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Robb Misso, An Award-Winning CEO, Describes the Theories of Employee Motivation

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What motivates an employee to do their best work? Is it more money, more fringe benefits, the promise of a promotion?

The topic of employee motivation has been studied for nearly a century, and the answer to the question is that all of the above can be great motivators, but alone they aren’t usually enough to encourage employees to become loyal, committed workers who contribute to the success of their organization.

The emotional aspects of the job, such as employees believing that what they do matters, that they are treated fairly, and feeling that their ideas and opinions matter, have proven to be important factors in positive employee morale and motivation. Here, Robb Misso, the CEO of DMS and a John C Maxwell Executive Council member, looks at the theories of employee motivation.

Mayo’s Theory of Human Relations

As U.S. industrialization grew in the early decades of the 1900’s researchers began to study assembly workers in an effort to understand what motivated them to perform their best, and how these motivating factors could be used to increase production.  A landmark study of workers at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works began in 1924 and continued through the Great Depression.  The company had found that financial incentives did not significantly increase productivity. Elton Mayo and colleagues from the Harvard Business School examined working conditions and performance charts as well as interviewing thousands of employees to develop a theory of employee relations that was based on human behaviors and what motivated them to be productive workers.

The huge Hawthorne plant was built in 1905 and by the end of the 1920’s it had 40,000 employees.  The organization used scientific management methods, such as time and motion studies, to evaluate its manufacturing processes. However, like most factories of that era gave little thought to the working conditions of its employees.  As social activists, journalists, and labor unions began to bring poor working conditions to national attention, manufacturers (mostly in an effort to discourage unionization) began to focus on the health and safety of their employees. Western Electric began to offer pension plans, sick pay, stock options, and other fringe benefits.  An accident prevention program was developed and workers were given safety glasses and other protective equipment.

The organization also became interested in ways that they could motivate employees to be their most productive and satisfied with their work duties. Researchers began a series of experiments to determine how workers’ productivity was affected by conditions such as lighting, work hours, rest periods, wage incentives and group size.  Elton Mayo, a researcher and educator at Harvard Business School, partnered with other researchers to study how humans reacted to their working environment. The concept that employee morale and motivation had an effect on productivity created a new discipline in employee motivation.

The longest-running experiment at the facility was designed to measure the speed at which workers assembled electrical relays.  Five women assemblers were placed in a test room away from the rest of the workforce, and their productivity was measured over several years.  The test group significantly increased productivity. The women reported that over time they became a cohesive group that worked together as a team. Mayo theorized that informal social relationships the women had developed had motivated them to support their coworkers’ efforts. He concluded that increased productivity was the result of proper supervision, informal social relationships that developed between workers, and positive employee attitudes.

A criticism of the Hawthorne studies is that they were done in a controlled environment and that the participants knew they were being evaluated. Workers may not necessarily behave the same way in the actual work environment. Also, increases in productivity depend not only on the motivation of the workers, but on technology, supplies, and other factors beyond the employees’ control.

The Equity Theory of Motivation

John Stacey Adams published his equity theory of motivation in 1963. The theory hypothesizes that workers who perceive that they are receiving fewer rewards than others (such as wages, promotions or recognition) will become less motivated and will not be their most productive. For example, an employee may feel that he was passed over for a promotion he deserved in favor of another employee who was less deserving. The passed-over employee perceives this as unfair and wonders why all his hard work wasn’t rewarded.

Whether or not there is an actual inequity, just the perception of unfairness can lead to unmotivated employees that are a detriment to the success of the organization. Employers can use the equity theory of motivation to increase production by treating all employees fairly and without favoritism. This will increase the positive perception of the workplace, improving employee morale and commitment.  As with other behavioral theories about employee motivation, this theory doesn’t consider other factors that contribute to employee morale.  For example, a manager who was unkind to everybody would be treating them equitably, but he would not be contributing to good workplace morale.

Contingency Perspective

Fred Fielder proposed the contingency perspective of management.  He theorized that since every workplace is unique, the style of leadership an organization requires will depend on the situation. Managers must understand when it is appropriate to delegate decision-making, or when they need to make the decision themselves. They may decide to delegate authority to employees to make certain decisions about how to do their jobs. Consulting with a group is another decision-making option.

“Managers must know their individual employees’ strengths and weaknesses, giving them the support they need to perform well,” stated Robb Misso. The contingency theory has given researchers new insight into adapting management to fit a unique organization’s structure. A weakness of this theory is that to be successful leaders they must have the trust and respect of their followers. Leaders must understand when a situation requires a particular type of decision and willingly delegate responsibility when it is appropriate.

Implementing the Equity Theory

The desire for equity, receiving in proportion to the amount given, is part of human nature. We perceive unfairness when our neighbor receives more than he gives, and we become resentful.  Workplace inequity is a morale buster; employees who see their co-workers receive more rewards than they do, for the same amount of effort, will not have good morale or a positive perception of their organization. For example, if an employee is passed over for a promotion and it is given to a coworker who seems less deserving, he will become discouraged and unmotivated.  It may be that there are legitimate reasons the other employee got the promotion, but even if the perception of unfairness exists, it can damage morale.

Leaders must always treat their employees fairly, regardless of whether they are family members or close friends.  All employees should be held to the same standards of performance for their jobs, and the leader should not favor his friends and family members in regard to promotions, wages, time off, or other factors of the workplace.  Decisions about pay raises and promotion must be made on merit, regardless of the manager’s close relationship with certain employees.

Creating an environment of positive motivation is the key to a successful organization in the modern business world, but not all employees are motivated in the same way. Using a combination of these behavioral theories of motivation will increase the positive morale and productivity of workers and contribute to the creation of a successful organization.

About Robb Misso:

Robb Misso founded Dynamic Manufacturing Solutions in order to go about manufacturing differently. For 25 years, he has worked tirelessly to create a positive work culture and empower skilled workers both inside and outside the office. Robb Misso is also the recipient of Austin’s “Recognize Good Award,” which honors community-minded individuals for local charity work.

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