Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 58
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Delivering Motivated Workers

Motivating employees requires that we call attention to the success of work groups.

Imagine rounding a corner and coming upon a group of employees joking and smoking and demonstrating little energy for their work. Your thoughts upon seeing this group drift toward irritation, and you're pretty sure their supervisor needs to do something different. You may even comment about it to this person if you see the opportunity, but it will be a casual, parting comment. You don't want to get trapped in a discussion where the dreaded "So-how-do-you-do-it?" question comes up. Few people know the answer, and supervisors who can motivate employees can't answer this question either. They can do it, but they can't explain how.

Enter the researcher.

Studying motivation has a long tradition, and the best current theory describes this pattern: People complete tasks and then wait to learn the outcome of their efforts. If their outcomes are successful, then they feel enhanced competence. Next, they notice if anything happens as a result of this success. If something good happens, then they feel justified expending the effort. The next time the task arises they will give good effort (appear to be motivated), because they have confidence they can accomplish it and believe something good will happen when it is completed.

Careful research supports this theory, but there's a problem: Supervisors can't watch every task every employee completes, they don't control "good things" to make sure they only happen after employees complete tasks, and they don't control employees' perceptions of successful and unsuccessful outcomes. It's no wonder that motivated work often seems to be a random event.

Matt Riggs, of California State University, and Patrick Knight, of Kansas State University, have worked on this problem and believe they've discovered a new way to help supervisors motivate employees. They explored the effect of group-level success on individuals' attitudes. They measured perceptions of group success and failure, individual perceptions of competence and of "good things" happening as a result of successful work, beliefs about the competence of coworkers and of the "good things" happening to the group when performance was successful. And, they measured people's satisfaction with their jobs and commitment to their employers.

Perceptions of group success profoundly influenced all the other factors. If employees felt their group was successful, it impacted their individual attitudes of competence, satisfaction, and commitment. It led them to believe "good things" were coming to them and to their group. And it enhanced their perceptions of the competence of their coworkers. The reverse of this process also proved to be true: if employees believed their group's efforts were a failure, then all the factors were hurt, although the negative effect was not as strong as the positive.

So it turns out to be rather simple.

Supervisors don't need to watch every task every employee completes. They need only notice successful group efforts and call attention to them. Everything else will fall into place naturally -- simple.

Riggs and Knight were so impressed with this effect that they recommend supervisors create success experiences for their work-groups by giving instructions they're confident they can successfully complete and then calling attention to this success. Over time, Riggs and Knight believe your created success experiences will lead to real success experiences involving difficult, important group tasks.

Explaining meaning and creating understanding is a basic leadership function. Usually, answering employees' questions illustrates it. This research reveals another example: explaining outcomes -- pointing out what happens when a work-group completes a task or meets a responsibility. When this explanation is present and positive, Riggs and Knight discovered very good things happening. Good things that lead to motivated employees persisting on difficult tasks, confident of their success, and expecting valued outcomes. It's all we could ever want from our employees.

Reference: Riggs, Matt L., and Patrick A. Knight (1994), The Impact of Perceived Group Success-Failure on Motivational Beliefs and Attitudes: A Causal Model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79 (5), 755-766.

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