This thing about motivation

A long while ago, an eminent psychologist by the name of Frederick Herzberg came up with a theory on motivation that captured a lot of people’s attention. Through some careful research he helped us to understand that we can classify workplace activities into two broad camps – motivating factors, and hygiene factors. For some of you, it may seem like I’m about to teach you to suck eggs. Think again.

It’s worth remembering what falls under the two factors in terms of how we think about them. Motivating factors are those which genuinely help others progress, develop and be successful. Hygiene factors are those which are a necessity for getting work done, and in the absence of which cause some level of grievance which needs to be resolved. This is, at least, how I interpret them.

What I’ve been giving thought to lately is how trust plays a part in all this too. After all, we want to trust our staff to do a good job. Yet there’s a conundrum which needs solving – do I inherently trust staff to do a good job, or do staff need to build trust in order for me to trust them? I have a bias towards the former. WE SHOULD INHERENTLY TRUST STAFF TO DO A GOOD JOB.

But let’s revisit the hygiene factors for a moment. I think we’ve been focusing on the motivation factors far too much, and neglecting the hygiene factors. We’ve been promised a city of gold, if only we motivate our staff better. But the fundamental question is, are we even treating them with the basics in the first place, which enables us to do the motivating things?

That is, can we say we’ve got the bare bones of the shit we do so damn hot, that it would be crazy to not be seen as en employer of choice. What kind of things am I talking about?
– Having a rock solid pay and benefits scheme. Not one that’s limited to benchmarking of salaries and paying bonuses through the nose, but one that’s based on true market value which is attractive to people wanting to move into that space, and with a set of benefits that extends beyond the “annual leave and gym membership and cycle to hire scheme”.
– Having a clean work environment. One where the cleaning staff are given the best cleaning products, trained to do the job as if it were the Burj Al Arab, and with a sense of dignity so strong people valued them everyday.
– Having a facilities team par excellence. The security in knowing that everything you need to physically work is available, and you don’t have to requisition things through a sea of red tape.
– Having an I.T. team who know their stuff, provide the right help, and move beyond being efficient to providing great service.
– Valuing diversity not because there’s a business case that sits behind it, but because it’s the right thing to do.

You might look at that and think – but sure we get those things right already. Well, ok, you might think you do, but take a moment to reflect on the operational issues you face. In some shape or form, most will come back to a perception that the hygiene factors are not fit for purpose. We forget that life moves forward, and when it does, we need to not only move with the times, but create a future fit for purpose. It’s why we’re constantly bemoaning the education system failing the children for future roles. It’s why we’re angry that we can’t find the right solution for helping to take care of the elderly. It’s why we’re regularly angered at the failure of the justice system to prosecute rapists and paedophiles. It’s why we’re annoyed that equal marriage it still something that has to be fought for in a modern society. We keep missing ways to get the basics right, and as a result people get angered.

Here’s my wager. If we can excel at the basics in organisations, then we eliminate reasons for people to be unhappy at work from an operational perspective. What’s left after that is the important job of helping people to treat each other with dignity, respect, and empathy. Those really should be the things which we focus on, and they really can drive better performance in the people we’re working with. If we can get the basics right, we give ourselves the permission to trust people right from the off.

I know this isn’t too far off what Herzberg was originally suggesting. What I’m hoping to do is give some thought to how we consolidate trust by understanding how we’re treating people.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

2 thoughts on “This thing about motivation”

  1. The “war on cost” in organisations has nearly always been a knee-jerk reaction to weak strategic execution and poor management. The “non-revenue generating” areas suffer first and scream least… trust is eroded, fear reigns, entrenched behaviours reinforced.

    Yet you don’t shrink your way to greatness…

    For me there’s something here about front-to-back connection in organisations. Sales and services are inter-reliant not separate… HR is part of the organisation, not aloof from it… Operations generate revenue perhaps more than Business Dev. do…

    Perhaps size is the issue and gets in the way? It’s easier to not trust and to sling mud when the organisation is large and you don’t have to even try to sit in the other persons shoes…

    So I think size matters, but I’d wager that trusting people from the off is how you get the basics right!

    1. It’s just a shame that we can’t trust people from the off because we don’t allow ourselves to.

      Interesting point about the value add of the Operations team. In a previous company, I was very aware that the Ops team facilitated the project teams into behaving in ways which were core to the business. When they weren’t involved, it was a mass free for all.

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