When Do Feedback, Incentive Control, and Autonomy Improve Morale? the Importance of Employee-Management Relationship Closeness

Article excerpt

Managers of one large corporation were expecting the generosity of their annual incentive award to build employee morale. Instead interviewees reported, for example, "It has absolutely no effect on me." "[It's] negative for many. They didn't get what they expected, so they were mad." Managers use various morale-boosting approaches (often called management controls), such as incentives, employee participation, and feedback, that sometimes do more harm than good (Kohn, 1993b; Lawler, 1973).

This article tests a model that explains one reason behind these results: the moderating and direct effect of employee-management relationship closeness. The research questions are: "To what extent does employee-management relationship closeness both affect morale directly and moderate the effects of management controls on morale?" and "To what extent do employee morale and employee-management relationship closeness affect perceived harmonious teamwork in an organization?"

In the theoretical development section that follows, the article introduces the research model and discusses literature supporting the model. Next, the methodology for testing the model is presented. Then the article reports an empirical test of the model in the context of 100 manufacturing plants. Finally, the article discusses the results in light of other research, and outlines several implications for research and managerial practice.


This section first discusses how we developed a research model through analysis of qualitative data. The model's concept definitions and hypotheses are then discussed. Finally, the literature related to the model is briefly reviewed.

This study began with seventeen in-depth interviews of computer operations professionals in a large corporation in the travel industry whose job was to keep their computer reservation system running. The interviews often turned to what kept the computer professionals highly motivated to do their job of keeping the system running. In turn, discussions about worker motivation or morale frequently gravitated toward the relationship closeness they felt with their boss.

Concept definitions

By morale, we mean the degree to which an employee feels good about his or her work and work environment. Morale is distinguished from motivation, which refers to readiness to act (Lawler, 1973). Morale is broader than intrinsic motivation or job satisfaction, which typically refer to feelings about one's job (Hackman and Oldham, 1975). We use the broad term morale in the sense it is used in common speech; namely, as a term that encompasses constructs like intrinsic motivation, job satisfaction, experienced work meaningfulness (Hackman and Oldham, 1975), organizational commitment (Mowday et al., 1979), and pride in one's work. By relationship closeness, we mean the extent to which an employee has a sharing, open, familiar relation with management. Thus, relationship closeness is a broad concept that encompasses several specific constructs like interaction, open communication, and informal relations between employees and management.

We define management controls as attempts to ensure desired outcomes, often by trying to influence people (Anthony, 1965; Lawler and Rhode, 1976). Management controls are frequently used to improve morale, which, in turn, should improve other organizational outcomes. We use the term management controls as a broad set of managerial approaches to encourage employees to move toward desired objectives, including these types of specific controls: accountability (Tetlock, 1985), feedback (Earley, 1986), incentives (Jenkins, 1986), and empowerment/ autonomy (Breaugh, 1985).

While we cannot report here, due to space limitations, the full qualitative results, the pattern that emerged from the interviews may be illustrated as follows. One employee was asked to describe his or her feelings when interacting with one liked supervisor and one unliked supervisor. …


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