Explaining employee motivation and a lack of

Employee motivation is complex. One description of why employee motivation is so difficult for leaders is called Equity Theory. Equity Theory deals with one’s perception of how fair his/her efforts and rewards are in comparison to those efforts and rewards of certain others. As we go through our work life, we look at others around us and compare what we put into our work and our career progression with theirs. These comparisons include salary, promotions, benefits, number of hours worked, experience level, stress levels, status, and level of independence among others. If the comparison of our efforts and rewards is equal to others around us, we tend to be motivated. If our efforts and rewards are less than those of others around us we tend to take action.

People try to put their situation back in equilibrium with their comparison person. If they judge their career to be deficient to their comparison person, they may do one of five things. First, they may work harder to improve their situation. Second, they may work less so their efforts are in line with their compensations and rewards. Third, they may change their attitude and be satisfied with what they are receiving and the level of energy they are putting into their work. Fourth, they may change their comparison person and choose someone else who is more in line with their present compensation and rewards. Finally, they may try to change the inputs or outputs of the comparison person by getting him/her to slow down or by sabotaging his/her career.

For example, let’s say Joe and Sally work together. Joe has worked for the company for 15 years being promoted through the ranks over the years. Joe is usually the first into the office and the last to leave. Sally, on the other hand, was hired off the street two years ago after completing a degree at Marietta College. She typically works the minimum hours that the company requires.

Last week, Joe learned through the grapevine that Sally as a new hire made $5,000 more than he did. He, of course, was upset. According to Equity Theory, Joe thought about what he contributes to the job, his 15 years of experience and his overtime each day, and his outputs of a lesser salary. He compared them to Sally’s inputs, little experience and an eight-hour workday, and her outputs, $5,000 more a year in salary. The comparison demotivated Joe. Joe thought to himself, “If Sally is going to get more money and only work eight hours, I’m going to work for only eight hours and take longer breaks.”

This comparison process is an unconscious or conscious process we go through, which results in low or high motivation. If I judge my efforts and career variables as being equal to my friend’s, I am motivated. If I judge myself to be behind my friend’s career in the above variables, I feel bad about my situation. This is not a simple explanation of motivation but it may describe the low or high motivation of your employees.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s new book, “And my Brother Jack: Everyday Leadership Lessons,” visit his website raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears weekly on the Business page.


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