Motivation is concerned with behaviour and effort at work. Employers and managers are not only looking for employees with skills and qualifications, but also for those who are motivated and committed to the organisation. It has long been assumed that a motivated employee will be happier, work harder, longer and perform to higher standard than the less motivated.
Managers have at their disposal a bewildering array of theories and practical techniques in order motivate their employees. Typically, these try to identify what motivates people to work, why some people work harder than others, and offer blanket solutions that often fail in their implementation. Motivation is an attractive concept that promises much, but ultimately raises more questions than it answers.
Where do we go from here? Christine Doyle, a UK occupational psychologist, argues that managers have been asking the wrong question when it comes to motivation. According to Doyle, the question is not what motivates employees to work, rather, what are they motivated to do? Surprisingly, money is not always the answer.
Often the starting point of motivation in the workplace is money. Yet, we know from extensive studies (and personal experience) that money is only part of the motivation equation. In many cases money has been shown to be a poor motivator, hence the limitations and disappointment associated with most pay-for-performance schemes.
Interestingly, employees in occupations characterised by 'low pay' such as cleaning and child care for example, tend to exhibit higher levels of motivation, commitment and overall job satisfaction than other higher paid workers. How might we account for the motivation of cleaners and childcare employees and is their level of commitment and motivation genuinely oriented to the organisation, or does it lie elsewhere?
The answer, it seems, lies in self-identity - how an individual sees and expresses her or himself and the values that they possess. Motivation, therefore, involves self-management as we are motivated to engage in behaviours that support the ideas we have of ourselves.
For those whose identity revolves around work, their goals and behaviours will be strongly organisation related. For those whose identity lies outside of their work, their work related behaviours are more concerned with economic survival and pursuing non-work related goals. In the example of cleaners and child care workers, motivation and effort is not necessarily aligned with that of the organisation but to goals outside of work such as family relationships.
For managers, then, motivation should be seen as something that is highly individual and to accept that what employees will or will not work towards may not always be closely aligned to the interests of the organisation. The real challenge for managers is to embrace this reality.
Dr Shaun Ryan is a lecturer in management and employment relations in the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Newcastle.