Motivation: A Reincarnation of Ideas

By Arnold, Vanessa Dean; Krapels, Roberta H. | Industrial Management, May/June 1996 | Go to article overview

Motivation: A Reincarnation of Ideas


Arnold, Vanessa Dean, Krapels, Roberta H., Industrial Management


Those who manage people are interested in motivation theories and studies because they provide insights into why people perform work as they do. As a result, motivation theory provides managers with methods that can be used to improve productivity. Admittedly, authority, threats, or fear can be used in formal organizations to influence employee behavior, but motivation provides an alternative that is less threatening and usually more effective and long lasting.

Writing of the importance of motivation in the workplace, Sheridan Tatsuno, founder of the consulting firm NeoConcepts, has spoken of "a reincarnation of ideas." According to Tatsuno, the reincarnation of ideas is a cyclical process. That is, old ideas never die but are transformed into new ones. Although they may lie quietly for years or even centuries, a new development may trigger their reappearance. Perhaps a good starting point for a reexamination of motivational strategies is to revive some of the earliest ideas expressed on this topic.

The propensity of some individuals to avoid work as much as possible is not a recent phenomenon. It has been examined by economists for two centuries. Both Adam Smith, in 1776, and Henry George, in 1898, observed that the human species tended to conserve energy and that effort required some challenge or motivating force. In his treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote: "In every profession, the exertion of the greater part of those who exercise it is always in proportion to the necessity they are under in making the exertion." A century later, George noted that "this disposition of men to seek the satisfaction of their desires with the minimum of exertion is so universal and unfailing that it constitutes one of those invariable sequences that we denominate the laws of nature."

It was not until the early decades of the twentieth century, however, that George Kingsley Zipf, a Harvard scientist, developed an empirical basis for the human conservation of energy concept. The results of Zipf's study was published as Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort. This study established the principle of least effort as the primary principle government suggests that some motivational programs are not successful because many workers have never learned how to overcome their natural tendencies toward inertia and preconceptions. On the other hand, management literature consistently refers to individuals' needs for achievement in their jobs. They also cite studies that show how reluctant many workers are to abandon their work roles upon reaching retirement age. They note that some individuals will continue to work even when economic considerations do not necessitate it. Apparently, work provides psychological meaning for many people. Clearly, the answer to opposing viewpoints lies in motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic.

Motivation and managerial practice Frederick W. Taylor brought to management studies what Adam Smith contributed to the study of economics-a foundation upon which to build a discipline. Taylor's ideas about motivation were based on the assumption that workers act to maximize their economic self interest. Taylor observed an "us versus them" relationship between managers and employees. His observations of this condition, plus the extent of some employees' poor performances, convinced him that success was possible when employers and employees cooperated and worked jointly toward a common goal of profits, would which benefit all.

In the decades following publication of Taylor's theory, others, such as Fayol (1940), Follett (1925), Mayo (1933), and Barnard (1938), wrote extensively about the relationship between individual and organizational objectives and those administrative behaviors that accomplish both of them. These writers suggested that organizations and individuals should share common objectives and goals. By doing so, an individual can accomplish personal goals (thereby increasing intrinsic motivation) while simultaneously accomplishing organizational goals (resulting in extrinsic motivation via economic and social outcomes). …

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