Employee motivation: how far have we really come?

by Nov 19, 2013Blog0 comments

Employee motivation and engagement is highly valued, often discussed, but at the same time often misunderstood or not fully aligned with corporate goals and objectives. Employee motivation and engagement is not simply about how we as an organization can increase the productivity of our staff (employees). With that said, organizations with a high level of engagement have reported significant improvements in productivity. According to a 2012 meta-analysis of 1.4 million employees conducted by the Gallup Organization, organizations with high level of engagement reported 22% higher productivity.

Increases in productivity are just the start. Organizations that focus on increasing the value of employee engagement and better understanding employee motivation may reap similar or even more significant improvements in areas including turnover, quality, customer satisfaction, and yes, profitability.

To have this type of impact, employee engagement needs to be part of your organizations strategy. In this series of three or four posts we will take a deeper dive into the art and perhaps science of employee motivation, and indirectly employee engagement.

Employee motivation: how far have we really come?

Frederick Herzberg’s research on employee motivation in the 1950s and 1960s highlighted a disparity between the way we think about motivation and the way it really works. Published in 1968, his ‘One More Time’ paper spoke and set to revolutionize the way that we think about motivation. Yet decades later, his insight remains notably absent from much discussion about motivation. So what did Herzberg find, and why is it important?

Increasing motivation vs reducing demotivation

Herzberg recognized that positive motivation and negative demotivation, as experienced in the workplace, were not opposite points on the same scale. The methods that could reduce demotivation would not increase motivation.
This might sound counter-intuitive, but it arises from a linguistic bind into which we have got ourselves. We have labeled two different experiences using opposite forms of the same word, when this is not their relationship.

The hierarchy of needs

To understand this distinction, it’s worth taking a moment to consider another piece of research – Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, first published in 1943. Maslow explained that human beings are driven by five layered sets of needs, from the most basic physiological needs for food, water and shelter at the bottom of the hierarchy, to acceptance, creativity, and the opportunity to solve problems at the top – what he referred to as self-actualization.

All of these needs influence our motivation, and if any of them go unfulfilled then we experience negative feelings. But while needs are fulfilled in different ways, they are not unrelated. It is hard to feel motivated by a creative opportunity if you are hungry and cold or fear for your ability to keep a roof over your head. As the needs lower on the hierarchy are fulfilled, those further up come into play.

While Maslow’s work has, like any research, come in for some criticism, its fundamentals remain largely unchallenged. Human beings experience a range of different needs, and so different motivating factors.

Varying needs in the workplace

What Herzberg recognized was different sorts of needs at play, and how they had different effects in the workplace.

What we label as demotivation in the workplace is driven by basic physical needs, lower down Maslow’s hierarchy. We need food and shelter, and so feel a need for the things that can provide this, such as good pay and a stable job. In their absence we feel anxiety leading to demotivation.

But past a certain point these cease to have much impact. The need has been met, the demotivation goes away. We achieve some level of contentment, though our higher psychological needs have not been met.

Creating positive motivation

What we recognise as positive motivation or engagement in the workplace stems from those higher needs. Responsibility, growth in our roles, recognition for our achievements, the opportunity to solve problems, these all lead to engagement and positive motivation.

Decent pay and conditions are important to motivation. Without them, our basic workplace drives go unfulfilled and we will never feel motivated. But past a certain point, throwing wages and benefit schemes at the problem will not solve it. Those higher needs have to be met to create real motivation.

Which leads us to my next post on this topic (to be posted in the next few days) – four decades later, are we really applying Herzberg? And if not, why not?


– Mark Lukens


This is my first post in this series on employee motivation.

Post One: Employee Motivation: How Far Have We Really Come?

Post Two: Employee Motivation: Remember My Name

Post Three: Employee Motivation: What’s Holding Us Back?

Mark Lukens, MBA

Mark Lukens, MBA

Founding Partner at Capatus
Mark Lukens is a founding partner at Capatus and located in the New York office. He leads the Capatus’ Global Talent and Advisory practice. He is also an expert in the firm’s research and nonprofit practice. Lukens has more than 20 years of c-level executive and consulting experience delivering strategies and transformational programs to firms ranging from start-up to Fortune 50. He has worked with clients in Europe, North America, South America, and Asia. Lukens worked extensively in various product and service categories including health care, life sciences, government, nonprofit, technology, and professional services. He also advises clients in other industries including commercial and industrial, retail, logistics and transportation, media and more. Lukens serves on several Nonprofit Boards and is a professor at the State University of New York where he teaches in the School of Business and Economics with a focus on marketing, international management, entrepreneurship, HR, and organizational behavior to name a few. Lukens has a technical background as a MCSE and earned an MBA from Eastern University.
Mark Lukens, MBA


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