Fifty Years of Employee Motivation Surveys: Three from the Final Half of the Twentieth Century

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ABSTRACT

Business emphasis on cost reductions can be expected to continue indefinitely although the emphasis can be expected to shift from layoffs, outsourcing, and high-tech purchases to increasing employee productivity especially through motivation. Unfortunately studies reveal wide discrepancies between what managers believe motivate their employees and what the employees themselves report.

Three surveys of employee motivation factors were conducted between 1946 and 1997 using the same questions. Employee rankings of ten motivation elements at the three time periods are provided. These findings indicate that major changes did occur in the prioritization of work motivators over these fifty years but also that an almost surprising degree of continuity prevailed as well. The latter was more unexpected than the former in view of the enormity of the social and economic changes occurring in the U.S. and the world from the first year after World War II until nearly the end of the last century.

Most employee subpopulations defined by demographic/socio-economic variables made choices which were largely consistent with those for the total samples. In addition, broad support was found for Herzberg's seminal "Two Factor" theory of motivation. Possible interpretations of these and other findings are presented along with implications for organizational.

INTRODUCTION

During the recent recession and subsequent period of slow growth U.S. companies have faced unrelenting pressure to reduce their costs and increase their profits. Many companies are indicating that their investment in electronic equipment and software and the outsourcing of non-essential activities during this time and earlier is beginning to pay-off in reduced costs of operations to produce essentially the same volume and quality of products and services. While much of this increase in productivity is publicly attributed to the companies' investment in technology and outsourcing, it is clear that these investments also made possible a significant reduction in the number of employees needed to accomplish the same (or even an increased) level of production. It is likely that the continuing emphasis on enhancing productivity and profitability is (or soon will) turn from major employee layoffs and outsourcing to generating greater output from their remaining employees. Increasing employee output, in turn, is likely to place the focus on the oft-established relationship that motivated employees have the potential to be considerably more productive than unmotivated workers. Thus, we can expect to see a return in the U. S. of the periodic interest in employee motivation and ultimately then the oft-asked question of "how do you motivate employees?"

Viewed from the opposite perspective, a company which permits the development of de-motivation among a substantial portion of its workforce will likely suffer a major albeit avoidable loss of productivity. In addition to the direct and obvious financial losses suffered by a company due to the lower productivity of a de-motivated workforce, such unmotivated employees also have been associated with a wide range of essentially unnecessary and far less obvious costs for their companies both direct and indirect including such behaviors as excessive tardiness and absenteeism, work-related injury accidents, poorer quality work, unproductive activities ("playing" the system, etc.), negatively impacting other employees and potential employees ("trash" talk about the employer, policies, etc.), filing of excessive grievances, generating excessive "waste", and causing undesirable turn-over. (In relation to the latter it is not just the negative impact of the loss of some employees with special skills and/or experience, there are the often underestimated costs attendant to finding new "replacements" and bringing them "up-to-speed", e.g., recruiting, selecting, orienting, training, supervising, rewarding, disciplining, etc. …