Motivational Theories

Organizational behaviour studies and theories of motivation to account for the need to get the most out of workers in industrial or business concerns is very much a twentieth century phenomenon. Following the industrial revolution, large concentrations of workers were needed in mills and factories to mass produce goods on factory sites, which replaced agricultural and craft work hitherto produced in small rural family or communal units. In the early days of industrialization in the West, slave labour, or indentured labour including child labour at starvation wages, could be harnessed at the behest of the ruling classes.

After two Word Wars and a radically changed social, economic and political environment, owners of capital could no longer treat labour as a disposable commodity. Trade Unions, Communism, and demand for universal education by the population in Western and Western-style democracies, along with worldwide markets meant that the old methods of almost forced, repetitive labour (‘the dark satanic mills’) became a thing of the past. New disciplines like psychology, sociology and economics sprang up. Unlike in the natural sciences like physics, chemistry and even biology, theory building in the social sciences, often followed practice, and were uneven and far less cumulative, reliable, or universally valid and applicable (see Gillespie below). Organizational behaviour and management science developed alongside advances in the social sciences.

The ‘carrot and stick’ approach to early theories of management owe to the writings of Frederick Winslow Taylor. He coined the term ‘scientific management’ to a theory later termed simply ‘Taylorism’ which sought to break down tasks to their simplest elements so that an assembly line robot could undertake the task without any need for thinking. All brain work was to be removed from the shop floor and handled by managers alone. This is the principle of separating conception from execution. This approach may have worked with early immigrants to the US without much language skills (English), but its effectiveness was short lived. However, in automated plants using very high tech solutions for 24- hour routine work with little or no human input, the principle still applies.

Douglas McGregor called Taylorism and similar top down command and control approaches to management of labour, Theory X, and proposed instead Theory Y giving the employees more autonomy and discretion at work so long as they met the overall organizational objectives. He was appealing to a more skilled and educated workforce as the workplace technology became ever more sophisticated with the passage of time. McGregor drew upon the work of Elton Mayo in what became known as the Hawthorne Studies conducted between 1927 and 1932 at the Western Electric plant in Cicero, Illinois.

Gillespie made a thorough review of Mayo’s Hawthorne plant experiments and questioned the whole ethos of regarding such work as objective science, although Mayo’s conclusions were widely discussed and accepted in the intervening years. Gillespie believes that there is ‘no purely objective scientific methodology’ and that what is agreed as ‘scientific knowledge is manufactured and not discovered’ (ibid). Every type of intervention that Mayo instituted in the factory, including changing the illumination, changing the hours of work, and giving more, or less breaks, all ended with the workers producing more with each intervention by the social scientists. The ‘Hawthorne Effect’ has been summarised as employees becoming more productive because they know they are being sympathetically observed. In other words by the psychological stimulus of being singled out, involved, and made to feel important’.

Industrial relations have to be based on ‘human relations’, which was the name adopted by the Theory Y School of motivators. Their conclusions were that there was an informal group life developing among factory workers, and the norms they develop affect productivity. In short, the workplace is a social system and managers must ignore the fact to their cost. Workers develop among themselves a sense of responsibility to work well. Such an ethos was adopted by Japanese car makers, and until very recently it worked very well for them when they conquered the world car market.

A very similar type of investigation was undertaken by the Tavistock Institute in London to study the work of coal miners. Researchers found that job simplification and specialization did not work under conditions of uncertainty and non-routine tasks’. They advocated semi-autonomous groups. Meanwhile, there had been extensive work undertaken outside the organizational framework that was to influence motivational theory. This was the seminal work of Abraham Maslow who identified a hierarchy of human needs requiring satisfaction form the lowest level of basic physiological needs going up the scale to creativity and self-actualization. According to Maslow, ‘a need once satisfied, no longer motivates. The company relies on monetary rewards and benefits to satisfy employee’s lower level needs. Once those needs have been satisfied, the motivation is gone… employees can be most productive when their work goals align with their higher level needs’.

Although McGregor used Maslow’s theory to bolster up his Theory Y, Maslow’s theory with its much more complex hierarchy has been labelled Theory Z. In brief summary form and visualized as a pyramid with its broad base first:

– Physiological needs (Lowest)
– Safety needs;
– Love/affiliation needs;
– Esteem needs; and
– Self-actualization needs (Highest)

There is one more influential theory of motivation (among many less well-known) which needs to be explored. This is Herzberg’s ‘two-factor’ theory of motivation. ‘The theory was first drawn from an examination of events in the lives of engineers and accountants. At least 16 other investigations, using a wide variety of populations, (including some in the Communist countries) have since been completed, making the original research one of the most replicated studies in the field of job attitudes’ (op. cit.). He hypothesised that the ‘factors involved in producing job satisfaction (and motivation) are separate from the factors that lead to job dissatisfaction… The opposite of job satisfaction is not job dissatisfaction, but, rather, no job satisfaction; and similarly, the opposite of job dissatisfaction is not job satisfaction, but no job dissatisfaction’.

Herzberg’s lower level hygiene factors may be listed as security, status, workplace relationships, personal life, salary, supervision, and company practices. His higher order, motivators may be listed as growth, advancement, responsibility, work itself, recognition, and at the very top a sense of achievement, which corresponds to self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy.

Having explored the changing nature of motivational theory as reflective of the changing nature of the global social, political and economic landscape over the years, this essay also delved into Maslow’s more general Theory of the Hierarchy of Needs and Herzberg’s workplace oriented Two-Factor theory of motivation. Since all social science theorising remains contingent on so many factors, more recent theories such as total quality management (TQM) and business process reengineering (BPR) have evolved to take into account current organizational concerns.