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Individual Differences

We have repeatedly referred to the goals of “the overwhelming majority of the workforce,” and argued that these characterized broad classes of workers. But, of course, there are individual differences in the strengths of needs. Some people are less socially oriented than others; some are more prone to see injustice in their treatment than are others; for some, work can be less important as a source of pride, perhaps because of fulfilling outside activities. The differences between individuals that are of most practical relevance to managers are the employees at the extremes, people who with regard to the equity need, for example, see injustice at every turn, or, at the other end, never see it. We estimate these extremes to constitute approximately 12 to 15 percent of a population of workers, 5 percent who are almost invariably negative and about 7 to 10 percent who are almost invariably positive. Our theory, and its practical implications for management practice, is much less relevant for these workers at the extremes.

Where do we get these estimated percentages of people at the extremes?

At the most general level, when employees are asked about their overall satisfaction with their organization, even the most positive companies in our database (over 85 percent satisfied) still have 6 to 8 percent of workers rating themselves as dissatisfied. (The rest are neutral.) Some portion of these people are not invariably unhappy but might be unsuited to their particular positions in that organization, to a particular manager, or even, perhaps, to an enthusiastic culture. But, we do know that, by nature, some people are cranky and won’t be positive about their employment anywhere. Our rough estimate, based on largely informal assessments over the years, is that these constitute about 5 percent of virtually every workforce.

At the other end of the continuum, even in very low morale companies, 12 to 15 percent will express satisfaction. Some of this is no doubt due to a fortuitous fit, albeit unusual for those organizations, between themselves and their jobs, their managers, or the culture. (Some of them are likely to be the ones making everyone else unhappy!) But, we know also that there are people who, no matter how bad the environment is, come across as happy souls, the proverbial optimists who try to see the bright side and usually give management the benefit of the doubt. It takes an enormous amount to frustrate or anger these people and our rough estimate is that they constitute about 7 to 10 percent of an average workforce.

That’s the general condition of the exceptionally and persistently dissatisfied or satisfied individuals. Our theory has less relevance for them because their satisfaction (or lack of it) will not be much affected by management’s actions. At a more specific level relating to the three factors, consider the exceptions to what we said about the achievement goal. We asserted that most people want to work and be proud of their work. But we know that there are employees who are, in effect, “allergic” to work—they do just about anything to avoid it. For them, our question, “How do you keep management from demotivating employees?” is nonsense. They are unmotivated, and a disciplinary approach—including dismissal—is about the only way they can be managed.

At the opposite extreme are employees who are just about impossible to demotivate—namely, workaholics. They work through any and all obstacles that the organization puts in their path, perhaps even unconsciously relishing the obstacles because these provide an excuse for spending additional time at work. For them, too, the motivational issue that we are discussing is largely irrelevant:

  • In a workshop, one of the authors of this book conducted on recognition practices, managers were asked to describe their experience with “unintended effects” of recognition. One spoke of her experience with two employees who were, by far, the most productive people in her department and among the most productive she had come across at any time. She had already given them several large salary increases but wanted to do more. She called them into her office and announced that she was granting them two additional paid days off as a token of her appreciation. They frowned, so she asked them what was wrong. Were two days not enough? Their response was extraordinary: for them, days off from work were a punishment, not a reward. Such was the level of involvement in their work. She replaced the days off with dinner-for-two rewards, and they expressed their appreciation.

Similar extremes can be found on the equity and camaraderie dimensions. For example, some people feel unfairly treated no matter what (“collectors of injustices,” as it were), and others never see injustice no matter what management does. Also, there are social isolates for whom social interaction appears to be unimportant (or even distasteful), and those for whom it is all-consuming.

Obviously, managers must be sensitive to these extremes and adjust their behavior accordingly. But a major problem is the tendency for many organizations and individual managers to mistake the extremes for the whole. This is especially obvious, and dysfunctional, with regard to the achievement goal. Many organizations and managers assume that the desire of an employee to do something that matters and do it well is the exception rather than the rule. So, when an isolated problem occurs, control systems and supervisory styles are applied to everyone, and that has the effect of demotivating the great majority who come to work eager to contribute.

In summary, this chapter presented what is essentially a positive view of the nature of people at work. That view is supported by the mountain of evidence we have gathered over many years of research, by the thinking and systematic research of others, and by the success of organizations whose policies and practices reflect such optimism.

We say that the essentials of human motivation have changed very little over time. If significant change is observed, it is not that workers’ goals have changed, but that management is acting differently and is reaping the consequences of its actions.

For example, treat workers as disposable commodities, which began to happen with the downsizings of the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, and—surprise!—employees are no longer “loyal.” Why would they be? Most people are eager to strongly identify with an organization of which they can be proud and that treats them well. But it would be irrational for people to be loyal to organizations that show no interest in them other than as, essentially, “hands”—temporary hands at that—to get the work done.

Nothing is very complicated about what we have proposed. Although the detailed implications for management practice are reserved for future chapters, those are not complicated either. Let’s call them the “blocking and tackling” of an enlightened management, enlightened in its understanding that what the overwhelming majority of people seek from work doesn’t conflict with management’s objectives and, in fact, usually strongly supports them. Satisfying these goals—fairness of treatment, pride in work and company, and a sense of camaraderie with fellow employees—is to everyone’s advantage. The results will be outstanding. Let’s now look in more detail at the evidence for the business implications of employee enthusiasm.

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