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Changing Motivation Theories and the Role of Communication in their Introduction to the Workplace

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Marianna Richardson

As Susan gets off the elevator, she scans the office to assess how well and how much her employees are working. She notices Sam talking to Jim, Alice sipping on a diet Coke while she stares blankly into space, and Ellen talking on the phone, hopefully talking to a client. Susan’s employees soon notice that she is looking at them, and they immediate snap back into action reading papers, making notes, or typing numbers into Excel spreadsheets. Susan wonders how much work really gets done when she is not around and how she can motivate her employees to work harder during office hours. Susan wants change, but she doesn’t know how to get her employees to want it as well. She is unsure about how to communicate her ideas about change to her employees.

The above story could be rewritten with Susan being a parent observing her children, or a professor observing her students, and she would have the same feelings of wanting change. You may wonder what change has to do with motivation and with business and professional communication. Well, a motivation theorist (Baumeister, 2016) recently suggested that the simple concept of wanting change is the overarching theme of all motivation theories. Such a simplistic view of motivation may seem too simple given the complexities of human behavior. But as shown in this example, Susan wants change, even though the change she wants involves other people. Susan also adds a value and a quantitative aspect to her motivation evaluation, which implies an achievement or accomplishment level that she expects her employees to meet. It also means that Susan has to come up with a plan about how to communicate her motivational thinking across to others.  

When you are in a similar situation as Susan, you might ask yourself:

Motivation, shaping behavior, and manipulation are confusing terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. Motivation should come from within employees, as a manifestation of their sense of purpose in doing their job and their desire to accomplish more and improve the quality of their work. When you force people to change, you are manipulating behavior, usually shaping their behavior to fit your mold. Focusing on agency is the key to the application of motivation theory: “The point is that agency, like cognition and emotion, exist to serve motivation” (Baumeister, 2016, p. 3). Therefore, agency should be the key determinant to distinguish between the manipulation of employees and employees being self-motivated.

While researching employee productiveness in team assignments, Clark and Saxberg (2019) found motivation to account for 40% of the success in team projects. Assessing the reasons for motivational failure is essential before trying to fix it. The wrong strategy can distance employees even further from the change you were hoping for. Understanding motivation theories and their application may be helpful as you make plans to solve these issues in your business.

The Formulation of Motivation Theory

Motivation theory focuses on the actions of participants or respondents whose actions or survey responses are studied and evaluated to monitor behavior change or determine a subject’s underlying cause of behavior. Rats, pigeons, monkeys, students, newborns, and employees have been used to understand human motivation. Although theories are usually formulated through studies, observations, or experiments comparing groups of participants, applying theories of motivation should be individually and personally driven acknowledging the cultural and emotional differences of the individual, as well as the individual’s agency to choose what the end result or purpose should be for their own actions.

A classic definition of motivation is “any internal process that energizes, directs, and sustains behavior” (Reeve, 2016, 32). The animation of living organisms is the essence of motivation and becomes closer to a more quantifiable way of defining motivation. Wright (2016) focuses his study of motivation on “what (1) moves the organisms from repose, (2) moves them one way rather than another, (3) moves them more or less vigorously, and (4) moves them more or less persistently” (p. 16). This study of motivation promotes an objective view of motivation. Emotions or values attributed to the organisms’ actions are not a part of the observation (Fanselow, 2018). But formulating theory is different than putting theory into practice, especially in a business environment.

The difficulty of putting motivation theories into practice is that inner emotions are usually involved, yet motivation theorists study respondents or other organisms through outward stimuli. Skinner’s work in operant conditioning focused on the discriminative stimulus (SD), the response (R), and the reinforcing stimulus (SR) as expressed in the formula: SD: R à  SR. Skinner developed a box to use with pigeons that delivered treats if the pigeons did certain behaviors; the treat became the reinforcing stimulus for the behavior. (Some of your employees may feel like they are Skinner’s pigeons working for treats without any meaning or purpose. Yet, they still want and need the money.) Skinner (1998) admits, “Possibly no charge is more often leveled against behaviorism or a science of behavior than that it cannot deal with purpose or intention” (pp. 55). Skinner (1998) continues to characterize a person’s action as illustrative of a person’s purpose or intention. But are future intentions realized when a person’s actions have been forced?

To research the behaviorist hypothesis that motivation only comes from external stimuli, Harlow experimented with rhesus monkeys, giving them a food reward for solving a puzzle. One monkey learned as rapidly and efficiently as food-rewarded monkeys and even continued to play with the puzzle after he figured it out. Harlow concluded that the “hunger-reduction incentive may be regarded as motivation-destroying, not motivation-supporting agents” (p. 26). Harlow (1955) cautioned experimenters using deductions from rat research to explain human behavior that there’s nothing wrong with the rat, instead there might be something wrong with the experimenters.

Watson proposed a motivation experiment of instituting baby farms where children would be scientifically raised away from their parents and families and their personal agency would (at best) be limited (Smith, 2017, p. 51). Luckily for babies, before Watson could try his experiment, Spitz worked with children in orphanages and children with their mothers in prison. Even though the children being raised in prison were not in the best environment, Spitz illustrated conclusively that children need to feel like they belong to someone or they become grief-stricken and despairing (Smith, 2017, p. 52).

Watson’s and Skinner’s ideas on shaping behavior are useful techniques widely used in our American business culture. Most businesses don’t go to the extreme of withholding food or locking up their employees, but managers do try to shape the behavior of their employees through the outward reinforcing stimuli of rewards and punishment. Behavioral techniques are useful in business. Employers shape behavior through promotions, demotions, praise, criticism, and loss of employment (Pink, 2009). The reinforcement of an employee’s behavior through external means does increase the possibility and rate of response, thus improving the employee’s output. Even though behavior may increase, the question continues to be, “Is shaping behavior motivation?”

The Western Concept of Motivation: Is it Universal?

Returning to Susan’s dilemma of motivating her employees, Susan also needs to consider the diversity of her employees. Based on their cultural and social backgrounds, her employees might need a variety of different techniques to encourage motivation; it is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Cross-cultural researchers continue to call into question the Western concept of achievement and motivation as universal (Triandis, 1995, 2006). In Western civilization, it has been assumed that individual choice is desirable for all humankind. Yet such theories and paradigms seem to reflect the culture in which they were developed; these are qualities valued by an individualistic society, such as the United States. In more collectivist countries such as, China, Japan, and Russia, their fundamental values might include fate, duty, and the pursuit of interdependence, which casts doubt on the universality of the basic need for autonomy and personal choice for all cultures.

Western cultures tend to attribute the success or failure of individuals differently than non-Western cultures. Studies compared Chinese and Japanese students to American students to study their beliefs for success. The studies found the Oriental populations perceive controllable causes, such as effort, to play a greater role in achievement than Americans. In contrast, the Americans tend to explain lack of achievement because of lack of ability or external factors (Lieber, Yang, & Lin, 2000; Tuss, Zimmer, & Ho, 1995).

Likewise, American and Russian respondents were studied analyzing their reasons for being motivated to achieve. Information from these respondents was collected through quantitative analysis of surveys answered by the individuals and anecdotal, qualitative short answers written by them. The American respondents were much more extrinsically motivated by money, parties, and food, and felt little motivation when a superior asked them to do something. The Russian respondents were more motivated by what interested them and what their superiors asked them to do (Richardson, 2005). 

Because of cultural discrepancies in motivation, different groups often perform disappointingly within a given motivation theory causing conclusions of group deficiencies or incompatibility between the dominant and minority cultural group. Since most motivation theories have been researched in Western countries, their applicability in a cross-cultural context should be questioned. For example, if you have a culturally diverse company, if you apply theories of motivation developed in the United States to people from other cultural backgrounds, you could view the apparent lack of investment in tasks on the part of cultural minorities, as a lack of basic potential, instead of a difference in orientation (Maehr and McInerney, 2004, p. 63). For example, Sandra Graham feels that there is a motivational difference between the white and black populations in the United States and calls for a completely different motivation theory for this population (Graham, 1988). She defines this future theory as needing to address a sense of self, cognitive and personality factors, a sensitivity to the dynamics of failure and an accounting for situational differences. In a business context, you may want to be sensitive in the way you would handle an employee’s inability to finish a job or you may to be sensitive when dealing with an employee’s self-esteem.

Motivating through Meaning and Purpose

Motivation theories have changed dramatically since Watson and Skinner. Modern motivational theories (such as attribution theory, intrinsic motivation, and positive psychology) are more focused on the individual, their locus of control, and their feelings about purpose. The self-determination theorists, Deci and Ryan, (2000) used similar traditional empirical methods as Watson’s and Skinner’s studies, but they focused their research on the importance of inner resources and behavioral self-regulation, rather than external drivers of behavior. Their theory centers on intrinsic motivation, which encourages people to integrate their personality as they search for competence. Rather than outward rules, as the manager, you should encourage your employees to be a part of the process to collectively figure out rules and regulations for work. Such a business structure allows for personal responsibility in achievement, leading to enhanced productivity and improved well-being (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Your conception of your abilities affects your future performance (Bandura, 1991). Human behavior is purposeful and is regulated by thoughtful goals. If you think you can do it, you probably will; if you think you can’t do it, you probably won’t. A heightened sense of your ability to do something allows you to visualize success, to make increased achievement goals, and to accomplish what you set out to do. Encouraging employees to engage in the running of the business gives employees purpose and the confidence for success. Moving away from external stimuli to change behavior and instead, focusing on the inner emotions, motives, and control of the individual as an agent of his/her own actions motivates people to enjoy work; the reward becomes inherent in the work the employee is doing, rather than focusing on the wages received (but wages are still necessary for happy employees).

Purpose brings meaning into life and work; it brings more than happiness by making life worth living (Smith, p. 12). Seligman’s positive psychology is not “happiology” (Smith, p. 12). Instead, it is the pursuit of meaning through PERMA (which is positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement). Seligman describes achievement as skill multiplied by effort. He also adds that grit and self-control are two additional features of his motivation equation (Seligman, 2011, p. 124-125). In an application of the PERMA model, Kern, Waters, Adler, and White (2014) studied 516 subjects and found that directly assessing people’s well-being based on the PERMA model offered a better understanding and promotion of the individual’s well-being. The PERMA model supports the individual’s need for belonging, purpose, transcendence, growth, and meaning; these are individual drives that need to be fulfilled in the workplace, in order for employees to feel intrinsically motivated when accomplishing their assigned tasks (Barrett-Cheetham, Williams, & Bednall, 2016).

Finding a purpose behind their job enables employees to become motivated to accomplish their work. William Damon (Goldwater & Trever, 1945, p. 401), a developmental psychologist at Stanford, defined purpose as having two dimensions:

  1. Purpose involves a “stable and far-reaching goal.”
  2. Purpose involves a contribution to the world (Smith, 2017, 77-78).

Encouraging employees to be a part of the conversation in goal setting for your company, as well as establishing an overarching contribution that the company is giving to others will improve the work environment and foster happier employees. This drive to find purpose in our jobs is underscored by researchers who surveyed over 20,000 workers worldwide and analyzed 50 major companies. They came to one conclusion: “Why we work determines how well we work.” (McGregor & Doshi, 2015).

Practical Solutions

The behaviorist business techniques of raises, stock options, and performance bonuses are still used as motivation tools. But, will they produce lasting change in your business? Focusing on the organizational climate of your business might transform the culture, solving motivational challenges in a long-term, positive way. Employee input is crucial as you seek for this kind of change. Consider evaluating the following areas with your employees through team group meetings or a company-wide survey (McGregor & Doshi, 2015):

  1. Do your employees come to work because they enjoy it?
  2. Do your employees find purpose in their work?
  3. Do your employees see the potential benefits of their work?

This three-pronged approach emphasizes on your employees’ thoughts about play, purpose, and potential. Job expectations should include play and enjoyment, rather than job expectations that feel like monotonous, routine drudgery. Play can be just what it sounds like – having fun. Play can also be creative, learning pursuits that employees enjoy participating in. Purpose is aligning the goals of the company with the values of the employees. Also, for any given task, an employee should know why or the underlying reason for the task. “I told you so; now, do it!” is not motivating. Finally, employees should feel that there is potential for upward movement, especially if they’re doing good work. This potential for future success gives employees hope for achieving their professional goals and motivation to accomplish company goals. As emphasized previously, employee input is essential to determine what play, purpose, and potential business goals would motivate your employees. Mandating these principles without receiving employees’ ideas may inhibit or terminate motivation completely. Employees may feel forced and manipulated when such programs are put into place without their involvement in the process. McGregor and Doshi (2015) have some practical suggestions on how to implement these concepts into your business:

  1. Hold a team meeting exploring the play, purpose, and potential of your organization.
  2. Explain the why of any new task you ask an employee to undertake.
  3. Enable each employee to make a future job plan and encourage them to achieve their goals.

For employees who are not performing well, you may want to consider giving them a fresh start. This advice is given with a word of caution. Fresh starts should be considered on an individual and as needed basis. Dai (2018) researched how fresh starts influence future performances. She found that when a performance reset or fresh start is given to a low performer, the reset increases future performance and gives the individual an increase in self-efficacy or a new confidence in their abilities to accomplish their job. If a high performer is given a fresh start, especially when they are not expecting it, the reset may decrease their self-efficacy and harm their future performance. A fresh start may not always be the right move for all your employees.

Conclusion

Current application of motivational theories is focused on the individual, yet managers must be constantly aware of their employees’ cultural differences and respect their individual agency. Employers need to understand the importance of agency and purpose in determining how to motivate their employees. Managers also need to pay heed to how they communicate their own sense of purpose to their employees so that they do not simply impose their purpose on them. What they need to work toward is to demonstrate to their employees how each of them finds a purpose for themselves in their work.

Returning to Sarah’s original plight of forcing her achievement goals onto her employees, Sarah should incorporate her employees in her planning process for the company, allowing her employees to help figure out motivational solutions that will positively support their enjoyment in their work, giving them tools to identify their individual purpose, meaning, and an understanding of why they should put an effort in the goals of their business organization because they see potential possibilities for their own individual success. Putting theory into practice can often be challenging, but managers and business professionals with their business and professional communication skills should not only move themselves towards an individualistic view of motivation, based on agency, inspiration, and purpose, but also move their employees in the same direction. A behaviorally based perspective on motivation does not give your employees an intrinsic purpose for action. Moving away from such a change model would engender an encouraging business atmosphere, which supports the individual, and encourages personal growth, and achievement.

Acknowledgment

I would like to thank Sushil Oswal for his vital contributions to this article during the revision process.

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Author Biography

Dr. Marianna Richardson is an adjunct professor in the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University. She teaches courses in management communication and psychology for both undergraduate and graduate students. She received her doctorate from Seattle Pacific University. Her research interests lie in the areas of business communication and motivation theory. She is also the current editor of the Marriott Student Review, a peer-reviewed journal for business students.

Recommended Citation: Marianna Richardson. (2019). Changing motivation theories and the role of communication in their introduction to the workplace. the Western ABC Bulletin, 1.2.

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