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Applying Psychology to the Motivation of Employees

By Chris Holst '94

Intro. to Psychology 110

Writing Objective: Write a 3-5 page formal research paper on a topic of interest to you in the field of psychology.

Nearly everyone in the U.S. who is at least 16 years of age has worked for an organization or an individual at some point in his or her life. In addition, many of these workers have recognized either the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of a particular manager for which they have worked. Many people believe that being a manager merely requires good common sense. This assumption is incorrect. So, what qualities or characteristics does a manager possess that enables him or her to be effective and efficient?

In order to adequately meet the productive needs of a particular company, a manager must not only apply his or her knowledge of business principles to a given situation, but also must have a solid understanding of psychology on which to base decisions. This paper will discuss how effective managers use their understanding of psychology to motivate their employees to be more productive for the company. The paper will accomplish this objective by describing the employees’ psychological needs that must be understood and fulfilled, by illustrating proper motivation of employees through a reward system, and by showing how the company may benefit through the proper fulfillment of the psychological needs of employees.

First of all, a manager must understand the psychological needs of his or her employees. Abraham Maslow, a renowned psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association (Goble, 1970), developed a hierarchy of basic needs that every human being strives to fulfill during his existence.

According to Maslow, physiological needs, such as needs for food, water, shelter, sex, sleep, and oxygen, must be satisfied first If they aren’t satisfied, then a person’s complete existence will revolve around attempting to satisfy these needs. Once a person’s physiological needs are satisfied, Maslow proposed that safety and security needs emerge for fulfillment. The insecure person has a compulsive need for order and stability and goes to great lengths to avoid the strange and the unexpected” (Goble, 1970, p.39). For example, an employee needs to feel that his or her job environment is safe and secure, that his or her employment is stable.

Upon fulfillment of safety and security needs, an employee will attempt to belong. Maslow states that the employee desires to develop relationships with other employees and to obtain a special place within the group of individuals who compose the workplace (Goble, 1970, p. 39). For example, employees tend to participate in activities outside of work, such as bowling leagues, that will enhance their sense of belonging to a group.

After an employee feels that he or she belongs, a need for self-esteem and respect from fellow employees evolves. Managers should especially strive to assist the employee in satisfying this need, for “a person who has adequate self-esteem is more confident and capable and, thus, more productive” (Goble, 1970, p. 41). For example, an employee should be given proper recognition and respect by a manager for a job well-done.

The final need that an employee strives to satisfy is self-actualization. Maslow’s definition of this need is “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Goble, 1970, p. 41). In other words, an employee desires to live up to his highest potential. Through the careful study of these basic psychological and physiological needs, a manager may better recognize the motives that drive his or her employees in their work-related activities.

Thus far it has been established that an effective manager must be able to identify with an employee’s psychological needs. Once these psychological needs have been recognized, an appropriate system of rewards must be implemented by the manager. Most often such a system of rewards will be aimed at satisfying the esteem and self-actualization needs of employees. This system is made useful by relying on the employees’ perceptions of the rewards and by basing the rewards on different qualitative aspects.

In order for rewards to be effective in motivating employees to be more productive, the rewards should be perceived by employees as valuable. In Personnel Journal, Philip C Grant (1988) states that “it’s the employee’s perception of the rewards’ values that is pivotal in determining worker motivation and satisfaction” (p. 76). Managers should be sure that the rewards are valued by talking with employees about them and by “candy-coating” the rewards, or “talking them up.” The more desirable a reward appears to an employee, the more the employee will work toward attaining it.

Additionally, Grant states that “rewards must stand out and be highlighted” (p. 79). In other words, managers shouldn’t reward the employee in the midst of other important matters. For example, if an employee is supposed to be given an award at a special occasion, then proper attention must be given to the receiving of the award. The award shouldn’t be sandwiched between other important topics of discussion.

Besides being valuable, rewards should be perceived by employees as fair. An employee who receives an award should feel that his or her award is fair when it is compared with the awards received by other employees. Rewards should be of a similar magnitude if the tasks performed are relatively comparable. While rewards are based on the employees’ perceptions, they should also be based on certain qualities. The first of these qualities is achievement. If, for example, an employee Is rewarded for a certain level of production rather than a particular length of service to the company, the employee will likely be more determined to receive the reward by accomplishing the desired production level. Consequently, the company benefits from this increased productivity.

Another quality of a reward is its rareness. Rewards that are more rare, and thus less easily attainable, will exact a higher level of performance (Grant p.81). An employee will work harder if reinforcement is provided on a variable-ratio schedule. This type of schedule has a higher rate of responding because the employee isn’t sure of the timing of the reward (Myers, 1992, p. 241). A reward’s rarity will enhance the intrinsic motivation of an employee. On the other hand, if extrinsic rewards are overused, then an employee’s intrinsic motivation, or interest in the task, will be diminished because of the overjustification principle.

A third quality of rewards is timeliness. Rewards should be handed out as soon after performance as possible (Grant, p. 78). When an award is bestowed shortly after its related performance achievement, the employee will more clearly associate the reward with the performance, thereby improving performance in the future.

A final quality of rewards is that they should be informative. Myers (1992) states that “rewards that Inform people they are doing well can boost their feelings of competence and intrinsic motivation” (p. 375). On the other hand, managers that use extrinsic rewards to control will lessen an employee’s intrinsic motivation. Therefore, managers should use rewards to inform employees of their behaviors rather than to control their behaviors.

To this point it has been shown how an appropriate reward system will benefit the employees of a company. Now we should examine the two ways a company can benefit from an appropriate reward system that fulfills the psychological needs of its employees.

First, a company will benefit through the increased productivity of its current employees. If managers will first assess and understand the individual motives of employees and then work with them to set specific, challenging goals, employees will be more committed to attaining these goals (Myers, 1992, p. 376). Therefore, setting and attaining goals will improve the current productivity of employees.

Secondly, a company that develops a reputation of good management-employee relations and a good reward system will attract prospective employees. When a person dissatisfied with his or her own work environment learns that a company’s handling of employees is favorable, that person will also desire to become a part of the winning team. Managers use psychological principles to motivate their employees to be more productive for the company. In order to effectively motivate employees, managers must first understand Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that each person strives to fulfill. This hierarchy includes physiological needs, safety and security needs, the need to belong, esteem needs, and the need for self-actualization.

Next, a manager must employ an appropriate system of rewards for his or her employees. The rewards should be perceived by the employees as valuable, fair, achievement-oriented, rare, and timely. Also, extrinsic rewards should be used to inform rather than control employees. An appropriate reward system will benefit the company by keeping current employees happy and by attracting prospective employees.

Works Cited

Goble, Frank G. (1970). The Third Force: The Psychology of Abraham Maslow. New York: Grossman Publishers.

Grant, Philip C. (1988). Rewards: The pizzazz is the package, not the prize. Personnel Journal, 67(3), 76- 81.

Myers, David G. (1992). Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.