this summer’s bumper edition of the Harvard Business Review contains an article promising to reveal “a powerful new model” for employee motivation. Drawing on the latest research into how the brain works, the article’s authors (Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg and Linda-Eling Lee) argue that employee motivation depends on four key elements, or “drivers”: the drive to acquire (rewards and experiences), the drive to bond (building a sense of belonging), the drive to comprehend (work must be meaningful) and the drive to defend (fair play for all).
Managers cannot afford to slip up on any one of these four drivers, the article says. The authors’ research into different organisations showed “if employees detected that a manager was substantially worse than her peers in fulfilling even just one drive, they rated that manager poorly”.
The authors’ four drivers seem plausible enough at first sight. But how much do they add to what we already knew about motivation? How much do they differ, for example, from the motivational needs theory of David McClelland – not mentioned in the article – which date back to his 1961 book The Achieving Society?
McClelland, a psychologist, argued that people at work experience three basic needs in varying degrees: the need for achievement, the need for authority and power, and the need for affiliation. If you want to have motivated staff, take the trouble to find out what is important to them and, crucially, don’t put them in jobs that do not suit them.
Achievement-oriented colleagues need regular feedback, and a sense that progress is being made. But those who seek affiliation are the vital team players who can help bind groups of people together.
In fact, there was probably no need for HBR to publish the new article on motivation at all, considering that they could simply have reproduced what is still one of the most widely read HBR articles ever – “One more time: how do you motivate employees?”, by another American psychologist, Frederick Herzberg, which was first published in 1968.
Herzberg argued that motivation really has to come from within. It cannot be willed by managers – although thoughtless acts can certainly help destroy people’s motivation.
There are the so-called “hygiene factors” at work – the office environment, or pay levels – but these do not truly motivate.
What really motivates people are their sense of achievement, recognition for their work, the work itself, responsibility, advancement and personal growth. Herzberg called for “job enrichment”: trying to make sure that people had interesting work to do.
If I kick my dog (from the front or the back), he will move. And when I want him to move again what must I do? I must kick him again. Similarly, I can change a person’s battery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a generator of one’s own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it
This data would not surprise EL Kersten, co-founder of the subversive US company Despair, Inc. In his slippery and ironic book, The Art of Demotivation, Kersten argues that all corporate attempts to boost employee motivation are not merely doomed to fail, but are in fact counter-productive.
Since all that expenditure – on consultants, culture-change programmes, away days and longer off-site trips – seems to produce no positive effects, indeed serves mainly to further demotivate staff, Kersten says, why not save your money and set out deliberately to demotivate your employees in the first place? Make them feel small, but at a fraction of the cost.