Motivational nuggets in the Colorado snow

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

February and March brought snow to the Northeast and even the Southeast. Plows were busy and salt prices rose as demand increased. In the West, there was generally less snow than people hoped there would be, but the water sports industry found lots of it in Steamboat Springs, Colo., during their 2014 Summit in the Snow.

The Water Sports Industry Association invited me to speak at one of the workshops. I was the only speaker who was not an association expert.

Considerable discussion occurred after the workshop on “Motivation: Which is Preferred — Money or Recognition?” It was impressive to see the WSIA’s president, Jim Emmons of Orlando, Fla., actively participate.

The workshop outgrew the number of chairs in the room and spilled onto the floor. It was a diverse group, ranging from manufacturers with lots of employees to 19 dealers with only a handful.

The goal was to give company representatives important tools to use when they returned home. The folks there suggested that some of the ideas discussed in the workshop would be of interest to a wider industry audience, so here they are.

The composition of U.S. business and the nature of employment opportunity continue to change. The work force increases in diversity. The cross-generational impact is being seen often and in most workplaces. The work force has high unemployment and much higher underemployment, along with considerable hidden unemployment. And yes, productivity is up, but at the cost of reduced employment and often on the shoulders of the survivors, who are “ill” and frustrated.

Comparative data on average worker pay and CEO pay create increased resentment among workers about what they see as excessive pay for senior management. Political debates create louder cries for examination of the minimum wage.

The new mix creates a different motivational challenge for executives and managers.

Because people may respond to different motivational stimuli when the demographic mix is constantly changing, managers must resist the traditional temptation to believe there is any single way to increase motivation. Today’s managers must consider the employees involved and what is it they should be motivated to do. The end may require varied means.

It can be helpful to see the results of the major thinkers on the development of motivational tools.

Reaching back almost seven decades, an early publication by Abraham Maslow alerted us that different people may have different unmet needs and that the meeting of the varied needs may have an energizing impact on the individual. Maslow set forth five levels of needs that for any one person may be unmet: physiological, safety/security, social, esteem and self-actualization (a “super challenge”).

One workshop participant was quick to point out that minimum-wage workers were increasing in number, and many were seeing no opportunity for progression along a wage ladder. This would be a prime example of people who are likely to have unmet physiological needs. The minimum wage was initially intended as a “training wage,” but it has become a full-time adult employment wage for many.

Security needs are often unmet as employers pare or eliminate health insurance programs as they seek to cut costs. This trend has included numerous major employers, not just smaller business units. Traditional benefit-based retirement programs increasingly are disappearing, leaving no program or only a voluntary 401(k)-type retirement program. These latter programs often have minimal participation at lower income levels.

Social needs today often are met by team-based work units. Esteem needs are met by recognition of quality work efforts or even perfect attendance. Self-actualization needs may also be recognized by recognition efforts, monetary and otherwise.

A few years later Fred Herzberg added to the line of motivational thinking. He posited that “money is not a motivator” — money as in wages, at least. Most people will remember this, even if nothing else from Herzberg. Yet there was so much more in this contribution. A common element of the Maslow and Herzberg contributions was the esteem/recognition items. On the job, a major way esteem can be built is through recognition of quality work contributions.

Yet some recent studies suggest that as much as 85 percent of employees nationally believe their contributions are not being recognized, possibly at all. Add to this the data from Gallup Inc., presented in “Strength Finder 2.0” by Tom Rath, which suggests that workers who feel ignored by their managers have a 40 percent chance of becoming seriously disengaged.

Later in the 20th century, work by Victor Vroom grabbed the attention of motivation efforts. Vroom’s “Expectancy” model suggested that people tend to act in a certain way in expectation that their action will be followed by a given outcome — and according to the attractiveness of that outcome to them. What does the individual expect? For many, the golden egg is recognition of some kind.

In an earlier workshop setting, participants came up with two clearly complementary conclusions about recognition: Recognition (with or without rewards) can help in reducing employee  stress levels and likely will increase employee engagement and people want to know their work contributions are noticed and valued. This can be as simple as recognizing their “above-average actions” in front of their colleagues.

A key question posed in Bob Nelson’s “1501 Ways to Reward Employees” (1912) is just why do supervisors/managers not recognize? There is no better investment for a manager than this Nelson paperback (under $20). Does it violate their own belief in what a manager does? Is there a company culture that frowns on such actions?

Pediatricians, industrial psychologists and human resource trainers often identify particular guides to recognition efforts: 1) as soon as possible after the action to be praised (this is also the guideline for discipline); 2) with a sense of excitement and showing sincerity; 3) making sure the praise clearly identifies the specific action or behavior that is being recognized (that may assure the behavior is duplicated in the future); and 4) ideally, the recognition should be in person and by the worker’s own supervisor.

Some managers get this all done, but reduce the impact by also offering corrective feedback. Save that for later; let the good message sink in.

Why is this important? Consider this recognition-performance link: Recognition improves job performance, and improved job performance compels managers to provide additional recognition; recognition helps employees to have motivation; practical feedback improves productivity; providing feedback helps supervisors get the work done. Research shows employees expect feedback. When they don’t receive it, they may slack off.

Managers should keep in mind that the effects of recognition efforts last longer than those of compensation increases unless the employee is at a minimum-wage level. Recognition can add to the bottom line and be of significant value in the longer run.

Many supervisors do not know how to recognize and have never been encouraged to try. Managers should help their supervisors try it, using the suggestions above. Owners and executives should praise and recognize managers and supervisors who praise their people.

Culture grows over time, and the results may not occur immediately, but workplace productivity improvements will grow and be long-lasting. You will be able to see the motivation of your people shining through.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.

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