The subject of motivation has been centre stage in organisational and managerial thought throughout the second half of the last century. If we understand what motivates people, and in particular if we understand what motivates people to work hard and to work well, we can arrange for those who turn up on time and who do perform well to receive more of what they value, and for the latecomers and poor performers to receive less. Unfortunately, understanding the links between desirable behaviour and rewards is not easy.
For a given ability level, performance can vary widely, depending on the effort the employee chooses to exert. You can probably think of a job situation in which you have chosen to work extremely hard, and another set of circumstances when you felt inclined to put rather less into the job.
There are a number of theories concerning the motivation of man, all of which are based upon assumptions — largely unproved — about the nature of man. These theories have tended to reflect the dominant mood, opinion or philosophy in society at the time. For example, rationalism has been the dominant philosophy in the West for the last two centuries or so. This philosophy is based on the notion that all problems will yield to logical examination eventually. This has encouraged the astonishing growth of science in the last three centuries. It has also led to ‘scientific management’, manifested in the work of F W Taylor and Henry Ford, and given us work study, the assembly line, division of labour, and so on.
Currently, the philosophy is changing rapidly. Modern management thinking is based on a belief that organisations resemble living organisms more closely than they do machines; that is that they are best examined as systems. The systems approach can be regarded as stemming from an attempt by biologists to ‘fight back’ against the prestigious physical sciences shortly after the Second World War. They argued that the highly reductionist...