Applying Motivation Theories

Decision Making Problem Solving Employee Motivation EQ

Theories of motivation have contributed a lot to our understanding of employee motivation. Managers are applying motivation theories in the workplace to increase organizational effectiveness. We will examine the contribution of Adam’s Equity Theory, Vroom’s Expectancy Theory and Skinner’s Reinforcement Theory.

Applying Motivation Theories: Equity Theory

Adam’s theory of motivation advances that perceived equity and inequity becomes a motivation state. The theory is based on social comparison of self and others. Individuals compare their effort on a job with outcomes against others. Perceptions of equity, inequity due to under rewarding, or inequity due to over rewarding of others arise from the comparisons. Perceived equity or inequity motivates equity restoring behaviors. Nugent, M (2012), identifies typical behavioral responses to perceived inequity as follows:

  1. Reduce effort input e.g. reduce working hours 
  2. Change outcomes e.g. reduce production outputs
  3. Distort perception of self. e.g. identify self with working hard
  4. Distort perception of others e.g. ascribe inequity to discrimination
  5. Change reference point e.g. frame event as a beneficial learning experience
  6. Exit situation e.g. get another job/resign

Robbins & Judge, (2013) cite equity theory organizational implications as maintaining the following organizational justice elements:

  • Procedural justice i.e. just application of policies and procedures
  • Distributive justice i.e. fair distribution of rewards, benefits and resources
  • Interactional justice i.e. open and respectful communication with employees
  • Commutative justice i.e. respect for commitments and obligations to employees
  • Informational justice i.e. fair access to informational resources
  • Interpersonal justice i.e. comparative fairness and justice among employees

Applying Motivation Theories: Expectancy Theory

Vroom’s expectancy theory posits that, individuals behave in a certain way in the expectation that their actions will yield a given outcome. The attractiveness of the expected outcome motivates the individual to behave towards meeting the conditions of the expected outcome. According to the theory, motivation is a function of expectancy, instrumentality and valence. The theory reduces this to a mathematical formula with weighted values between 0 and 1.

M=(E×I×V) where M is motivation, E is expectancy, I is instrumentality and V is valence.

It further describes expectancy as the probability that effort is followed by achieved job performance, instrumentality as the probability that achieved job performance will lead to performance outcomes of appraisal and reward, while valence is match of performance with rewards. (Nugent, M 2012) The theory thus assumes individual effort leads to task performance, task performance leads to performance appraisal, performance appraisal leads to assigning of performance rewards. This assumption is based on effort yielding acceptable performance that will be rewarded by rewards that are valuable to employee.

Nugent, M (2012) identifies the following organizational implications from the expectancy theory:

  1. Select capable workers, train and support them
  2. Set performance goals
  3. Attach adequate rewards to performance and communicate these to employees
  4. Match rewards with needs and perceived value 
  5. Make link between performance and rewards clear to employees
  6. Performance rewards more predictive of motivating performance than rewarding seniority, and tenure.

Applying Motivation Theories: Reinforcement Theory

Skinner’s reinforcement theory is based on the view that rewarded behavior will be repeated, and punished behavior avoided. Thus, rewards and punishments reinforce associated behaviors. Successful application of this requires a well-structured reward system. There is contention whether reinforcement theory is a motivation theory or not. The theory is however reliable in predictive validity. Laergaard & Bindslev, (2006)

Integrated Model of Motivation

In recognition of the value of the contribution of each theory, Nugent, M (2012) puts across an integrated model of motivation. The integrated model incorporates elements of the needs theories, equity theory, expectancy theory and reinforcement theory. The model identifies 3 key elements of motivation as:

  1. Individual attributes (applied needs theories)
  2. Work effort (applied equity theory)
  3. Organizational support (applied expectancy & reinforcement theories)

The above 3 key motivational factors lead to:

  • Job performance

The exertion of effort towards job performance is done in expectancy of the following outcomes:

  1. Contingent extrinsic rewards (applied Herzberg hygiene factors)
  2. Intrinsic rewards (applied Herzberg motivators)

These contribute to employee social comparison (equity theory) and job satisfaction. Thus, no one theory can adequately deal with the complex phenomenon of human motivation. Hence, management is best applying a hybrid motivation model. The theories offer different approaches to motivation, viz, reinforcement theory offers a rational behavioral approach while equity and expectancy theories present a rational cognitive approach.

Motivation in the Workplace

The motivation theories are employed in management practice areas like, rewards management, performance management, training, employee benefits, job enrichment etc. While the contribution of currently available theories of motivation is immense, the theories have their weaknesses. The key weakness is limited empirical research to validate the positions advanced by some theories. There is need for more research studies. Furthermore, the theories were all advanced in second half of 1900s. Their currency and applicability to a workplace environment in 2000s needs further validation. The other weakness is erroneous assumption of rationality in human motivation.

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