4 Ways Marriage can help explain Employee Motivation Theories

A person handing flowers to someone.Having worked in the field of Learning & Development/Organizational Development for many years, I’ve repeatedly seen initiatives in our field as being “add ons” to the “real” work that will get looked at if time permits or even worse, “fluff” that isn’t really helping the organization achieve it’s goals. Yet, time and again organizations all over the world aren’t getting the production efforts they’d like from their employees.  Often, we wonder why employees aren’t performing and either demand, discipline, terminate, or ignore the behaviours we see.

Preference in many businesses is to rely on quantative data rather than the soft and squishy business of employee development.  Yet, much of what we accept as scientific fact in our world today is really just scientific theory that’s been replicated time and time again.  My approach to L& D/OD is also science-based.  The theories I rely upon are from the world of behavioural and cognitive science and can be seen replicated time and time again in organizations throughout the world.  We just need to take a step back and take the time to see it.  In this article, I’ll try to use examples from everyday occurrences in marriage to explain motivation theories and relate them to our world at work.

1. Hertzberg’s Hygiene-Motivation Theory

Hertzberg identified two distinct factors in employees’ work – hygiene factors and motivating factors.  These were distinct and played very different roles in employee engagement.

Hygiene Factors Motivating Factors
salary enjoyment of work
policies recognition
benefits career progression
work relationships

So think back to a time when you were dating (or maybe still are!).  What did you look for in a prospective relationship?  Did they have a good job?  What were the “rules” of the relationship – could you drop by anytime or did you feel you needed to make more formal arrangements?  What benefits were there?  Did they have a nice car, house, great family?  What about the relationship?  Friendly, comfortable?  According to Hertzberg, these are the kinds of things that keep us from being dissatisfied, but don’t move us forward or keep us engaged in the relationship.  Alternately, think about someone who made you feel that tingle of excitement to just be with them.  How did they make you feel?  Special?  Could you see the relationship progressing to something more?  Hertzberg believed that these are motivating factors and lead to increased engagement and satisfaction.  Think about relationships that ended – what led to the end?

How do we relate these to the business world?  Hygiene needs are things people expect at work.  They don’t lead to increased engagement, but they tend to be where most organizations focus.  Remove a hygiene factor, and employees will tend to become dissatisfied because you’re taking something they previously had  – despite your solid reasons for doing it.  It’s their perception of the event that will influence their reaction.  The danger of focusing on only increasing hygiene needs is that you’ll get disengaged employees who won’t leave because it’s comfortable, just like that nice, reliable boyfriend who doesn’t make you tingle.

To really engage employees, think about whether they’re doing work they really enjoy – could they be happier and more productive to the organization doing something else?  How are you recognizing employees?  It can’t just be through formal recognition programs – it needs to be through genuine, personal interaction.  Lastly, do they see options for progression or are they stuck in that endless relationship that seems to go nowhere?

2.  Vroom’s Expectancy Theory

Expectancy Theory looks at how employee’s determine the amount of effort to put into work.  It’s based on 3 factors:

Expectancy: Will my effort meet the desired goal?
Instrumentality: Will I be rewarded if I meet the goal?
Reward: Do I value the reward?

So, picture this:  it’s Saturday morning and your spouse asks you to clean the bathroom so that you’ll have time to go (shopping, the football game, etc.).  Has this monologue ever gone through your head?  “Hmmm…every time I clean the bathroom, they come in afterward and criticize how I’ve done it and redo it anyway.  And why hurry – to go (shopping, football game, etc)?  I hate doing that!  Well, I’m just going to lay in bed a while longer  and then do a quick wipe over it, because I can’t do it right anyway”.  How many times does this kind of thing happen in relationships and we wonder why they’re not rushing to get it done!

Now, think about something you’ve asked your employee to do.  Do you know if they felt they could meet the goal?  Did they have the self-confidence, resources, time, to get it done or done well?  If employees feel that they won’t be able to meet the goal, they’ll expend less effort because they feel it’s fruitless.  What reward awaits them if they finish?  And is it something they value?  Many times we don’t take the time to reward employee effort and if we do, we assume that the same reward should be meaningful for all.  Expectancy theory doesn’t absolve employees from accountability to perform well in their jobs, but the employment contract infers a relationship between the employee and employer.  In relationships, both parties need to be accountable for it to succeed.  And as we saw with Hertzberg, recognition increases motivation, so make sure the recognition you give is something the employee values.

3.  Adam’s Equity Theory

According to Adam’s Equity Theory, employee’s adjust their performance based on fairness.  They’ll be motivated if they feel their effort is equal to their rewards.  If they feel they’re putting more effort than they’re being paid for, they’ll be demotivated.  Furthermore, if they feel they’re rewarded less for doing the same amount of work or more work than others, they’ll be unmotivated and productivity will falter.

Let’s look at this scenario.  You and your spouse have been driving an old car for years.  You decide to buy a newer used vehicle. You spend hours looking on the internet at dealerships, finding car reviews, and sending your spouse emails of the cars you like.  Your spouse emails and tells you which ones they’d like to look at.  You text the sellers’, often many times, to arrange meetings.  Your both go to test drive the cars and you follow up on the ones that interest you both.  Finally, you decide on a vehicle, make the purchase, and your spouse proceeds to tell you they want to drive it for the first week to get the feel for it.  How do you react?

How does this play out in the workplace?  How often do employees from one department grumble about those employees in another department who “do nothing” or think their department has “unique” needs?  These are probably manifestations of Adam’s Equity Theory in action.  Again, in reality (based on compensation methods and quantifiable data) their rewards are equitable for the work they do.  However, if employees perceive inequity, their performance and engagement may decline.  Again, rewards don’t have to be monetary and they may not be the same for all employees.  Often, regularly offering small tokens that individual employees value can go further than salary or benefit increases.  But, don’t just start doing it after they feel their sense of equity has been violated – it’s a quick way to lose trust and seem disingenuous – it should become part of your regular leadership practice.

4.  McGregor’s X Y Theory

McGregor’s Theory centres around the basis of human nature.  He suggests that individuals hold one or two views of people:

Theory X Theory Y
people work as little as possible people aren’t passive, want to work and achieve
people want to be directed and don’t like responsibility people long for responsibility
people are self-serving and care little for their organizations people are invested in their organization’s success
people are generally not very smart people are smart and can direct their own behaviour

Think about driving in a car (or for that matter, unloading the dishwasher, making dinner, etc.).  As you drive, your spouse is in the passenger seat (or hovering over you) and telling you when to slow down, questioning the route you picked, and correcting the way you lane change.  How do you react?  You may get angry and tell them to shut up, you may withdraw and stop talking, or you may stop the car and tell them to do it themselves.  Then, have you ever had your spouse question why you’re in such a bad mood?  Think about how the drive would go if they sat beside you, showing interest in you, showed appreciation for your driving them?  How would your reaction change?

This Theory links decreased motivation to Theory X and increased motivation to environments that believe in Theory Y.  Which type of organization are you?  Do you have a lot of rules for how to do things, are employees trusted or do they have to report in for many things, are they given opportunities to fail and learn?  Or are they scolded and fear mistakes?  Interestingly, I don’t think many organizations realize the messages they’re sending to their employees through their policies, procedures, and management styles.  However, yet again, if employees perceive they aren’t valued and they’re being closely monitored and directed, their motivation levels decrease and they become more disengaged.


Many things in organizations can be assessed using quantifiable data and using it to make decisions is smart business in most areas – but not in areas involving employee motivation and engagement.  Looking at the scientific theories, people’s perception of events trumps the objectivity of how decisions were made when it comes to employee motivation.  We can use the realm of neuroscience to explain this occurrence.  At the very base level, information flows through peoples’ emotional centre of the brain before moving to the logic centre of the brain.  Therefore, employees’ emotions and perceptions need to be addressed before they can rationally process events.  If people can’t get past the emotion, they stay in a constant state of fight or flight and feel constant levels of anxiety, decreasing their ability to perform at their best.  Investing in efforts to improve employee motivation makes smart business sense as it reduces demands on benefits and sick leave, turnover, as well as increasing productivity.  Providing rewards and recognition, treating people like they are responsible, and providing goals that are attainable shouldn’t be seen as being nice, or even “soft” on accountability.  It’s about increasing organizational productivity and is backed by science.  How can you afford not to pay attention to it?

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