A Psychological Approach to Employee Motivation

The importance of psychology in achieving and maintaining Employee Motivation is essential. A message can be repeated over and over to a group of employees, but unless they believe it and believe in it, the words are empty. The following are some of the key psychological theories which aid employers in their end goal of producing a motivated workforce.

Related: Employee Motivation Online Course

Herzberg’s Theory of Motivation

Herzberg’s theory is that Employee Motivation is affected both by the employee’s level of satisfaction and dissatisfaction and that, importantly, these two elements are independent of one another. That is to say that although an employee can be satisfied by the elements of their job which are intrinsic to the job itself, such as achievement and recognition, while at the same time being dissatisfied by the elements which are secondary factors of the work – pay and benefits, job security and relationships with co-workers.

This was described by Herzberg as the Motivation-Hygiene Theory. Elements which are done because they are essential to the job were considered the “motivation” part of the theory. They were done because they had to be done; therefore the worker was “motivated” to carry them out. Carrying these tasks out were considered to be the motivation of the employee, because they were required or compelled to do them. Having work to do demand that the worker rise to – and meet – a challenge, their motivation was set in stone.

The “hygiene” element, rather than a reference to personal hygiene and cleanliness as one might assume, was actually a reference to the upkeep of personal determination. They were things that needed to be constantly maintained because they were not intrinsic to the job. Herzberg’s assertion was that the opposite of satisfaction was not Dissatisfaction, but rather an absence of satisfaction. Similarly, the opposite of dissatisfaction was an absence of dissatisfaction rather than simply satisfying. In terms of motivating employees, it is important to encourage satisfaction on the one hand, and avoid dissatisfaction on the other.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow’s pyramid detailing the hierarchy of human needs is actually a more general listing of things on which every human should be able to rely on, but is applicable to the issue of Employee Motivation. In any job, from the most basic to the most specialized, the employee should be able to rely on their employer and their co-workers to uphold their access to the most basic needs – those which are essential and without which a human’s health will suffer. The absence of access to these needs is the basis for everything else. As we go up the pyramid the needs become less essential, but arguably more decisive.

A sense of security and of belonging is also important to any employee. Knowing that one’s physical safety is ensured allows a person to do their job without fear. Security is not merely a physical concept; it also refers to the security of a person’s job and the conditions that allow them to do that job. Giving a person tasks to do is an essential part of motivation, but providing them the environment in which to carry out those tasks is no less important for motivation. Allowing a level of interaction and encouraging a team ethic will further a person’s intent to do their job and do it well.

In the upper two echelons of the pyramid, the needs are now more refined and specific. It is possible to do a job without self-esteem, but it is undesirable. Encouragement and positive feedback are important factors in ensuring that an employee does their job to the best of their ability. Without these factors, the likely outcome is a drop in performance and a reluctance to carry out further tasks completely and reliably. Self-actualization needs such as creativity and spontaneity allow the mind to work to its optimum level, and actively motivate the employee. These theories fit in somewhat with Herzberg’s – that there are certain things which must be guaranteed as an absolute base, and then others which guarantee the effort of an effective employee through their desire to be part of something good.

The Two Models and Motivation

Abraham Maslow’s theory on the hierarchy of human needs was an influence on Frederick Herzberg’s later theory regarding the factors which motivate workers. While Maslow considered the needs of a person to all be on the one hierarchical list, Herzberg felt that there were two very separate elements of the plan. To look at Maslow’s list, one would feel that as the requirements as set out in the pyramid were met, the level of satisfaction would rise while, at the same pace, the dissatisfaction would drop. It was Herzberg’s contention that this is not the case. Herzberg felt that satisfaction and dissatisfaction were actually wholly separate and that both needed to be attended to.

Herzberg and Maslow created two separate theories, and while much of what is set out in the hierarchy of needs is backed up by the theories in the “two factor” theory, it is expanded upon and honed. While to look at Maslow’s model one would feel that as long as certain needs were met, satisfaction would rise and dissatisfaction fall in equal measure, Herzberg holds that one could have a high level of satisfaction from carrying out their tasks in an efficient manner and meeting their targets, yet if they were constantly worried that they could lose their job for reasons separate to performance, they would not be as motivated as they could be.

There is, however, something to be said of Maslow’s hierarchy, in that the pyramid as he set it out could be split into sections. In this case, the top sections (and particularly the peak) would correspond somewhat to Herzberg’s “motivation” factors and the lower sections to his “hygiene factors. Herzberg’s theory is not a contradiction of Maslow’s, but at the same time is not a direct application of it. There are certainly differences between the two. They both have their part to play in employee motivation, however, and they have a lot more in common than to separate them.