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Motivation at work - An idiot's guide to employee engagement


Surveys measuring employee engagement have become increasingly common. Most major corporations now regularly survey their workforces. There is no doubt that their surveys can yield useful information about employee attitudes and behavior. In many cases, however, the data are misinterpreted, misunderstood, and result in wasted time and money.

Most engagement surveys ask questions concerning a number of distinctly different attitudes that employees hold. Some of these attitudes affect turnover, some affect work performance, and still others have little or no impact on employee behavior.

Many individuals who interpret the data have limited knowledge about what the causes and consequences are of employee motivation, satisfaction, commitment, and involvement. As a result, they don’t correctly interpret the data collected in engagement surveys.

This doesn’t have to be. We have decades of research on employee attitudes that clearly establishes the relationship among employee attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. Let me quickly review this research by starting with two common beliefs that are incorrect and then discussing three research findings that should be kept in mind when employee engagement data are interpreted.

Fallacy #1: Money does not motivate – it is only a “hygiene” factor.

For decades the discussion of whether or not money motivates behavior and how it motivates behavior has been prominent in the organizational behavior literature as well as in the mass media.  Writers have gained book sales and visibility by saying that it does not motivate performance (note the popularity of the recent book, Drive), and that it is only a “hygiene” or dissatisfier factor. The simple fact of the matter is that for many people, it does motivate performance. Study after study has shown that when significant amounts of money are clearly tied to specific behaviors, those behaviors are more likely to occur.

Fallacy #2: A happy worker is a productive worker.

Starting about the middle of the 20th century and proceeding for several decades, organizational psychologists conducted many studies that correlated job satisfaction with performance. The results consistently showed low or no correlation between the two. In some cases, there was low correlation only because performing well made employees more satisfied, not because employees worked harder because they were satisfied. This is a particularly important point when engagement data are interpreted. As we will see next, there are reasons to worry about employee job satisfaction, but not because of the impact of increasing satisfaction on performance!

Truth #1: People differ in what they value.

There are large differences in what people value. In order to understand how to motivate somebody, it is critical to know what an individual values. There are a number of indicators of what a person values. Perhaps the best one is watching the choices individuals make when they have the opportunity to choose a reward, say receive a raise, a promotion, or a day off. It is also possible to get a reasonable understanding of what they value by looking at their characteristics. Yes, age is a predictor, as is gender, but overall they are relatively poor predictors.

Often the best way to find out what people value is to ask them. Usually, they are pretty good reporters of what they value. However, sometimes they don’t have a high level of self-awareness, or they may feel that it is necessary to give a politically correct response. This brings me back to the original point that watching the choices they make is oftentimes the best indicator.

One last point: it is critical to avoid stereotyping and assuming that people of the same race, age, and gender are similar in what they value. Even within what appears to be relatively homogeneous groups, there are often enormous differences in what individuals value.

Truth #2: Expectations lead to motivation.

Motivation is best understood, influenced, and predicted by understanding the expectations that people have. Simply stated, people engage in behaviors that they expect will lead to rewards they value. Thus, it is critical to know individuals’ expectations of what their behaviors will lead to.

There are a variety of outcomes that may be tied to work behaviors. High performance may lead to more money, feelings of accomplishment, high job security, and a host of other positive outcomes that can cause people to perform at a high level. The key from an organizational point of view is to understand what people see as the consequences of different kinds behaviors and to create a good alignment between what the organization needs and what individuals expect to be rewarded for.

Often, simply setting goals for individuals can make a major impact on their motivation. If individuals accept the goals and see the behavior as worthwhile, they will be highly motivated to pursue these goals.

Truth #3: Satisfaction leads to membership, not performance.

Satisfaction is a good predictor of absenteeism and turnover. Earlier, the point was made that happy workers are not necessarily productive workers. On the other hand, they are likely to be individuals who will stay with an organization. Essentially, when employees say they are satisfied with their job, they are indicating that there is no reason for them to look elsewhere for an alternative situation. They are not necessarily saying that they are motivated to be productive, but they may be saying that they will be loyal to the company and speak well of it to others. This is different from them being motivated to perform well. Indeed, happy workers tend to RIP (retire in position) unless they are somehow motivated to perform at a high level.

Looking at the results of employee engagement surveys and developing action plans based on them requires looking at the items on the survey in terms of what they measure. Do they measure satisfaction? Do they measure motivation? Once this is done, and only once it is done, does it make sense to think about action items such as making work more interesting, providing more job security, or rewarding performance with bonus plans?

Yes, engagement scores are indicators of how good or bad a work situation is. In most cases, it is better to have higher rather than lower engagement scores, but in order to take action directed towards improving organizational performance, the items need to be looked at separately and used to make data-based changes that will drive employee retention, performance, and commitment.


Edward Lawler III, Professor of Business at USC.

P.S. Do you like this article?. If so, feel free to post a link on your intranet, e-newsletter, blog, face-book page or email to your friends and colleagues. We are keen for everyone to have the opportunity to live a healthy work life!


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