Going Beyond the Two-factor Theory to Motivate and Engage Employees

having a meeting

Business owners will explore myriad options to improve performance and obtain their desired results. Advances in data analytics offer a wealth of insights into a business’s different aspects that could translate to a competitive edge.

Yet, no matter which direction you take, you’re still going to rely on your people to get things done. Thus, it could be argued that even in an increasingly technology-driven world, employee engagement continues to make a critical difference.

What exactly is employee engagement? For the individual, it is a state of mind wherein they are fully absorbed, focused, and energized by their work. Consequently, it has two-way benefits. The employee derives a sense of fulfillment, while the organization they work for reaps the value of their discretionary effort.

Understandably, companies now place a premium on engagement. But the study of this effect goes back several decades. A landmark study by behavioral scientist Frederick Herzberg in 1959 gave rise to his ‘two-factor theory’ of motivation, which continues to offer key insights to today’s business leaders.

The two factors of motivation

Herzberg conducted interviews with 200 engineers and accountants, asking them to identify and rate various workplace events and their effect on job satisfaction. The study yielded valuable insights into how managers could motivate people and drive better performance.

First, the opposite of job satisfaction isn’t dissatisfaction. It is ‘no satisfaction.’ People can feel neutral about their jobs. Likewise, the opposite of dissatisfaction is ‘no dissatisfaction.’ In an employee’s words, this might translate to “can’t complain.”

Hygiene matters, and not only in the sense of having a rubbish removal service clear out a facility’s waste. Herzberg used the term ‘hygiene factors’ to collectively refer to aspects of a job that potentially impact job dissatisfaction. They include the likes of compensation and benefits, administrative policies, job security, physical working conditions, and interpersonal relationships.

The second set of factors in this model is called ‘motivators.’ These are the elements that directly impact job satisfaction and make people more motivated. They cover familiar aspects such as recognition, growth opportunities, added responsibility, and meaningful work.

employee happy at his job

Applications and limitations

The two-factor theory has been widely recognized as a useful model for understanding and driving employee motivation. It allows managers to recognize different scenarios influencing employees at work and act accordingly.

Hygiene factors and motivators function independently. Ideally, you have both high hygiene and motivation. You want to avoid scoring low on both counts. But what if you were to survey your employees and obtain mixed results?

Low motivation and high hygiene often mean that employees feel fairly treated and adequately compensated. They will show up for work but don’t feel inclined to go the extra mile and demonstrate little loyalty.

High motivation and low hygiene, on the other hand, often indicate overworked employees. They may enjoy greater growth and responsibility but are at risk of burning out and may not be paid well enough to offset their job demands.

Despite its usefulness, however, the two-factor theory has its limitations. Herzberg was criticized for a narrow sample of employees studied. Subsequent research has identified intrinsic and extrinsic components to each factor, which can complicate attempts to manage employees using this model alone.

Blue-collar workers, a group notably omitted in Herzberg’s study, may not find adequate motivation or hygiene in the work they do, regardless of other factors. On the other hand, highly-educated people tend to land in positions with a lot of intrinsic motivators. Overall, the two-factor model oversimplifies workplace situations and individual relationships that can have multiple layers of meaning.

Personalized leadership

The two-factor theory was interpreted as putting the manager’s role in driving employee engagement. This is correct, but especially in today’s world, different reasons are underlying that importance.

Leaders can account for the many variables that may interact or hold larger weight depending on the individual. They have to remember that employees don’t add motivators and hygiene factors to determine if the balance is positive or negative.

Sometimes, a job could offer many factors considered desirable but have one thing that’s a deal-breaker for a specific person. Other jobs might have so many undesirable characteristics yet prove to be a good fit for certain people.

It’s the leader’s job to understand these aspects of their employees’ work, along with the unique personalities of each individual. Two-factor theory can prove useful in this endeavor. Just keep in mind that it’s only one tool in your arsenal of management techniques and skills. It should supplement, not replace, personalized leadership.

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