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Human Motivation Series: Part 1 – Basic Motivation

By October 13, 2016 No Comments
This article is the first in a series written by Dr. Vern A. Cox, Ph.D., an expert in Human Behavioral Theory.

As a manager, in order to motivate my team/employees I would want to know some basics about human behavior. It may sound very simplistic, but employees work for things that benefit them. When a job is no longer perceived as beneficial, employees either change jobs (longevity issue) or their performance suffers (efficiency/productivity issue).

Motivation can be broadly described as an influence which determines an employee’s choice when one or more behaviors will accomplish a particular task. Motivation also includes the persistence and speed with which the work is pursued. On a basic level, the determining factors of work behavior are the employee receiving something beneficial and avoiding things they don’t like. The behavioral motivation concept can be illustrated by the following diagram: motivation-table

When an employee anticipates that their behavior will result in receiving positive reinforcement, we say they are motivated by a reward. A person is generally motivated to act with increased persistence and energy when achieving a reward. When an employee perceives that some course of action will result in relief from an undesirable state, we say they are motivated to achieve relief.

On the other hand, when that same employee is acting to avoid or escape a painful state or to avoid incurring a penalty (having something they like taken away) we say they are motivated to avoid punishment. Let’s expand the diagram to further illustrate:

motivation-table-expandedPeople are motivated to obtain reinforcement, whether positive reinforcement (reward) or negative reinforcement (relief). That means employees stay at work and work harder if they perceive that the work is rewarding. The psychological term, negative reinforcement, is often confused with punishment. Just because it has the word ‘negative’ is used in the definition, does not mean it is punishment or that it the results are negative. It is called negative reinforcement because it tends to increase behavior by removing something negative. When striving to maintain longevity of employees or their efficiency, do not neglect the possibility of relief. Relief may come in the form of a different supervisor, training to relive a sense of incompetence or the removal of some negatively perceived working condition. Employees are also motivated by punishment, that is, they act to avoid it. A word of caution; there are very different long term consequences when using reinforcement than when motivating by punishment.

923151_10151670818834796_1076385944_nAt our core, we as people (and as employees) are motivated to receive benefits or to avoid pain. That statement, while basic and true, is very simplistic because there are many mitigating factors that modify the employee’s choice (i.e. the direction of their behavior), as well as the persistence and the vigor of their goal directed behavior. Some of the mitigating factors are the intensity of the desire (drive), the frequency of reinforcement, the perceived value of the goal (payoff), as well as the person’s expectancy that he or she has capability of achieving the goal.

The bottom line?? Rewards and relief tend to make happy, productive workers. Punishment tends to make compliant, but unwilling, anxious, and sometimes rebellious ones.

Dr. Vern A. Cox, Ph.D.

For more information on this article or any others in this series, Dr. Cox can be reached directly at:

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