Making Employee Motivation a Partnership
Bernard L. Erven
Professor and Extension Specialist
Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics
Ohio State University
Robert A. Milligan
Professor and Associate Chair
Department of Applied Economics and Management
We begin our discussion of a complex topic with a simple question: How can I
motivate my employees? We propose a simple yet unique answer: You can’t do it alone!
Employee motivation in small businesses works best as a partnership between employer
and employees. In this paper, we will develop this basic argument into several practical
take home suggestions for human resource managers and employees to use in improving
We recognize that employee motivation, more accurately the lack of motivation,
often frustrates employers. It comes as a surprise to some employers that employees’
lack of motivation often frustrates them as well. We observe these frustrations being
compounded by the obvious fact that most any approach to motivation will sometimes
work for some people. The kicker is that no approach works all the time for all people.
Some Background Points about Motivation
Motivation is the inner force that drives employee behavior. The intensity of
one’s inner force to do a task or accomplish a goal describes the level of motivation.
Two people may both say and believe they want to be excellent employees. The intensity
of their desire to be excellent measures their motivation. Employers pay more attention
to what employees do than what they say or believe. Motivation is the force that causes
employees to deliver on what they say.
Most employees prefer to be motivated. Why would an employee choose the
frustration of not being motivated? Motivating jobs and work environments win praise
from employees. Of course, what one person finds motivating another may find boring,
frustrating and debilitating. And employees sometimes bring a lot of baggage to the
workplace from their childhood experiences, previous employment and failures to find
their motivating niches in life.
Motivation is complex. No simple set of guidelines guarantees motivated
employees. Motivation provides a never-ending struggle for both employers and
Self-motivation plays a crucial role. Achievers tend to continue achieving. Past
accomplishments, challenging career goals, expertise in one or more areas, pride in one’s
abilities and self-confidence contribute to self-motivation.
An unmotivated person can become motivated. On the other hand, a motivated
person can lose motivation. The opportunity to motivate employees is never completely
lost nor is the accomplishment of motivated employees ever guaranteed to continue
Not all performance problems are explained by lack of motivation. Lack of
training can prevent a motivated employee from performing well. What sense is there in
hiring a motivated person to do a job and then not training the person to do the job
properly? Lack of appropriate equipment, tools, facilities and supplies can also prevent a
motivated person from performing well. Lack of clear expectations, unclear “rules of the
game” and muddled messages about desired outcomes can lead to poor performance.
The simplest and most intuitive approach to motivation is to satisfy an employee’s
needs. This approach has four parts:
• Employees have needs that they desire to satisfy, which in turn
• Leads to actions that will fulfill their needs, which in turn
• Leads to rewards from the employer and satisfaction from doing the job, which in
• Reinforces their actions and causes them to be repeated.
Note the necessity of identifying needs. An employer can get help from
employees to identify their needs. Then the employer can choose the “right” employee
rewards for doing a job and especially for doing a job well. Providing the “right”
rewards reinforces the employees’ actions thus causing the employees to repeat the
actions to get the rewards again.
To illustrate, Kirk and Kendra are employees who both have a need to be thanked
and appreciated. Kirk’s employer Jennifer, recognizing the need, gives him specific tasks
and responsibilities. When Kirk performs the tasks well, Jennifer regularly shows
appreciation by saying thank you and giving merit increases in pay. Kirk’s needs are
satisfied. To continue having his need for thanks and appreciation satisfied, he is
motivated to continue to do the tasks well.
On the other hand, Kendra’s employer John fails to understand her need for thanks
and appreciation. Kendra works hard to complete the tasks but John never thanks her or
recognizes her accomplishments. Instead, John is quick to criticize Kendra’s small
mistakes. He offers no thanks or recognition for her correction of the mistakes. At some
point, Kendra is likely to lose motivation to continue to do the tasks well. The reason
according to this simple needs theory of motivation is that no need is being satisfied.
Note also the necessity of an employee being willing and able to perform the
assigned tasks. Unwillingness, for whatever reason, to perform the tasks, means the link
between needs and rewards breaks down.
This simple model of motivation makes clear that employee needs play a critical
role in motivation. Experienced labor managers, however, easily see practical problems.
What at first seems to be a simple model is in fact complex and difficult to apply.
Motivation success requires more than the employer’s sole reliance on satisfaction of
needs. Reinforcement of desired behaviors and cooperation between employer and
employee need to be added to the power of needs.
Positive reinforcement encourages the repetition of desired behavior. In contrast,
punishment discourages undesired behavior. Lack of positive reinforcement discourages
employees and causes loss of motivation. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool when
used consistently, fairly and sincerely.
We can return to the Kirk and Kendra example of the previous section. Jennifer is
making effective use of positive reinforcement to motivate Kirk. In contrast, John’s
blindness to the importance of reinforcement causes Kendra to lose motivation.
A Partnership Between Employer and Employee
We return to our basic argument – employee motivation works best as a
partnership between employer and employee.
Synergy is the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Synergy
is exactly what we seek to complement the needs approach and positive reinforcement. It
means that employer and employee working together accomplish more than they
accomplish by each working alone. Lack of synergy in motivation occurs when
employee and employer each face the motivation challenge alone. Employee brings his
or her self-motivation, experience, good intentions and training to the job. Employer
brings his insights about employee needs and rewards.
The motivation partnership means that both employee and employer are
committed to synergy rather than waiting for the other to solve the motivation puzzle.
The employer and employee share responsibility for motivation, i.e., cooperation not
The Employee’s Contributions to the Partnership
True partnership between employer and employee in the motivation challenge
requires each to understand and play their parts well. The employee’s most important
contribution to the partnership is self-motivation. Most importantly, this self-motivation
commits the employee to making the partnership work. Employees also need to search
for a job and work environment that fit their knowledge, skills, abilities, needs and
interests. A miscast employee almost certainly will eventually face the frustration of
waning motivation. No matter how good the fit is between employee and job, the
employee must be willing to learn. Even the most experienced employee new to a farm
or ranch should bring admission that “I don’t know all I need to know.” A highly skilled
employee still needs to learn about new coworkers, policies, rules, norms of behavior and
just how things “work around here.”
Taking a job with a new organization means commitment to that organization’s
vision, mission, core values and goals. When an employee’s goals, needs and beliefs
don’t fit with the employer’s vision, mission, core values and goals, any proposed
partnership between employer and employee is almost certainly to disappoint both
The employee has the responsibility to communicate his or her needs, concerns
and ideas to the employer. Listening to the employer’s point of view is the other side of
this communication coin.
The Employer’s Contributions to the Partnership
Frederick Herzberg developed a two-factor theory of motivation that makes clear
what the employer can bring to the motivation partnership. According to Herzberg, two
factors affect employee motivation: dissatisfiers and motivators. The employer has
primary responsibility for both.
Examples of dissatisfiers are poor working conditions, unsafe equipment,
exhausting physical work combined with excessively long work days and weeks, unfair
pay, disagreeable supervisors, unreasonable rules and policies, unchallenging work and
conflict with co-workers. According to Herzberg, these problems must be resolved
before motivators can work. Resolving the problems increases employee satisfaction;
however, it does not provide motivation.
Motivators are factors that influence job satisfaction and lead to motivation.
Examples include achievement, recognition, satisfying work, responsibility and personal
growth through training and new experiences. These motivators turn an employee from
being neutral about the job into a motivated employee. (Figure 1)
Figure 1. Diagrammatic Representation of Satisfaction and Motivation Levels
And Low Motivation
The implications for the employer’s side of the motivation partnership are clear.
The dissatisfiers must be removed before motivators can work. Employees working in
unsafe conditions with unfair pay will not be motivated by recognition and delegation of
additional responsibility. However, making the workplace safe and increasing the pay to
a fair level is not enough. These steps alone will fail to motivate employees. They will
be satisfied but not motivated. These neutral workers can be turned into satisfied and
motivated workers by using the motivators, e.g., recognition and delegation of additional
responsibility. Each employer can work to identify the dissatisfiers among his or her
employees. Removing the dissatisfiers provides opportunity to take advantage of
Figure 1 illustrates the path to providing an environment where employees should
be enthused about contributing their part of the employer-employee motivation
partnership. When the employer is not contributing their part of the partnership many or
most employees will be on the left side of the figure -- highly dissatisfied and poorly
The employer must first remove the dissatisfiers like unfair levels of pay and
unacceptable working conditions. Employees will move toward the center of figure as
their level of dissatisfaction decreases. They will not yet show many signs of becoming
As the employer continues to implement her or his part of the partnership by
providing motivators, e.g., positive reinforcement, recognition for achievement and
increased responsibilities, most employees will move to the right of the figure. They are
responding to the employer’s fulfilling his of her part of the partnership by providing a
motivational work environment.
Note that this is not a time when the employer jumps from the left to the right of
the figure. The employer must first focus on removing the dissatisfiers.
Communication with employees is essential. What is a dissatisfier for one
employee may not be a dissatisfier for another. A single workaholic employee may have
no objection to a 60-hour workweek. Parents with small children may find 60-hour
workweeks highly dissatisfying. What is a motivator for one employee may not be for
another. Opportunity to learn new skills may be motivating for one employee and a
worrisome burden for another employee.
Additional Implications for Employers
Employer’s Role in Job Design
Employers need to design jobs with employee motivation in mind. Uninteresting
or boring jobs will certainly be dissatisfiers. Employers can capitalize on the advantages
people see in farm and ranch work. To illustrate, people who love animals are motivated
by the opportunity to work with animals. Some people like machinery much more than
animals. Some enjoy repairing machinery more than operating it. Some people like
office work; others want to be outdoors.
Managers have the primary responsibility for designing jobs. They first need to
take into consideration the tasks that must be accomplished for the farm or ranch to
succeed. They can also take into consideration what individuals want in their jobs.
Sometimes relatively minor changes in job design can dramatically improve a job in the
employee’s view, e.g., changing a calf feeder’s job to include explanation of calf care to
Work as a Motivator
The job itself can be a motivator for an employee. First, jobs should be designed
whenever possible to encourage employees to use a variety of skills. Think about why
assembly line jobs tend to be boring. Standing in one place using only one or two skills
doing the same thing over and over is not motivating for most people. One of the reasons
that many people like varied work is that they get to use a variety of skills.
Second, jobs should be designed whenever possible so that an employee performs
a total job, e.g., all aspects of calf raising as contrasted with just feeding. Even such a
simple task as repairing gates may be more motivating if one person has the
responsibility to do everything including determining what parts are needed, buying
parts, taking the gate apart, replacing parts, reassembling and testing to be sure
everything is in order.
Third, jobs should be designed so that the employee understands the significance
of his/her job to the business. Why is calf raising important? What contribution is the
person making by doing a good job with calves? What problems are caused later on if
the calves are not given proper care? The person taking care of calves should have
answers to these kinds of basic questions.
Fourth, jobs should be designed so that each employee has responsibility,
challenge, freedom and the opportunity to be creative. This requires the supervisor or
owner/operator of the farm to delegate some authority. Delegation can be a powerful
motivator. “You can do the job however you want as long as you get results.” Such
words, such delegation, such responsibility can have positive impacts on employees.
Finally, supervisors should incorporate feedback into each job. Most employees
want to know what is expected of them in the job, how they are doing, how they can
improve, what latitude they have in changing how they do their tasks, what should be
discussed with a supervisor and when the discussion should occur. Employees rarely
complain about too much communication with their supervisor. They often want more
Teamwork has the potential to be either a dissatisfier or a motivator. Some
individuals have a high need for power. Some are “loners.” Some have had bad
experiences in previous employment with cooperative effort. Some are reluctant to share
honest assessments of coworkers. For each of these types of employees, teamwork,
especially ineffective teamwork, may be a major dissatisfier.
On the other hand, some people with a high need for interpersonal relations may
see teamwork as a major motivator. Some may also see their own needs for achievement
being satisfied best through close working relations with their coworkers.
Employers need to emphasize team building if teamwork is to be more than a
hollow slogan. Teams are built through four stages: forming, storming, norming and
In the forming stage, team members break the ice with each other, become
oriented to the employer’s business goals and begin to exchange ideas. The forming
stage is particularly important when integrating new employees with established
employees, and family members with nonfamily members.
Storming is the stage of conflict, open disagreement and the surfacing of
conflicting ideas. Managers face the challenge of getting disagreements out in the open
for discussion and resolution. Hidden disagreements constrain trust and growth of the
Norming follows from resolving conflicts. Team harmony and unity arise. By
this stage, the leader is clearly identified and team members’ roles are clear.
By the performing stage, the team is functioning well. The team solves problems
for the good of the business and team members. The team is involved in decision-
Any one of these stages can be the bottleneck that prevents teamwork from
becoming a motivator. Clearly, teamwork can fail to bring about synergy. The true test
of teamwork as a motivator is whether employees accomplish more working together
than they accomplish working alone.
Diversity in the Workforce
With increased employment of non-traditional workers whose values, cultures,
norms and experiences are unfamiliar to the employer, identifying dissatisfiers and
motivators becomes increasingly difficult. The opportunity to work overtime may be
perceived by the employer as a motivator while the employee perceives it as a
dissatisfying interruption of plans to attend an auto race with friends. Having the
opportunity to eat lots of cold pizza, listen to loud music and drink large quantities of
soda at 10:00 p.m. may seem to be a dissatisfier to the employer but a motivator to
teenage employees. Giving an employee the opportunity to “read” an instruction manual
for a new piece of equipment may be highly frustrating and dissatisfying to the
functionally illiterate adult worker even though the employer thought it would be a
Chalking the Field
We have all participated in sports and watched sports on television. When we
watch a baseball, basketball, soccer or other game we know what the field of play is,
what the rules of the game are and which team is winning. We also have officials who
enforce the rules of the game and provide consequences – fouls, time in the penalty box,
ejection – when those rules are not followed.
In your business there is no automatic standard set of rules of the game, definition
of winning or penalty for not following the rules. One of the employer’s responsibilities
in the motivation partnership is to define the field, outline the rules of the game and
determine when individuals and the team are “winning.” We call this chalking the field.
The employer must also be the “official” in the sense that he or she provides the
consequences when the rules of the game are not followed or the expectations are not
Now think about a game where the players do not know the rules or the official is
not enforcing the rules or the official is enforcing the rules inconsistently. When this
happens, the players become very frustrated and the game is less well played and less
interesting to watch. Sometimes the players become so frustrated that there are many
ejections or fights break out.
Now think about the employer’s role in chalking the field for the employees.
When they do not know what is expected and the consequences are not consistently
implemented, employees become frustrated and lose their motivation to “play the game.”
Having motivated employees is a highly worthy goal for any employer. No
human resource challenge likely exceeds worker motivation in importance or potential
for employer and employee satisfaction. We have presented a nontraditional approach –
making motivation a partnership challenge. We have made satisfaction of worker needs,
positive reinforcement and removal of impediments to motivation a joint responsibility of
employer and employee