Work motivation is one of the most intensely studied topics in the social sciences,(1) and it is one of the big questions in public management (Belin 1995). Scholars have devoted substantial time and effort to developing a master theory of work motivation, but such a theory has proven to be elusive. As Katzell and Thompson (1990a, 65) note, empirical studies on various theories typically explain less than 20 percent of the variance in work output (also see Locke and Henne 1986). The literature is peppered with conflicting empirical findings that do not conclusively answer key questions. Considering the vast intellectual resources spent on the topic, Pinder (1984) concluded that progress has been painfully slow. Shamir (1990, 405) added that current reviews are "unanimous in their dissatisfaction with the `state of the art.'"
Despite weak explanatory power and conflicting empirical findings, the mass of research on work motivation has improved our understanding of the concept, and it has helped produce tools to motivate employee performance. In practice, however, some of these tools fail to produce the positive results that theory predicts. For example, merit pay incentive plans are founded on expectancy theory, but past research shows that these plans have little motivational effect in the public or private sectors (for a review of these studies, see Heneman 1992). Yet merit pay continues to have considerable appeal. In other words, when studies fail to confirm our intuitive sense of what motivates employees, we tend to stick with our intuition and conduct more studies.
Another reason for the chronic lack of progress in work motivation research is that motivation is a difficult concept to define and operationalize. Capturing the complexity of human behavior in a recursive theoretical framework is difficult, and such a framework is hard to operationalize and test in real world settings. Besides, practical concerns about work motivation overshadow its theoretical significance. Managers in government and business cope with motivational issues constantly, and they tend to view the topic from a practical rather than a theoretical perspective. The sheer complexity of work motivation is a related problem. Some recent scholars have portrayed work motivation as a unifying concept that links together a network of subordinate concepts (e.g., goals, individual performance, rewards, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment). Each of these subordinate concepts has generated a large research literature of its own, and researchers must confront vexing questions about the interrelationships among these variables. A final problem is that past research has depicted work motivation too simplistically. Various theories such as the reinforcement, equity, and expectancy theories have focused primarily on the influence of one or more values. Locke and Henne (1976) assert that some of these theories are "simply wrong," while Katzell (1982) characterizes them as "incomplete." In reality, several of these theories may work in concert.
Katzell and Thompson (1990b, 151) recently concluded that "... the various theories of motivation are individually incomplete and it would be desirable to integrate them into a comprehensive framework ..." for empirical testing (also see Mitchell 1982).(2) Recently, several such metatheories have been proposed (Evans 1986; H. Klein 1989; J. Klein 1990; Locke and Latham 1990a and 1990b; Katzell and Thompson 1990a; Leonard, Beauvais, and Scholl 1995).(3) The purpose of this article is to test one promising metatheory of work motivation--Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham's (1990a) high performance cycle. First, we will explain the high performance cycle; second, we will test the theory with attitudinal data collected from senior federal executives; and third, we will discuss the implications and limitations of this research.
THE HIGH PERFORMANCE CYCLE(4)
Locke and …