What specific factors will motivate employees to perform most productively? This question—or innumerable variations thereof—has, arguably, prompted more
research related to workplace psychology than any other issue. This was the query that prompted Elton Mayo to conduct his celebrated studies at the Hawthorne Works of Cicero, Illinois, in the 1920s. This question also initiated the theorizing of Frederick Herzberg, whose “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” (originally published in 1968) is the most reprinted article in the history of Harvard Business Review. Thirty-one years later, this question suffuses the work of Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, whose First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently (1999) explores how the Gallup Organization developed a 12-question survey intended to measure an individual employee’s extent of “engage- ment” with his or her job. This survey remains today an assessment tool used by cor- porations worldwide and is readily available on the Internet (use Google search term: “Gallup Q12 Questionnaire”). Of course, countless other researchers—perhaps num- bering in the thousands since the early 20th century—have joined this quest for the psychological Grail of employee motivation. And, as with the Grail of Arthurian legend, the search has never resulted in satisfactory resolution.
The vast corpus of motivation studies has identified many variables responsible for employee motivation; unfortunately, no consensus among researchers has been achieved. Mayo, for example, stated that peer pressure at the workplace is a critical factor. Herzberg maintained that, while traditional motivators such as salary and qual- ity of supervision may lead to job satisfaction, only certain feelings—including feel- ings of achievement and recognition—are true motivators. Buckingham and Coffman
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concluded that engaged employees are individuals whose interests and skills have been identified and activated by attentive, perceptive supervisors. However, despite the diverse array of theoretical insights emerging from these and related studies, employers still await findings that will transform desultory (if satisfied) workers into fully engaged employees who bring to their jobs a passionate concern for excellence and service.
Nancy Schullery’s article, published in this issue of Business Communication Quarterly, partially explains the failure of workplace satisfaction/motivation/engagement theorists to deliver a conclusive answer to the question posed earlier. The answer is deceptively simple: The age of an employee and the generational cohort to which the employee belongs may illumine those values most responsible for causing the indi- vidual to become emotionally engaged with a job. Herzberg, writing in the 1960s and for several subsequent decades, focused on intrinsic factors (subjective feelings expe- rienced by an employee) as genuine motivators; Schullery indicates that this may be valid for the baby boomer generation (persons born between 1946 and 1964). By con- trast, Buckingham and Coffman—and other employee engagement theorists—main- tain that an extrinsic variable, quality of supervision, is the most reliable predictor of engagement. The evidence marshaled in Schullery’s article could explain this turn to the extrinsic in generational terms: Millenials (employees born between 1982 and 1999) are more likely to be motivated by extrinsic rewards, such as salary and benefits, than are baby boomers. In other words, psychological studies of motivation may be measuring only the historically (and perhaps culturally) relative values prevalent among employees at the time the research is conducted. Thus, the findings of Mayo, Herzberg, and Buckingham and Coffman are not necessarily inconsistent or invalid; rather, the validity of these findings is time sensitive. Schullery maintains that four generations currently occupy the American workplace and that each generally adheres to slightly differing values. It is the problem of managers—no mean feat—to recognize these values and to develop assignments and projects that will most effec- tively engage the identified values.
Schullery asserts that the concept of “engagement” extends beyond the workplace; it is also a useful notion for teachers of business communication. Because Millennials tend to display adherence to specific work-related values (e.g., those associated with extrinsic rewards), instructors can design assignments and lesson plans that focus on those values. Schullery also identifies several teaching tools—each available in a prior issue of Business Communication Quarterly—intended to build on engaging values. By appealing to these values, instructors (and managers) are more likely to gain the emotional involvement of Millennials.
Schullery’s paper was presented originally at an Association for Business Communication–sponsored panel convened at the Corporate Communication International Conference, held in June 2012 at Baruch College in New York City. We wish to thank Michael Goodman, Director of Corporate Communication International and a regional vice president of ABC, for providing an opportunity to attend and contribute to this important annual venue.
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Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Herzberg, F. (2008). One more time: How do you motivate employees? Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press. (Reprinted from Harvard Business Review, January/February 1968)
Sam H. DeKay, Section Editor, is a vice president for corporate communications at BNY Mellon Corporation in New York City. He is also an adjunct assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education, St. John’s University, Jamaica, Queens, New York.
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