Last Updated 20 Apr 2022

Employee Recognition in Relation to Motivation Theories

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The term “motivation”, which is defined using various terminologies, is often used to describe different types of behavior. Motivation is the “internal state or the condition that activates behavior and gives it direction; the desire or want that energizes and directs goal-oriented behavior, or the influence of needs and desires on the intensity and direction of behavior”. (Huitt, 2001) Motivation is specific to an individual’s make-up, their personal interests, wants and desires, or need to fulfill a goal.

Several factors influence an employee’s level of motivation: pay, opportunity for advancement, growth and development, job security, honesty and integrity, working conditions, reward and recognition. Employee recognition is often praised at a “successful motivator”. To understand what factors influence motivation we need to understand the research and theories developed to define and explain motivation. Discussion Motivational theories dating back to the early 1950’s “provide a foundation to today’s motivational concepts”. Robbins, 2005) Abraham Maslow introduced the “hierarchy of needs” theory suggesting that needs are a physiological or psychological deficiency that a person feels the urge to satisfy.

Maslow’s theory proposes that individuals are motivated by multiple needs and that these needs are present in a “hierarchical” order. Maslow’s theory was that an unsatisfied need influences an individual’s behaviour and once the need is satisfied it is no longer a motivator. The model of needs was developed using five levels of human needs: hysiological, safety, social, esteem, and self actualization. Physiological and safety levels were described as the lower levels of the model following the idea that these needs are satisfied externally. To satisfy the lower level needs of hunger, shelter, security is accomplished by things such as pay, medical benefits, or tenure. The “higher-order needs which are met internally include social, esteem, and self actualization. The concept is that an individual works through each level of the model one by one.

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Each level must be satisfied before moving on to the next level eventually attaining self-actualization. Self-actualization is the point in which one has reached their maximum potential. (Robbins, 171) Douglas McGregor had opposing theories “Theory X and Theory Y” to explain an individual’s behaviour in work and organizational life. McGregor theorized that “management involved more than simply giving orders and coercing obedience; it was a careful balancing of needs of the organization with the needs of individuals”.

McGregor followed Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” philosophy to describe human needs and to support the belief that an individual’s need is satisfied through work. Studying how managers interacted with employees, McGregor identified a set of beliefs managers used to assess employees. The assumptions identified in Theory X are based on the lower level needs (physiological, safety) on the hierarchy model. This portrayed a somewhat negative viewpoint using the assumption “that most people will avoid work because they don’t like it and must be persuaded to put forth significant effort.

The individuals in this category are not interested in being “self-led”, do not care to take on responsibility as they are content following directions. ” (Robbins, 2005) In opposition to this, Theory Y uses the upper level of the needs (social, esteem, self-actualization) hierarchy model stating that most individuals are “self-led” to accomplish goals in which they have set for themselves. In this positive view, McGregor identifies that employees regard work as a natural activity.

This premise led to the belief that motivation occurs due to an individuals’ drive to satisfy their needs. McGregor identified those managers of Theory Y type employees believed that people inherently like to work. A result of this belief the manager pushes more responsibility on the employee in an attempt shape employee’s goals to align with the organization. Following the steps of Maslow and McGregor, Frederick Herzberg developed a motivational theory based on the “needs” concept. Trying to answer the question “what do people want from work”, he developed the “Two Factor” theory.

Based upon his studies he believed that satisfaction and dissatisfaction at work arose from different factors, and was not simply opposing reactions. Hygiene needs are defined as company policy, work conditions, relationship with supervisor, and salary by Herzberg. He believed that people strive to achieve hygiene needs because without them they are unhappy, but once satisfied the effect will wear off. End result or meaning is that satisfaction is temporary. This factor indicates that people are not motivated by addressing these hygiene needs, fulfillment just appeases the individual.

Herzberg’s second factor is identifying “motivators”, suggesting that individuals are motivated by enabling them to reach for and satisfy real motivating factors such as personal growth, development, recognition, responsibility and achievement which correspond to a high level of meaning and fulfillment. Maslow, McGregor, and Herzberg were pioneers in motivational study. The amount of research on the topic did not end there. Contemporary researchers have continued collecting data and developing theories in the subject area of motivation. The concept of “what motivates an employee” continues to intrigue researches.

Data collected today is not a direct dispute to past theory but a reflection on the change of the times, the change in work environment. Clayton Alderfer modified Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” introducing the ERG theory; consisting of three need categories: “existence”, relatedness, and “growth”. Alderfer’s theory suggested that movement between the need levels is quite simple, resulting in a regression when an individual does not meet a higher-order need. The ERG theory starts with “existence” identifying an individual’s need to satisfy hunger, thirst, and sex, correlating with Maslow’s lower level needs of physiological and safety.

Alderfer classifies the need for successful relationships with others (family, friends, coworkers, etc) as “relatedness” aligning with Maslow’s theory of social need and esteem. Lastly, Alderfer categorized a person’s desire for personal growth and increasing competence as “growth”. (Robbins, 2005) The ERG theory although similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory differs in the philosophy that people can work towards fulfilling the different level of needs at the same time.

Contrary to Maslow’s beliefs that an individual must obtain and satisfy a “need” before attempting to work on the next need level Alderfer theorized that these areas are simultaneous. In addition to believing that individuals worked on the different needs categories at the same time he also introduced the concept of “regression”. As an individual attempts to satisfy a high lever need frustration my occur resulting in regression to satisfying a lower level need. This idea proposes potential impacts in employee motivation.

An employee can become frustrated if the opportunity for growth and development is not made available resulting in regression towards the “relatedness” need. This leads to “de-motivation” where as the employee loses focus on satisfying the “growth” need and begins to concentrate on building and maintaining relationships with others. David McClelland developed a motivational theory based on needs as well. McClelland proposed that individual needs are acquired over time and are shaped by the early experiences faced in life.

McClelland identified three needs influence an individual’s motivation and effectiveness in an organization: achievement, power and affiliation. McClelland based his theory on the thought that everyone prioritizes needs differently. He also believed that needs were acquired based on an individual’s experiences in life. The need to succeed or excel (achievement) is associated with individuals who are driven to do things better. These individuals are motivated by personal responsibility in identifying solutions to problems, desire immediate feedback on their performance to determine if they are improving or not, and set challenging goals. The need for power is the desire to have impact, to be influential, and to control others”. (Robbins, 2005)

Power can be categorized in one of two types; personal and institutional. Individuals driven to direct others when its unwanted is personal power, whereas those who want to organize the efforts of others to further the goals of the company is institutional power. Individuals who possess the need for institutional power are more effective leading employees than one who desires to control people. Individual who have a high need of power are likely to follow a path of continued promotion over time.

Behaviors including enjoying being in charge, wanting to influence others, prefer competitive situations, and are more concerned with prestige and influence over others versus effective performance are associated with the need for power. And finally, McClelland identified the need for affiliation. People with the need for affiliation seek harmonious relationships, social approval, and need to feel accepted by other people. Individuals seeking to fulfill the affiliation need prefer to work in situations that provide social interaction; they enjoy being part of a group and tend to conform to the norm of the group.

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is when individuals are internally motivated to do something because it either brings them pleasure, or they believe it is important. Many of the motivational theories discussed in the first portion of this paper are associated with intrinsic motivation. Maslow, McGregor, Herzberg, Alderfer, and McClelland based their theories of behavior on individuals’ desire to satisfy basic and advanced needs. These desires are based on the individual’s level of personal satisfaction and the theory focuses on the natural tendency toward growth and development.

Additional studies have been conducted with theories based on “extrinsic” motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when an individual is compelled to perform based on external factors like money, recognition, rewards, ect. Cognitive theories such as “Goal-Setting”, “Reinforcement”, and Equity have received a similar amount of attention as needs-based theories. Cognitive theory is based on the idea that “high intrinsic motivation levels are strongly resistant to the detrimental impacts of extrinsic rewards. No matter how interesting or exciting a job is there is still an expectation for some type of extrinsic payment.

For those positions or jobs that fall in between the highly satisfying intrinsically and low level less interesting work cognitive theory may be more appropriate. (Robbins, 2005) Edwin Locke believed that the objective of working towards a goal is a key foundation in employee motivation. Locke introduced the “Goal-Setting” theory using the concept that setting goals offers an employee structure. Goals establish was needs to be done, and from this the individual understands how much effort is required to complete the task.

As the goal becomes more challenging the effort required increases. Understanding this basic concept supports the theory that goals are valuable to the company in the respect that challenging goals leads to increased employee performance. Locke further suggests that employee involvement in goal setting increases the commitment and drive to obtain the goal. Taking a slightly different approach, the “Reinforcement” theory looks at the relationship between behavior and the consequences that arise from specific behaviors.

The theory implies that individual behavior can be modified using different techniques such as positive reinforcement, avoidance, extinction, or punishment. “Reinforcement theory ignores the state of the individual and concentrates solely on what happens to a person when he or she takes some action”. (Robbins, 2005) This theory is based on the idea that is the physical, environmental stimuli that individuals are exposed to affects one’s behavior, their motivation does not come from within (emotions, feelings, desires, etc. The idea is to respond or do not respond to certain types of behavior. An example of reinforcement is when a frustrated child is throwing a temper tantrum, one of two reinforcement approaches can be used: Avoidance; the parent ignores the behavior in an attempt to show the tantrum will not be acknowledged and the tantrum will end. Or, punishment such as placing the child in time will reinforce that the type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The theory is that the negative consequence of being in time out will deter similar behavior.

An individual’s perception can play a large role in their job performance. The Equity theory states that employees compare their job process, the tasks required and their performance with other employees and react accordingly. Based on the comparison the employee may feel as though others are treated better, (increased pay, better working conditions, more/less hours) and tend to act accordingly. Employees will also compare their output in relation to the company’s input (reward) to determine if the input is equal to their effort.

When there is a negative perception, or it felt that there is an inequality an individual may decide to decrease the amount of effort they put forward, look for work elsewhere, reduce the quality of their work or attempt to persuade co-workers perceptions. On the other side of the theory when employees perceive that they are being treated equitably or fairly they are more apt to be happy or satisfied resulting in increased participation/productivity. Given a thorough review of the different theories that have been developed, studied and documented there is not a quick, easy, or one size fits all answer to what motivates employees.

Most often the typical response to this question is “money”. But surprisingly enough when employees are surveyed money is not the number one answer. (Robbins, 2005) Kenneth Kovach Ph. D. , discusses employee survey results in “Employee Motivation: Addressing a Crucial Factor in Your Organization’s Performance”. Ranking high on the scale is “full appreciation of work done”. (Kovach, 1995) Kovach compared results from an employee survey conducted in 1946 and in 1995, employees ranked “full appreciation of work done” number 1 and number 2 respectively.

Obviously the change in times and work environment played a part in the slight change over the years. Kovach’s point is that based upon employee surveys money is not a hot topic, what seem to be on the minds of employees is interesting work, appreciation of work and the feeling of being in on things or involved. One approach to satisfy these desires is the use of recognition. Recognition, what is it? Webster’s dictionary defines “recognition” as “to recognize”, “to know”, “to admit the value”. To use this in today’s organizations recognition is about “noticing and honoring” one’s performance. Hansen, Smith, & Hansen, 2002) Employee recognition is the communication used to identify the positive performance or outcomes conducted for the organization.

How do we correlate the use and effect of recognition with the different motivational theories? Hansen discusses Maslow’s concept of “expressive mode” theorizing that people are propelled by growth motivation rather than by deficiency motivation (lack of faith in human potential) Employees are not dependant on the extrinsic satisfaction, but rather dependant on their own personalities and hidden resources for their continued growth and development. Hansen, 2002) Simply put, individuals are motivated by acknowledgment of progress, growth and development, as well as performance. Similarly, Herzberg’s two-factor theory distinguishes between hygiene and motivator motivation factors. Hygiene factors correlate to job dissatisfaction, while motivator factors align with job satisfaction. Herzberg believed that job dissatisfaction and job satisfaction were not opposite each other, meaning that the lack of one did not result in the other. “Job dissatisfaction does not mean that there isn’t “any” job satisfaction.

Hygiene factors (rewards) can be observed when an employee is asked to complete a project with a promise of position advancement, versus recognition for achievement as a motivator factor that is basic to the job. Ultimately, the use of rewards corresponds to the use of “hygiene factors” just as the use of recognition signifies the use of “motivator” factors. (Hansen, 2002) Using the mind set that “we want employees to perform well, and, given the right environment, and incentives, employees also want to perform well”. Bobic & Davis, 2003) Reflecting on McGregor’s Theory Y, the managerial approach assumes first that people prefer to work and strive to perform, thus delegating responsibility to the employee allowing the worker to be creative, to have the opportunity to identify areas of concerns and find solutions.

When this is accomplished with success, the manager recognizes the individual’s ability to perform. The result is employee recognition resulting in increased responsibility and accountability. McGregor supported Maslow’s theory that all humans had the potential to be creative, stating that “... elf actualized creativity to be innovative…” (Bobic &Davis) Management has the ability to “motivate” an individual’s pursuit of self esteem, and self actualization through recognizing their ability to assume responsibility. Recognition of creativity and innovation will encourage the commitment and initiative the employee brings to company. “By strengthening and enhancing behaviors that are a source of differentiation and uniqueness, recognition serves a strategic function. (Hansen, 2002) Motivational theories differ in the way the concept of motivation is defined and controlled.

Each theory has it basis, whether it is a “needs” based concept, or a “behavioral” concept. Just as humans are genuinely different, so are the theories. We can make general assumptions in regards to human character, trait, desires, and reactions but in the end what is definite is situational. There are many factors such as cultural background, environment, economics, and a person’s upbringing that potentially has an effect on what will motivate an individual. Reviewing the basic concept behind the theory of motivation and recognition you can identify some simple correlations.

The reinforcement theory is not just about administering negative consequences. There are several different types of “behavioral” based programs available to address different concepts. For example a behavioral based safety program is built on the concept of recognizing safe behavior. Instead of focusing on the negative actions or unsafe attitudes of employees the program is established to recognize and reward safe behavior and encourage employee participation in identifying and correcting unsafe conditions.

In the same manner, the reinforcement theory can enhance employee motivation towards work performance if a positive approach is used. Pointing out the negative performance ratings or avoiding a problem employee results in de-motivating the employee. Similarly, avoiding a problem employee gives the perception that the manager or company doesn’t care and fosters thinking of “why should I”? The last concept or theory to consider is the Equity theory. The basis for this theory is that employees expect a fair return for what they contribute to their job.

This “fair return” is often evaluated based on what the return is for their effort. These individuals compare the input (reward/pay) by the company to the output (their effort) to determine if the reward warrants the effort put forth. Using the same concept employs also compare their input/outputs with their coworker to determine equality. If they feel that their coworker was given more for the same amount of work or less the employee will perceive this as unjust practices. Conclusion Motivation is “the processes that account for an individual’s intensity, direction, and persistence of effort in attaining a goal”. Robbins, pg. 170) Identifying what drives and contributes to employee motivation has been a topic for numerous researches, psychologists, and organizations alike over the last fifty to sixty years. During these years many motivational theories were developed to explain what motivates individuals.

Theories based on “needs” principal were developed by researchers/psychologist such as Maslow, Herzberg, & McGregor. “Maslow professed that the specific needs of people that must be met in order for them to be motivated, thus improving productivity”. Herra, 2002) Additionally motivational theories were developed based on the concept of equity or reinforcement. The “Equity” theory represent the idea that equity is a perception of justice/equality based on what the employee puts out and receives in return. A comparison is made in regards as to performance/effort and what reward/recognition is received to determine if equality exist. Tasked with understanding what motivates employees organizations have spent a great amount of time, energy and resources identifying how to keep employees motivated under various, ever changing conditions.

When asked what is of key importance employees respond with “recognition” (Robbins, 2005) Recognition of an employee’s accomplishments, performance and/or dedication to the organization results in increased productivity, continued support of the company’s goals, and positive employee attitude. Based on the motivational theories established, recognition, while not the only source of motivation seems to an easy, simplistic solution to improve employee motivation.

Employee recognition serves two distinct purposes: enhance employee motivation as well as bond together other motivators presently used for business organizations. An employee’s wage is payment for doing a job, benefits are designed to preserve an employee’s well being, and rewards are used to compensate for completion of a specific task or organizational goal. Recognition pulls the three aspects together as a means for organizations to develop and maintain a strong employee workforce.

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