Work motivation practice essay
The following post is an essay researched and written in anticipation of an exam question for the module Motivation & Performance within the Organizational Psychology Master's qualification within the University of London's International Programmes (Birkbeck College). Excerpts may be be used with the citation:
Aylsworth, J. (2010). Measurement of motivation: A theoretical look inside the black box. (url) Accessed: (Month year).
Exam essay question:
"What are the problems with conceptualising and measuring work motivation?"
Measurement of Motivation:
A Theoretical Look Inside the Black Box
Measuring and conceptualizing motivation is problematic from the outset because“motivation” cannot be observed directly and must be inferred from behavior (Pinder, 2008). We will address this question in 3 parts. Part 1 will offer definitions. Part 2 will look at “motivation” within the context of relevant needs theories. Part 3 will do the same with regard to the most relevant cognitive theories. We will conclude that even though measurement of motivation may be waning in favor of measuring performance facets (Ambrose & Kulick, 1999), we should keep it around until we are reasonably certain that we no longer need it.
Part 1: Defining 'motivation'
“Work motivation” can be understood as “a set of energetic forces that originates both within and beyond individual being to initiate work-related behaviors and to determine their form, direction, intensity and duration” (Pinder, 2008). For Jones (1955), motivation is “how behavior gets started, is energized, is sustained, is directed, is stopped, and what kind of subjective reaction is present in the organism while all this is going on.”
Measurement of “performance” is perplexing as well because it suffers from “the criterion problem,” which refers to the dilemma of deciding which facet(s) of it to measure (Austin & Villanova, 1992). Motowidlo (2003) defines job performance “as the total expected value to an organization of the discrete behavioral episodes that an individual carries out over a standard period of time.” For him, performance should be measured as task and contextual behaviors.
Definitions out of the way, two issues are central to our discussion.
1) The implicit linkage is that motivation is only relevant to the extent that it can predict performance. 2) Attempts to measure motivation outside the context of a theory leave us with no basis for establishing a linkage.
Part 2: Motivation and needs theories
Within the “needs” theories, “needs” are what motivates. We can understand them to be “internal tensions that influence the mediating cognitive processes that result in behavioral variability” (Kanfer, 1991). With the exception of McClelland’s (1961) specific acquired needs (Miner, 2005), the needs theories have not shown good construct validity (Miner, 2005), so they don’t get us very far in linking motivation with performance. However, that should not be surprising because needs theories are quite distal to action, according to Kanfer’s (1992) heuristic.
The critical issue in attempting to measure needs as motivators is that they reside partly in the unconscious, and questionnaires cannot be used to measure unconscious needs (implicit motives) (Kehr, 2004). So, it also should not be surprising that Steers and Braunstein’s Manifest Needs Questionnaire (1976] and Hackman & Oldham’s (1980) measure for higher-order need strength have not shown good construct validity (Conway, Dewe & Guest ).
Rather, projective measures, such as the thematic apperception test (TAT) (Murray, 1943), are needed to tap implicit motives (unconscious needs). McClelland (1961) used the TAT, which was criticized based on reliability concerns, but as later rehabilitated by Spangler (1992). Still, projective measures must be used with great caution because their interpretation is inherently subjective. We should also be wary of the ethical implications of trying to motivate people by teaching needs to their unconscious, which is what we believe McClelland was trying to do.
Part 2: Motivation and needs theories
The cognitive theories offer consciousness-driven, processual explanations of motivation – that is, “how” motivation occurs. Because they are more proximal to action within Kanfer’s (1992) heuristic, we should expect them do a better job of predicting an observable facet of behavior – and they do, particularly goal-setting theory (Conway et al., 2006).
Expectancy and goal-setting theories (GST) have been the dominant cognitive theories, all receiving five out of five stars by Miner (2005) for validity and importance. Vroom’s (1964) original VIE theory and GST (Locke & Latham, 1990), were also considered to be institutionalized within social behavior at work, but Porter & Lawler’s (1968) more complex variant of expectancy was not.
Citing Pritchard et al., (in press), Latham (2007) describes motivation as “a cognitive resource allocation process where a person makes choices as to the time and energy that are to be allocated to an array of motives or tasks.” Clearly, “motivation” has a subjective element in that regard because the resource base from which allocations are made resides within the individual. Therefore, we cannot exclude the individual’s perception – from some within-individual source – from any measure of motivation within that context.
Self-reports are an obvious choice, yet they are quite problematic because they are subject to all sorts of errors (common method variance [Conway et al., 2006]), response bias (Coolican, 2004); attribution error (Dewberry, 2009). And if they are cross-sectional, they cannot show causality (Briner, 2008).
According to the expectancy theories, motivation means “effort,” which is so subjective that it “defies rigorous definition and is certainly unmeasurable” (Baldamus, 1961). Yet, Baldamus does try to define “effort” as “the sum total of physical and mental exertion, tedium, fatigue or any other disagreeable aspect of work.” As with the description of motivation provided by Latham (2007), the need to acknowledge a subjective component is implicit. All of Baldamus’s (1961) components are felt or perceived by the individual – and only the individual experiences this “effort” in relation to perceived depletion of the resources available for allocation.
Self-reports may yet have something to offer if they can be correlated with objective physical measures, which is what Hogan & Fleishman (2007) have done. They found that subjects “could discriminate among tasks of known metabolic differences and that their ratings of the effort required in task performance were highly correlated with actual metabolic costs.” This seems to be a legitimate route for measuring motivation as research, and perhaps it could be sufficiently mature at some point to inform practice.
We have looked at the issue of measuring motivation in the context of the major needs and cognitive theories of work motivation. Given the difficulties involved with measuring motivation, it shouldn’t be surprising that “research in the 1990s appeared determined to skirt the biggest difficulties associated with motivational research: defining motivation and measuring” its mediating effects, according to Ambrose & Kulick (1999). However, they urge researchers not to abandon the central construct of motivation.
We agree.“Motivation” may be a black box, but until we can be more certain that nothing of value lies locked inside, “motivation” is still a black box worth keeping on the shelf.
Exam Performance: This practice answer was not used. Therefore, how it would have been marked under exam conditions is unknown.