The Nature of Motivation: A View From the Forest Floor

By Rose Epperson

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.”

– Albert Einstein

We are looking at business through a larger lens this year – focusing on the entire forest not the just the trees.   Taking a closer look at the bigger picture of why, how and what create success in our businesses and organizations.   Last issue I shared my thoughts on the “why” – our true “why” being defined as what makes us tick – our purpose, cause, belief.   Reminding all of us (myself included) the importance of mission and vision to the final product or service provided.   This issue I want to look at the “how”.


The “how” is the collection of values that inspire and guide behavior—the organization’s guiding principles. These layers of principles form your competitive advantage.  We often refer to these principles in the “organizing” and “influencing” function of management.    The “how” creates the mind-set that influences attitudes, drives behavior, and thus characterizes the organization and its employees. It’s not just what you do in life that matters; it’s how you do it that can make the difference.  We establish roles and procedures that keep us working toward common goals and quality service. Of course as managers we need to overlay management principals such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs coupled with new ideas to the equation to make sure we are utilizing the right keys for motivating employees and inspiring them to also focus on the forest.


A successful organization doesn’t just happen! Resources need to be arranged and the right people brought together in order for an organization to function effectively and efficiently. Organizing people in an ineffective way or treating them inappropriately can undermine even the greatest hopes and efforts for effective performance. The manager has responsibility for setting the stage by arranging structure for the organization and by setting policies and practices that bring together the best skills and efforts of people.  Having solid job descriptions and policies and procedures are the root of the “how”.    Establishing staffing needs and sharing the vision of “why we do what we do” leads to successful hiring.


Once employees are hired, it is important to provide them with tools to succeed. The orientation program can ease the entry of employees into a company so that they become fully functioning in the in the shortest time possible. Training provides employees with specific skills to enhance their job performance. Career development offers long-term growth so that employees can use their abilities to the maximum during their employment.   The performance appraisal system can help identify employee weaknesses that should improve through training and career development as well as strengths that may be channeled to better utilize the employee’s talents. The appraisal system may also provide important input to reward employees based on their relative contribution. The compensation system allocates pay based on the importance of the job and how well employees perform their assignments. A well-designed compensation system should also reward people for supporting the strategic goals of the company.


Identifying what drives your team may require you to look beyond your desk or office and look through the eyes of the employee.   Get out of the office and branch out.   A very significant part of every person’s life is spent on the job. So enjoying what you are doing there is very important for well being. Hence the factors that motivate and individual are very important.

There are many theories of management that have been introduced through time.  As an industry we’ve relied Maslow’s theory that people tend to satisfy their needs in a specified order, from the most to the least basic as a basis for motivation for decades.  Starting with basic physiological needs (such as food and shelter) and safety or security needs (as danger avoidance or job security) to the social needs (a sense of belonging), esteem needs (personal pride or status) and finally self-actualization, or to fulfill one’s potential.  Under this principal each lower order need has to be satisfied before the next higher level need becomes motivating. Stepping out of the norm may result in a new focus on keeping long term employees engaged and excited about where the company is heading.


Three big view ways to keep people engaged in the “how” are job enlargement, job rotation and job enrichment.  Job enlargement combines tasks into larger jobs; the intent is to make the job more varied and interesting by expanding its scope.  Job rotation moves workers from one task to another thus increasing the variety and complexity.  And job enrichment gives employees greater opportunities to plan, organize, and control portions of their job; the intent is to provide greater involvement, improved meaningfulness, and a greater sense of accomplishment.


Remember we are talking about stepping back and looking at all aspects of our businesses.  Enrichment doesn’t stop with the employees.  Develop your own conceptual skills as well.  The ability to grasp a big picture view of the overall organization, the relationship between its various parts, and its fit in the broader competitive environment will allow you to take your business to higher levels of success.   Ongoing, mostly spontaneous meetings between managers and their employees to discuss career goals, roadblocks, and available opportunities will keep everyone on the team green and growing.


And that is the nature of motivation.