Motivating Employees

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  • April 7, 2009, 2:08 PM ET

Motivating Employees

Why do people work?

That’s the single most important question in the field of management. How you answer it can tell volumes about your management style.

The most common answer is: “Because they have to.” If you believe that, you are likely to favor tactics like punch clocks, close supervision and constant nagging, minimizing any opportunity for your workers to shun their work.

Another common answer is: “For the money.” That one leads you to intricate financial arrangements, attempting to tie each worker’s pay to his or her output, and providing an array of monetary incentives for extra effort.

But the truth is, we all know people who pour themselves into work that they don’t have to do. And we’re all familiar with the volunteer who works harder than the paid staff, or the “dollar-a-year” executive who seldom goes home to sleep. For most of us, even a modest amount of self-examination will reveal that “because we have to” or “for the money” are, at best, only partial answers to the very complex question of why we work.

Gaining a better understanding of what motivates people will make you a better manager. It will help you get the most out of those who work for you.

The classic text on this subject is “The Human Side of Enterprise,” published in 1960 by Douglas McGregor, a founding faculty member of MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Mr. McGregor’s book argued that behind the decisions and actions of every manager are a series of assumptions about human behavior. Most managers of the time seemed to subscribe to Theory X, whose assumptions include:

– The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he can.

– Because people dislike work, most people must be coerced, controlled, directed and threatened with punishment to get them to put forth adequate effort toward the achievement of organizational objectives.

– The average human being prefers to be directed, wishes to avoid responsibility, has relatively little ambition, and wants security above all.

As an alternative, Mr. McGregor offered up Theory Y, which rests on these assumptions:

– The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.

– External control and threat of punishment are not the only means for bringing about effort toward organizational objectives. People will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which they are committed.

– Commitment to objectives is a function of the rewards associated with their achievement.

– The average human being learns, under proper conditions, not only to accept but to seek responsibility.

– The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.

– Under the conditions of modern industrial life, the intellectual potentialities of the average human being are only partly utilitized.

In those six assumptions lies the root of much of the next six decades of management studies. The goal of management became not simply to direct and control employees seeking to shun work, but rather to create conditions that make people want to offer maximum effort. Having employees harness self-direction and self-control in pursuit of common objectives, it turned out, was far preferable to imposing a system of controls designed to force people to meet objectives they didn’t understand or share. Rewarding people for achievement was a far more effective way to reinforce shared commitment than punishing them for failure. Giving people responsibility caused them to rise to the challenge. Unleashing their imagination, ingenuity and creativity resulted in their contributions to the organization being multiplied many times over.

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