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The Sirota Three-Factor Theory

Based on our survey research, we assert that there are three primary sets of goals of people at work: equity, achievement, and camaraderie. We call this our Three-Factor Theory of Human Motivation in the Workplace, and we maintain that:

  1. The three sets of goals characterize what the overwhelming majority of workers want—whatever the generation.
  2. For the overwhelming majority of workers, no other goals are nearly as important as these.
  3. To our knowledge, these goals have not changed over time, and they cut across cultures, at least the cultures of the economically developed sectors of societies (the only sectors we have studied).
  4. Understanding the three sets of goals, and establishing organizational policies and practices that are in tune with them, is the key to high workforce morale and firm performance. There is no conflict between the goals of most workers and the needs of their organizations.

We have been highly critical of theories of human motivation that are unsubstantiated by systematic evidence—in fact, are contradicted by the evidence that does exist. What is the evidence for our assertions about human motivation? We have been in the business of observing and querying employees for more than four decades. After all this time and the literally tens of thousands of employees with whom we have had direct contact and the millions we have surveyed by questionnaire, we see certain themes repeating themselves time and again. They repeat themselves no matter what the occupation—from assembly-line workers to research scientists—no matter what the region of the world (North America, Europe, Latin America, or Asia), and no matter their sex, race, or age. The specifics vary, of course, but everywhere we have worked, people want to be proud of the work they do. They want to be paid a fair wage for their efforts and have job stability. Their co-workers—their cooperation and congeniality—are important to them. There is no escaping these fundamental needs of people at work and the enthusiasm they experience and express when the needs are satisfied—and the frustration when they are not.

More specifically, our evidence includes:

  • Statistical analyses of the answers to the multiple-choice questions in our questionnaires that invariably show that the questions correlating most highly with employee morale and performance are those measuring the three factors (equity, achievement, and camaraderie).
  • When we ask employees directly what they want from their jobs and their companies, they mention several goals, and the bulk of their answers fall into the three factors.
  • When we ask employees, in focus groups and in the “write-in” questions at the end of the questionnaire, what they like and dislike most about working for their company, a careful, quantitative analysis reveals that their likes and dislikes almost always reflect the three factors.
  • In our research on employee turnover, we learn that the major reasons people stay with or leave an organization—other than personal reasons, such as a spouse getting a job in a different geographical area—almost always reflect the three factors.

In short, the evidence is overwhelming, and we review a portion of it later in this chapter. But first, here are our descriptions of the three factors and the degree of satisfaction of employees with them as uncovered by our surveys.

Equity

To be treated justly in relation to the basic conditions of employment.

Certain basic conditions are expected simply by virtue of the employment relationship. They are unrelated to position in the company or to performance. They are defined by generally accepted ethical and community standards and, while the basic goals do not change over time, a number of the standards that define what is acceptable do change. The basic conditions are as follows:

  • Physiological, such as having a safe working environment, a workload that does not damage workers’ physical or emotional health, and reasonably comfortable physical working conditions.
  • Economic, such as having a reasonable degree of job security, satisfactory compensation, and satisfactory benefits.
  • Psychological, such as being treated respectfully, having reasonable accommodation made for personal and family needs, having credible and consistent management, and being able to get a fair hearing for complaints.

Are those things surprising? Of course not. What is surprising is how little we hear of them in many modern theories of management. But, enlisting the willing cooperation of a workforce in achieving the aims of an enterprise is impossible unless people have a sense of elemental fairness in the way they are treated.

We use the term “reasonable” frequently in our definitions because employees do not expect a level of perfection unrelated to the realities of the business. For example, the desire for job security does not mean that employees expect a lifetime-employment guarantee. They are not naïve; they understand that such a guarantee is virtually impossible in a modern, capitalist economy. But they are angry when they (or their co-workers) are laid off without the company having a pressing need to let them go (when, for example, it is already highly profitable or when it has not exhausted other more obvious ways to reduce costs). Their anger is magnified by insensitive handling of layoffs, such as when layoffs are done without adequate notice or financial and job-placement assistance.

In other words, employees become angry when, in their view, elementary considerations of fairness are completely submerged by the company’s single-minded pursuit of its short-term business interests, such as the anticipated immediate impact of an announced layoff on a company’s stock price.

Similarly, consider compensation. Most people know that becoming extremely wealthy is more fantasy than reality. So, the common assumption that “employees will never be happy with their pay” is fallacious. Our norm on our satisfaction-with-pay survey question is 51 percent favorable and 25 percent unfavorable. (The rest are neutral about their pay.) Although pay satisfaction is among the lower-rated aspects of work, it is hardly very negative. Furthermore, those are the averages across many organizations, and the range of responses is large: the most positive company response is 78 percent favorable, and the least positive is 25 percent.

Contrary to “common sense,” people can view their pay as fair. Our research shows that perceived fair compensation is a function of a number of variables, including perceptions of what other organizations pay for similar work, the relationship of pay to employee contribution, and the company’s profitability. Chapter 4, “Compensation,” elaborates on these variables. The underlying attitude that these results reflect is simply whether the organization tries to be fair with its salary policies or whether it tries to squeeze every last nickel from its employees. And “fair” does not mean wildly generous. Everything else being equal, and under most circumstances, we find employees pleased with “competitive” pay and very pleased with compensation that is even a few percentage points above other companies’ pay.

Similar observations can be made about other elements of the equity factor, such as benefits. But there are elements where the ultimate is expected, such as the following:

  • Safety. Where loss of life or limb is at stake, perfection has become the goal, and understandably so.
  • Respect. People want to be treated like responsible adults, but many workers—primarily in factories but also in certain factory-like white-collar settings—are, as they see it, treated like children or criminals, subjected to strict monitoring of their work and other behavior to coerce performance and conformity to the “rules.” The response to this kind of treatment is that anger builds up in workers over time, and this has always been a major element in the more severe industrial relations conflicts we have studied. Even when the reaction is not explosive, this mode of management is self-defeating for the company. It is based on false assumptions about the great majority of workers (for example, that they are irresponsible) and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: management that expects the worst from people typically gets it.
  • Management credibility. A basic need of human beings from childhood through adulthood is to be able to trust the word of those whose actions have a significant impact on them. A major source of discontent among many workers is information about important matters that is incomplete, unclear, contradictory, or simply absent. When workers assume that the company is deliberately withholding information, the void is filled with paranoid thoughts about what is really going on. This is a sure way to poison the relationship between management and its workforce.

How do workers feel about the degree to which their needs for equity are being met? Our research indicates that the highest degree of average satisfaction concerns how people feel about safety at work, while the lowest is about pay. The range is 81 percent favorable for safety to 51 percent favorable for pay, demonstrating that employees make sharp differentiations among the various aspects of their work.

See Table 1-2 for a sample of the normative data relating to equity. We show in that table the average percentage satisfied across all our surveys (the “norm”) for each question and its range: the lowest score we have ever obtained on the question (the “minimum”) and the highest (the “maximum”).

Table 1-2. 2004–2012 Norms and Ranges for a Sample of Equity Questions

Range

Question

Norm

Min

Max

Safety

81

59

96

Treated with respect and dignity

74

43

93

Supervisor’s human relations competence

73

57

87

Physical working conditions

70

38

91

Amount of work expected

70

52

87

Job security

67

50

89

Company interest in employee well-being

65

23

92

Sr. management’s actions consistent with its words

64

29

88

Company communication on important matters

64

34

86

Benefits package

62

23

94

Favoritism (lack of)

54

41

71

Pay

51

25

78

The overall ranking of items is similar within most of the individual organizations that we survey. When we discover an exception to the pattern, it is cause for particular attention. Take safety, for example. In general, safety is highly rated in our surveys, but there are a few organizations, especially in heavy manufacturing, where it is among the lower-rated items. But, there are exceptions to that, too. As an example, see the discussion in Chapter 7, “Organization Purpose and Principles,” about Paul O’Neill (the former Secretary of the Treasury) and his work on safety when he was chairman of Alcoa. These “exceptions to the exceptions” are particularly noteworthy and illuminating because we learn from them that in management practice, little is foreordained. Much can be done if there is a will to do it.

Although this pattern tends to hold up across organizations (with exceptions, as noted), the levels of satisfaction—within the same broad pattern—vary widely. Thus, for example, employees in companies A and B can rate safety among the highest and pay among the lowest of all the equity items, but company A employees can be much higher than those in company B on both of these (and on just about every other equity item).

The large variations between organizations can be seen in the ranges in Table 1-2, and they are extremely important. First, they lend the lie to the commonly held assumption that people, no matter where they work, are similar to each other in their disgruntlement with their employment conditions. What management does is critical, and the differences between organizations in management behavior—and, therefore, employee response—can be huge. Second, the variability allows us to answer the key “So what?” question about employee attitudes: does satisfaction matter for business success? In Chapter 2, “Employee Enthusiasm and Business Success,” we show how business performance varies markedly between organizations with different degrees of employee satisfaction.16 The variation in the degree of satisfaction, we must stress, is not usually between highly satisfied, or “enthusiastic,” and highly dissatisfied, or “angry,” employees. Much of the variation resides in the difference between highly and moderately satisfied employees. That is a basic point of this book: the big difference in motivation and outcomes when employees say “This is a terrific place to work” vs. feeling that “It’s pretty good” or “OK.”

Achievement

To take pride in one’s accomplishments by doing things that matter and doing them well; to receive recognition for one’s accomplishments; to take pride in the organization’s accomplishments.

A sense of basic equity in the employment relationship serves as the foundation on which high employee morale can be built; the powerful need to feel proud of one’s accomplishments and the accomplishments of the organization is then freed to drive behavior toward high performance. Pride comes both from the employees’ own perceptions of accomplishment and from the recognition received from others.

That is why the often-asked question, “How do you motivate employees?” is foolish. Most people enter a new organization and job with enthusiasm, eager to work, to contribute, to feel proud of their work and their organizations. Perversely, many managers appear to then do their best to demotivate employees!

You may reject that argument if you believe that people (other than a few saints, overachievers, or neurotic workaholics) are basically greedy and lazy when it comes to work. The reverse is true: most people are reasonable in what they expect in terms of treatment and are eager to perform in a way that makes them feel good about their performance. When we observe the opposite in an employee, it is either an atypical case (see the following discussion on individual differences) or, most commonly, because management has damaged that employee’s motivation.

Our statistical analysis shows that a sense of achievement has six primary sources:

  • Challenge of the work itself. The extent to which the job uses an employee’s intelligence, abilities, and skills.
  • Acquisition of new skills.
  • Ability to perform. Having the training, direction, resources, authority, information, and cooperation needed to perform well.
  • Perceived importance of the employee’s job. To the organization, to the customer, and to society.
  • Recognition received for performance. Both nonfinancial (such as a simple “thank you” from the boss or a customer) and financial (compensation and advancement that are based on performance).
  • Working for a company of which the employee can be proud. Because of its purpose, its products (their quality and their impact on customers and society), its business success, its business ethics (treatment of customers, employees, investors, and community), and the quality of its leadership.

As with the equity items, the surveys reveal a mixed picture regarding achievement. A sample of the normative data relating to achievement is shown in Table 1-3. We ask many questions about this factor, and these are discussed in the relevant chapters. But for now, note that among the most positive ratings are those focused on two opposite organization poles: the macro and the micro. Employees, on the average, are most favorable toward the overall characteristics of the organization (such as the quality of the organization’s products and services, its profitability, and its ethics) and, at the other pole, toward the immediate work environment (such as the job, the co-workers, and the technical ability of the immediate supervisor). The least positive ratings tend to be about efficiency at a “middle” level (such as bureaucracy, consistency of direction from management, and, as will be seen later, cooperation across units) and about reward. There are some apparent contradictions, such as the view of many employees that the amount of work expected of them hurts quality and yet the very positive feeling about the quality of the products and services the organization delivers to its customers. All these matters are discussed in detail in this book. Where we have comparisons with surveys conducted by others, the results are similar to ours. (See Appendix D, “Comparisons with Other Norms,” at www.sirota.com/enthusiastic-employee.”)

Table 1-3. 2004–2012 Norms and Ranges for a Sample of Achievement Questions

Range

Question

Norm

Min

Max

Clear idea of results expected

86

63

95

High-quality products/services for customers

82

52

96

Supervisor’s technical competence

82

67

95

Pride in organization

82

55

98

Corporate citizenship

79

43

95

The work itself

78

24

92

Skill and abilities used

76

53

89

Tools and equipment to do job

72

33

91

Information to do job

69

37

91

Company overall is effectively managed

67

32

93

Recognition for good job

64

38

86

Feedback on performance

63

45

82

Employees treated as important

62

38

81

Participative environment

61

24

74

Training

60

29

84

Not a lot of wasted time and effort

50

24

70

Decisions without undue delay

49

8

77

Don’t receive conflicting instruction from management

44

33

56

Merit salary results from performance

40

5

91

Bureaucracy (lack of)

39

12

72

Camaraderie

To have warm, interesting, and cooperative relations with others in the workplace.

Human beings are decidedly social animals. Positive interaction with others is not only gratifying, but essential for mental health. We often neglect the extent to which an organization—and parts of organizations—function not only as business entities but also as communities that satisfy the social and emotional needs of their members.

“What do you like most about working here?” is a typical write-in question we ask on our surveys. One of the most frequent and consistent responses to that question involves co-workers. That is because co-workers are important and because, by and large, people get along well with each other within their work units. We receive considerably fewer positive comments about relationships with other units in the organization; those comments are often in response to what employees like least. For example, note the following:

  • From an employee in a real estate company (what employee likes “most”): “My team is full of intelligent people who are friendly and constantly want to do better and help each other. We work beautifully together.”
  • From an employee in a factory (likes “most”): “The people I work with.” Simply this phrase, or variations of it (such as “the great people I work with”), appears repeatedly in almost every survey in response to the question about what respondents like most.
  • From an employee in a hospital (likes “least”): “Cooperation and communication between physicians and nurses needs to be much better. Nurses truly know the patients. We are at the bedside dealing with families and the patient. Many times, we are ignored. It’s like we’re the physicians’ servants and we should jump when they say so.”
  • From an employee in an information-technology group in a bank (likes “least”): “What gets me most upset is the way the departments we have to service are absolutely clueless about how busy we are and short-handed we are. We can’t do everything just when they want it. They don’t care, and when they complain to our V.P., he doesn’t support us.”

The quality of interaction in organizations is obviously greatly affected not just by friendliness and mutuality of interests but also by co-workers’ competence and cooperation. In that environment, a friendly slacker is an oxymoron: being unhelpful to co-workers is, by definition, unfriendly. This is another example of the way employees’ needs—in this case, for positive interpersonal relationships in the work setting—are congruent with the organization’s needs for high performance. And, as we shall discuss in Chapter 8, “Job Enablement,” innovativeness is often the result of positive interaction among colleagues.

The camaraderie concept issomewhat less complex than equity and achievement, and we came to an explicit realization of its importance somewhat later in our work. Therefore, in our surveys, fewer questions have been asked about camaraderie, and these are shown in Table 1-4. The most favorably rated aspect of camaraderie is simply the relationship between co-workers, followed by teamwork within the workers’ unit, teamwork across departments in a given location, and finally, teamwork and cooperation across the entire company.

Table 1-4. 2004–2012 Norms and Ranges for a Sample of Camaraderie Questions

Range

Question

Norm

Min

Max

Relationship with co-workers

90

71

97

Teamwork within work unit

80

39

92

Teamwork across departments in location

66

26

88

Teamwork across company as a whole

62

23

87

Teamwork, as we mentioned, is not just a camaraderie issue. It also has a major effect on achievement. And, it is clear that teamwork is more positive at the micro level—within units—than at what we have termed the middle level—across units. The differences between companies, however, are large, which shows that familiarity and proximity do not always breed contentment or distance antagonism. For example, although the norm for teamwork within the unit is 80 percent, the range is from 39 to 92 percent! Also, the norm for teamwork across units is 66 percent, but the range extends from 26 to 88 percent.

Chapter 11, “Teamwork,” discusses camaraderie, its impact on performance, and ways of enhancing it. That chapter also discusses how camaraderie can sometimes work against organization goals. For example, solidarity in a workgroup might develop in opposition to a management whose practices are considered unjust by employees. Management becomes the “enemy camp” and, in those situations, equity issues must be dealt with first.

That summarizes the key sets of goals of the overwhelming majority of employees. Other than extreme cases in which our theory does not apply (which will soon be discussed), we assert that a manager does not need to know much more about human motivation at work. That is quite an assertion, but we invite readers to suggest other motivators that are as powerful, relevant in the workplace, and widespread. We claim further that a genuinely high-morale, enthusiastic, and highly productive workforce is impossible if those needs go unsatisfied.

The three goals we propose are distinct needs that, unfortunately, cannot be substituted for each other. For example, enriching the content of a job does not increase satisfaction with pay or cause an employee to minimize the importance of his pay dissatisfaction. Discontent with pay can be ameliorated only by more pay! Similarly, unhappiness with a boring job can be solved only by restructuring the job or transferring the employee to work that is more interesting; paying the employee more won’t solve the problem. Each goal—and most every subgoal—must be dealt with individually. There are no panaceas, no silver bullets that solve all issues.

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