How to motivate to improve performance

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motivating staffMotivation is a complex concept and it’s central to all managers’ lives. If they could be sure of staff motivation applied in the right direction on the right business activities, many management headaches would disappear overnight. Managers’ energy could then be focussed on issues with more direct impact on business outcomes.

But positive motivation that is always directed for the benefit of the firm is far from guaranteed. And much management time must therefore be spent chasing that illusive concept in each employee. The result is that firms prosper or fail on the strength and direction of their employee motivation. Prosperity therefore comes only to those managers who can master the art of motivating others. And this blog tells how to motivate to improve performance.

Managers need to be competent in motivating their staff. That competency comes from training and experience: training, because managers need to understand the concept, and experience because managers need to experience trial and failure. Trial and failure allow success to be felt and sound methods to become embedded.

What’s motivation?

Fundamentally, one cannot ‘measure’ motivation. It’s not directly observable. Its presence in the right form can only be inferred. It’s what psychologists call a ‘hypothetical construct’.

Before a manager can rejoice at the idea that they have ‘motivated’ an employee they have to have some way of measuring the required outcome in that employee.

So if motivation can’t itself be measured, one must understand what it affects and see if that can be measured as a means of detecting the presence of the right form and size of motivation. The model below positions motivation somewhere between the job that an employee does and the behaviours they exhibit in that job.

linking job to performance

In this model, the job done causes motivation and motivation causes behaviour and ultimately performance. Simple. The manager measures performance as the output of the job-motivation-behaviour-performance system. Understanding that motivation ‘sits’ somewhere between the job and the resulting performance is useful. But it still doesn’t help managers use the idea.

How does a manager ‘use’ it?

In any scenario where mechanisms cannot themselves be detected, science has adopted a ‘black box’ approach. The inputs are known and the outputs are measurable. The ‘transfer functions’ of mechanisms or processes within can be described, if only by black-box research, sensing outputs for given inputs under specified conditions. This system enjoys widespread application across science and engineering and is the basis of systems thinking and the feedback control loop. This is shown below.

making and controlling change

Using this loop, a performance standard is set as the reference to be achieved. When used to model motivation, the characteristics of the job are adjusted and the actual output performance sensed. The input is continually adjusted until the required performance is sensed.

Many areas of science assume that the transfer function (that converts motivation into performance) is constant. And in motivation this is unfortunately not so. There is much going on within the person and the characteristics of the person change in response to input stimulus. This means that the job affects different people in different ways.

The practical point is that the manager can fiddle with a set of variables in the employee ‘system’ and watch what happens to the output – performance. This is the essence of practical use of motivation. Knowing how to describe it is not helpful – but knowing how it acts on the person and how it is affected by the inputs to the system both have practical application.

Job as input to the system

Possibly the biggest single motivator for all employees is the job they do. The job done gives rise to three psychological states: experienced meaningfulness, experienced responsibility and knowledge of results. These states promote work satisfaction, work motivation, reduced absence and reduced intention to quit. Work motivation results in performance.

linking motivation and performance

These psychological states result from task variety, identity (derived from the job), significance, autonomy and the provision of feedback about the work done. In essence then, the manager has these five variables to play with as inputs to the feedback model. Take a call centre operative for example. In principle it’s a job that offers little of any variable. But if the job is enriched high motivation can result.

The operative can be responsible for order line call answering, database cleansing, email response to customer queries and order process problem solving and so long as the primary task of order taking is done, the operative can chose their own work schedule. Such enrichment promotes all states.

Using the model

So a manager has jobs that need to be done and significant choice about who does what, when and how. Adjusting job characteristics whilst sensing performance gives a method of driving and using motivation.


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