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What Workers Want--The Big Picture

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An accurate understanding of motivation in the workplace is more than an academic pursuit. Policies based on faulty understanding of worker happiness can drive employees away in droves. This chapter outlines a research-based, broad understanding of employee satisfaction and why it's important to pay attention to this aspect of management.
This chapter is from the book

"Human capital will go where it is wanted, and it will stay where it is well treated. It cannot be driven; it can only be attracted."

—Walter Wriston, Former Chairman, Citicorp/Citibank

An accurate understanding of motivation in the workplace is more than an academic pursuit. The effectiveness of critical business policies depends on the extent to which our assumptions about human motivation are accurate. If they are not accurate, they either have no impact at all, or worse, they boomerang and damage the organization. Accuracy depends not only on wisdom and experience, but on systematic research. Research protects us from personal bias, seeing what we want to see instead of what is there. Research also protects us from the lure of fads and fashions.

The problem with many theories in this field is not that they have nothing to say, but rather that they:

  • Focus on just one aspiration as the central motivator (and, therefore, the central explanation) of employee morale and performance.

  • Claim that most people are frustrated with the achievement of that aspiration (the "sky is falling" scenario) and that dealing with that single frustration will solve all problems.

  • Typically assert that what the theorist has uncovered characterizes a "new generation" of workers and is therefore novel.

It is helpful to look at a few of the more prevalent management fads before we review the results of real research.

Blame It on the Young

For reasons that we will soon show are misguided, popular theories of what employees want change continually, and the change is often couched in terms of "new generations" of workers whose needs and expectations somehow magically differ from their predecessors. We are told that there are important differences between the "baby boomers" and "GenX." Don't look now, but here comes Generation Y, followed almost immediately by Generation D (for digital!). It is theorized that they all need to be dealt with differently because they are all different.

These seemingly significant differences make for interesting reading, and the business media have surely accommodated us. Numerous stories have been published on generational change and its implications for management practice. Generation X, for example, is widely assumed to put maximum emphasis on individual freedom and minimum emphasis on company loyalty. A few years ago, the author of a Fortune article on GenX advised that, "If your competitor lets employees keep a birdbath in the office, you will have no choice but to follow suit." A Time columnist summed up the generation as one that, "...would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder."

These observations are seductive; managing people is a difficult and complicated job filled with many headaches, and most managers want to learn all they can about human motivation. Furthermore, the answers provided by the theories on generational change seem intuitively correct. When a certain age in life is reached, people almost inevitably begin to talk about "that new generation" in a way that means, "What's this world coming to?" The new generation is not only "not like us," but they are "not like we were at that age." This discussion has been going on forever.

The fact that young people are so often viewed with apprehension by their elders should make us think about the validity of assertions about genuine generational change. It may be just a matter of age, but even more importantly, it may be a confusion of what's apparent, such as the clothes and music preferences of young people, with what is real, such as their basic goals as they enter the workforce.

An example of this tendency to confuse youthful tastes with human needs became most dramatically apparent in the early 1970s. As the tumultuous '60s ended, a deluge of books, television specials, and newspaper articles spotlighted a new generation of workers. These young people were (supposedly) severely discontented with work. Even worse, it was popularly suggested that the traditional sources of worker grievances (unhappiness with pay, benefits, hours, and working conditions) were no longer the primary causes of worker dissatisfaction. We were told that the very nature of work itself drove the "new" worker to near distraction. This worker was shown as a product of the '60s, when rebellion against "over 30" adult materialistic values appeared widespread, and freedom and self-actualization were the goals. These workers, it was claimed, would not settle for their fathers' routine and mind-numbing jobs.

The concern about workers and work at that time was perhaps best summarized in a 1973 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), titled Work in America. In describing the profoundly negative impact work seemed to have on so many young employees, the study's editors reported the following:

The discontent of trapped, dehumanized workers is creating low productivity, increasing absenteeism, high worker turnover rates, wildcat strikes, industrial sabotage, poor-quality products and a reluctance of workers to give themselves to their tasks.

Work-related problems are contributing to a decline in physical and mental health, decreased family stability and community cohesiveness, and less "balanced" political attitudes. Growing unhappiness with work is also producing increased drug abuse, alcohol addiction, aggression, and delinquency in the workplace and in the society at large.

That statement was quite an indictment, and one that the media repeated endlessly. Of course, when a single factor (in this case, "dehumanizing" work content) is presumed to be responsible for so many business, social, and personal ills, rest assured that a single cure would soon follow. In the case of the HEW report, the cure (or, more accurately, the cure-all) was seen as the magic of "job enrichment."

The Lordstown Strike and Job Enrichment "Solution"

Based on Frederick Herzberg's "motivator-hygiene" theory, job enrichment was seen as an attempt to reinvigorate work with the prospect for real achievement, thus creating genuine satisfaction and motivation. In brief, the motivator-hygiene theory states that the work itself—the challenge of doing a job from start to finish, and so on—is the true motivator of workers, while the work environment—"hygiene" factors such as pay, benefits, and human relations—cannot positively motivate workers but, when adequate, temporarily prevent them from feeling unhappy. Therefore, the key to true motivation and lasting satisfaction is job enrichment, structuring work so it provides workers with a sense of achievement and accomplishment.

The motivator-hygiene theory and the job-enrichment solution were extraordinarily popular in management thinking and teaching for much of the 1970s, but have since faded from view. That is not surprising because, for one thing, cure-all solutions for cause-all problems are seldom real. Despite its academic trappings, the hullabaloo smacked of patent-medicine salesmanship. In fact, considering that so much of the expressed concern was about blue-collar workers on assembly lines, no labor unions had placed demands for more meaningful work on their collective-bargaining agendas. Indeed, many labor leaders explicitly declined to join the rising chorus of voices concerned with job content.

The attention given to a 1972 workers' strike in the Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant of General Motors (GM) reinforced the skepticism about job enrichment and its claims. This strike was widely interpreted to be the result of the dehumanizing nature of assembly-line work. However, the reality of Lordstown vastly differed from the way the strike was generally portrayed in the media and academia.

The GM Lordstown plant was a sprawling complex of factories. In the 1960s, GM built a new factory at Lordstown that was specially designed to assemble Vega passenger cars that GM hoped would prevent foreign manufacturers from eroding GM's margins in the compact-car arena. By 1966, GM was hiring workers for the factory, eventually employing about 7,000 people. This new plant, built by GM with advanced robotics, represented a $100-million investment by the company. GM recruited younger, better-educated workers who, it was claimed, were products of the ethos of the 1960s. Many of them even had long hair, so this was indeed a "new generation." Then, GM adopted a variety of efficiency rules designed to increase the production of the new Vega plant from 60 cars every hour (or 1 every minute) to 100 cars in the same time (or one every 39 seconds). The company did not increase the work force or decrease the number of procedures each worker was responsible for. It just required its workers to increase their pace. The workers fell behind, reasonably not being able to keep up with the line's speed.

If the pace was maddening, the results were disastrous. Workers tried various self-help remedies, such as letting cars go by, doubling up (surreptitiously doing an additional procedure for a short period of time—usually very poorly—so that a friend could rest). Absenteeism increased, and harsher work rules were imposed that violated many traditional but unspoken shop-floor conventions.

The workers went on strike. The primary reason for the strike was the workers' view that the company was engaged in a speed-up, which is hardly a novel issue in the history of labor-management conflict. It was not a sense that the work itself had become dehumanizing, but that the company's demand for faster work was impossible to reasonably satisfy. As one writer put it, "The main principle of Lordstown technology is the speed-up as developed by Henry Ford."

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