During my time as a graduate student in Engineering Management, I had the good fortune of having to do a project on a theorist of motivation named Victor Vroom. Victor Vroom was one of a group of theorists whose work on motivation has shaped the conceptual understanding of motivation among management theoreticians but whose work sadly has not greatly motivated the practice of management. Sadly, the practice of business management (largely thanks to the failures of managers and business executives) has long lagged behind the understanding of management theorists as to the diversity of motivations as well as the type of management that works the best over the long haul, for a variety of reasons including lack of practice as well as lack of trust.
I bring this up because I try to study what motivates other people (and myself). Throughout the course of my life I have seen people motivated by a variety of different things, to different degrees. One of the major weaknesses of management practice is the lack of knowledge of the motivations of their employees and the lack of savvy in providing a variety of rewards to motivate others to increased productivity and morale. Sadly, companies seem to think that merely offering or maintaining work for existing employees is sufficient motivation in these times, without seeming to care about how to increase productivity and profit, often at potentially little cost to themselves. A failure of imagination leads to a failure of growth and improvement, and often leads to a deterioration of morale.
Let us provide some examples of this. Let us say that one is a manager of a service company where pay is low, hours and shifts can be onerous (including holidays and late shifts), and the work is demanding. While, in light of the continuing difficult economic conditions, absenteeism might not be a huge problem, one might want to keep customer service high and avoid presenteeism, or people just punching their tickets while doing the minimum possible work. There could be many ways to motivate such a base of employees. Most employers already have a kind of “employee of the month” program, which can motivate some employees, but not all. Additional rewards could be having good customer service reflect positively on the employee’s own bottom line with bonuses, in recognition of the economic rewards for the company on good service, and the desire to share the rewards with those who provided them for the company, which would give greater employee ownership of a company, decreasing the distance between managers and employees and achieving a more cohesive work culture. Additionally, one could tie the choice of shifts in a job to job performance, allowing workers to see that increased work performance may lead to more desirable schedules (including being able to spend more time with families when one wishes to, rather than having to work undesirable hours).
Motivation is a complicated matter. As human beings we have a large number of concerns–earning a living, receiving honor and respect and love from others, creativity and ownership–and these varying concerns differ by degree from person to person. I have known many people who have been motivated to a large degree by money, while I have known others interested in creativity and authenticity to such a huge degree that money was only valued for what it could buy and not for its mere possession at all. And I have known people motivated by a few things as well as many things (I myself have many and somewhat complicated motivations). Showing concern and respect for others means recognizing their motivations as well as honoring them in word and deed.
This appears to be a difficult task for many institutions. It is easy to pay lip service to concern for others. Companies will often say things like, “The customer is always right,” at least until that customer has a valid concern and is demanding refunds and better service. Customers will say that “employees are our most important assets,” only to wonder why their employees are upset (albeit often quietly) at being considered as mere property rather than as creative people with ownership for themselves, or being treated as liabilities on the bottom line. It is easy for people to say slogans that make us believe that we are showing honor and respect to others while not respecting others in actuality. Part of this problem stems in large part from our ignorance of ourselves and others–our ignorance of how we really look and appear to others, as well as an ignorance of how others think and feel and what they truly value most of all.
And this is where the genius of Victor Vroom (and others like him within the management theory community, like Abraham Maslow and Douglas McGregor) comes into play. Our practice as managers and leaders will ultimately depend on our worldview about the people we lead and manage. If we truly value them as human beings, it will be our pleasure to show them genuine service and respect and honor, respecting their capacities and providing them with ownership of their work and their ideas. As the demonstration of this respect is rather rare in our world, we may infer that the presence of that respect and honor within our hearts is somewhat more rare than we would like to believe. Alternatively, many of us are not prone to respect others unless we feel respected ourselves, and in the world of business this dynamic leads frequently to the sad phenomenon of the Mexican standoff or the prisoner’s dilemma, where two sides both make demands of respect and honor but are unwilling to move first because of a lack of trust that others will respond likewise, and thus receive a suboptimal outcome as a result of the lack of trust. It is easy to know what is right, and hard to do what it is right, especially if it comes to risk of our own power and prestige. And for this reason many companies fail to achieve the success that they are capable of, and why so many people are sullen and unhappy about the way that they are treated by their institutions. We can, and must, do better if we want our institutions to improve.