitment is often most
desired by firms suffering high turnover. But this risks equating commitment
with endurance, when in truth it is meaningless without pre-existing stability.
And then, it will always prove impossible to direct commitment towards its
desired target: it is common to loathe a company, but feel deeply committed to
an individual boss.
Take journalists, for instance. Dissect them and you will find appallingly
low levels of commitment to their employers: they are congenital troublemakers
who are much given to complaint and are easy to lure elsewhere. However, you
will also find surprisingly wholesome and perhaps naive levels of loyalty to
the ideals of their occupation – such as holding the powerful to account and
providing useful information.
The gold standard
Trying to increase their commitment to their employer via the usual HR
wheezes – communicating values and rewarding ‘organisational citizenship
behaviours’ – would have precisely the opposite effect. If, on the other hand,
Herzbergian principles were to be applied, the task of motivation becomes
instantly clearer: you could amend responsibilities, change teams, rotate
positions and re-pot the ennui-niks in new roles.
Jobs are – or should be – supremely malleable.
Failing that, there is always cash – the gold standard of KITAs.
"Why does the worker work?" asked Friedrich Engels in 1844. "For
love of work? From a natural impulse. Not at all! He works for money, for a
thing which has nothing to do with the work itself." Reward, of course, is
the conventional pivot for motivation: the universal, primary concern of all
employees is how far a job meets their requirements in terms of income and
Yet, in terms of getting people to perform better in the job they do, income
is a poor determinant of motivation. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and
Development has found such soft factors as organisational support and
participation in decision-making to be far superior motivators; income is about
This has the ring of truth. It is interesting to note that corporate
executives are alone in their faith in the power of financial incentives –
no-one would expect government ministers to work harder if they were entitled
to a bonus triggered by above average GDP growth. In fact, it is a reliable
prediction that whenever human beings have done anything amazing, financial
incentives have had absolutely nothing to do with the motivation. The internal
motor runs on a special kind of fuel.
Stephen Overell has given you his opinion, now what do you think? We want
you to tell us your views. Q: Is
kicking your employees in the ass’ the
only way to motivate them? firstname.lastname@example.org