Revolutionising motivation

Written by John Berry on 1 October 2014 in Features

John Berry looks at motivation and offers some insights on how it can be used to improve performance

Motivation is a complex concept and it’s central to all managers’ lives. If they could be sure of staff motivation applied in the right direction on the right business activities, many management headaches would disappear overnight. Managers’ energy could then be focused on issues with more direct impact on business outcomes. But positive motivation that is always directed for the benefit of the firm is far from guaranteed. And much management time must therefore be spent chasing that illusive concept in each employee. The result is that firms prosper or fail on the strength and direction of their employee motivation. Prosperity comes only to those managers who can master the art of motivating others.

But why is it so complex? Why is it that managers don’t find motivation easy to master?

This article addresses each of these questions and responds to the assertion that teaching motivation is difficult. It presents a fundamentally new approach to motivation teaching, showing managers how to motivate, rather than just describing what motivation is. It uses more recent definitions and models of motivation than are included in many popular training courses and it aims to leave the reader with direction as to how to construct models of this complex subject that are actually usable in training delivery.

Why is motivation so difficult to understand?

Managers need to be competent in motivating their staff. That competency comes from training and experience. Training, because managers need to understand the concept, and experience because managers need to experience trial and failure. Trial and failure allow success to be felt and sound methods to become embedded.

A brief trawl of courses on the internet on motivation suggests that trainers focus on what motivation is. Programmes focus on teaching Maslow, Herzberg and McGregor despite these theories having been discredited decades ago. The suggestion is that if the manager can understand how to identify a hygiene factor from Herzberg or lower level needs from Maslow, he or she can create the right environment and motivation is achieved. And there’s much confusion in course content between the concepts of motivation, behaviour, performance, commitment, satisfaction, engagement and leadership.

Perhaps with such confusion it’s no surprise that motivation is difficult to teach and difficult for managers to understand!

Motivation is a whole lot more complex than most popular courses suggest. It’s so complex that if managers were to be taught traditionally about what motivation is using all the models that have been posited from research, they’d quickly abandon any idea of learning models and return to crude heuristics. They’d maybe even abandon all and resort to the economists’ surmise that the only real motivator is money.

Measurement difficulty

There are many definitions of motivation but probably the best was offered by Jones in 19551 and built on by Kanfer, Chen & Pritchard2. Kanfer et al expressed that motivation is the set of processes that run within a person that determine their intention to allocate personal resources to an activity. Conceptually, if someone allocates sufficient personal resources, they are likely to succeed in whatever they are about to do. Jones suggested that motivation is what gets a person started and what determines the direction in which they apply effort, the level of effort they put in, how long they apply that effort and what makes them stop applying effort.

Fundamentally, one cannot ‘measure’ motivation. It’s not directly observable. Its presence in the right form can only be inferred. It’s what psychologists call a ‘hypothetical construct’.

Before a manager can rejoice at the idea that they have ‘motivated’ an employee, they have to have some way of measuring the required outcome in that employee.

So if motivation can’t itself be measured, one must understand what it affects and see if that can be measured as a means of detecting the presence of the right form and size of motivation. The model in Figure 1 positions motivation somewhere between the job that an employee does and the behaviours they exhibit in that job.

Model positioning motivation

In this model, the job done causes motivation and motivation causes behaviour. Simple. The manager measures behaviour as the output of the job-motivation-behaviour system. It’s a useful conclusion and we could perhaps stop there, if only behaviour was the end point of the managers’ interest. Behaviour itself is a difficult concept – there can be positive behaviour without actual performance. And it’s performance that really matters.

This assumes that the presence of motivation can be inferred if performance occurs. Given that motivation is the set of processes that run within a person to cause them to allocate personal resources to a task and that this results in a behaviour change, measuring resulting performance seems the best chance a manager has of assessing the presence, direction and intensity of motivation.

Performance is itself a hugely difficult concept but let’s assume that performance can be measured. How then does the manager set about using motivation as a means of achieving performance?

Practical application

This set of causal relationships linking the job done, motivation, behaviour and performance is key to teaching motivation. If motivation can’t be detected itself, then there is little point in teaching what motivation is. It’s not much practical use to a manager. They can’t use the information taught.

There has to be some other way of teaching about motivation without actually teaching motivation itself.

The answer lies in the causal relationships.

In any scenario where mechanisms cannot themselves be detected, science has adopted a ‘black box’ approach. The inputs are known and the outputs are measurable. The ‘transfer functions’ of mechanisms or processes within can be described, if only by black-box research, sensing outputs for given inputs under specified conditions. This system enjoys widespread application across science and engineering and is the basis of systems thinking and the feedback control loop. This is shown in
Figure 2.

Feedback control loop

Using this loop, a performance standard is set as the reference to be achieved. When used to model motivation, the characteristics of the job are adjusted and the actual output performance sensed. The input is continually adjusted until the required performance is sensed.

Many areas of science assume that the transfer function is constant. And in motivation this is unfortunately not so. There is much going on within the person and the characteristics of the person change in response to input stimulus.

The practical point is that the manager can fiddle with a set of variables in the employee ‘system’ and watch what happens to the output – performance. This is the essence of practical use of motivation. Knowing how to describe it is not helpful – but knowing how it acts on the person and how it is affected by the inputs to the system both have practical application.

Extending the model

There are a host of variables that the manager can play with to change the outcomes of the transfer function in the model developed so far. To simplify, I’ve selected six. All are taken from modern research into motivation. They do cover theories like Maslow and Herzberg but go much further.

Action of leaders

Leadership can be described as a series of dyadic (one-to-one) relationships across an organisation between manager and employee. The manager as leader influences the motivation of their staff. This is shown in figure 4 below.

Figure : Action of leaders

Space precludes much discussion on how this comes about but it’s useful to describe two mechanisms.

First the leader metaphorically ‘illuminates’ the path to the goal, removing obstacles so that the person sees what has to be done and gets on with it. Secondly, the leader engages in impression management, encouraging and showing the person that they can indeed achieve the task set – that they have the abilities needed to achieve the goal.

The more the leader or manager acts, presumably the greater the performance – and this fits the feedback control loop above. If performance doesn’t result, the manager must change their actions.


Needs are defined as an internal state of disequilibria that triggers behaviour until satisfied. The needs theories of Maslow and Herzberg were useful in their day but have largely now been overtaken. One persisting needs theory from the 1950s is that proposed by McClelland, expanded more recently, and describing the need for power, achievement and affiliation. Power is divided into social power need and personal power need. Good managers tend to have high social power need. Good dictators have high personal power need. If a manager knows a person’s power (or achievement or affiliation) need, he or she can arrange their work to exploit that need, changing the nature of the job while sensing performance using the feedback control model.

Growth needs strength

‘Growth needs strength’ is a characteristic of the person. Some people have low growth needs strength. Others have high. The higher the growth needs strength, the more a person will be motivated to do things that yield personal growth outcomes.

Managers wishing to motivate those with high growth needs strength should ensure that the job done realises high growth for that individual. So a change in work that tasks the person and lets them grow in stature and ability is likely to be a more successful motivating strategy than giving them some repetitive task that is well within their capabilities.

Job characteristics

Possibly the biggest single motivator for all employees is the job they do. The job done gives rise to three psychological states: experienced meaningfulness, experienced responsibility and knowledge of results. These states promote work satisfaction, work motivation, reduced absence and reduced intention to quit. Work motivation results in performance.

Influence of the job done

These psychological states result from task variety, identity (derived from the job), significance, autonomy and the provision of feedback about the work done. In essence then, the manager has these five variables to play with as inputs to the feedback model. Take a call centre operative for example. In its basic form it’s a job that offers little of these five inputs. But if the job is enriched high motivation can result. The operative can be responsible for order line call answering, database cleansing, email response to customer queries and order process problem solving and so long as the primary task of order taking is done, the operative can chose their own work schedule. Such enrichment promotes all states.

So a manager has, on the one hand, jobs that need to be done and on the other significant choice about who does what and when. Adjusting job characteristics while sensing performance gives a method of improving motivation.

Employing rewards

There’s huge debate about the role of reward in motivation. Economists will say that we are all rational beings who deliberately aim to maximise payoff in any activity we undertake. Others, however, cite evidence showing that this is just not so – it is internal motivators like responsibility that drive us.

The motivating force coming from tangible reward is said to come from three elements and this action is shown in Figure 5.

Action of reward

The first measures the value of the reward to the person. If it’s money, and they are already a millionaire, their motivation to earn a little more will be low. The converse is also assumed to be true.

The second comes from the chance that the person can achieve the performance needed for the reward. If a high performance target is set before the reward is payable, the employee may view that they haven’t the skills and hence that they have a low chance of actually succeeding. Motivation will therefore be low.

The third is the perceived chance that the reward will actually be paid, even if the required performance is achieved. A management with a poor history of actually paying out will cause little motivating force.

These three factors are felt internally by the employee. Managers must use the feedback model to take action, such as announcing a possible reward, and then sensing the change in motivation that results.

Goal setting

Goal setting is said to the best motivator there is, focusing effort. Goal achievement results in experienced meaningfulness in the job, experienced responsibility for the task and achievement of result. Employees rise to the challenge of goals because striving meets deep-seated intrinsic motives that we all have.

For goals to be motivational they must be clear and specific, stretching and accepted by the employee and there should be continuous feedback illustrating progress.

Practical application

Motivation is a hugely complex concept. It cannot be described by a few models, because it is complex, managers would find it difficult to come to terms with all the models developed over the past fifty years.

It’s essential therefore that managers learn a number of motivation models and learn how, using feedback and evaluation of performance, to apply, modify and possibly abandon each in pursuit of what works for them and their staff in their context.

Revolutionising L&D

This article has introduced the use of a feedback control loop. Given knowledge of the characteristics of their employee, the manager can intervene in the employee’s activities, doing something that he or she determines is motivational. The manager can sense the resulting performance. If improved performance results, the manager does more of the intervention. If performance doesn’t change, they do something else.

The key to success is to teach this control loop and the associated motivation models. The manager then needs to know something of the employee’s individual characteristics. With those tools in place, the manager can gain experience in using the tools of the motivation trade, adjusting and selecting those that work in their specific context with their specific and individual employees.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

John Berry is director of TimelessTime Ltd. To find out more, visit

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