Measuring Motivational Factors that Affect Work Performance

Measuring motivational factors that affect work performance

ISE Magazine April 2020 Volume: 52 Number: 4

By Adam Cywar


This is the third of three articles that addresses the age-old question of what drives the performance levels manifest in completing work, taken from my book, Factors That Affect the Performance of Work.

The first article in the October 2019 issue of ISE ( concluded with some of the most obvious items that can drive performance levels up and down. The second in January ( laid out the major inputs that led up to what I consider to be the most significant factor affecting performance levels. I call this factor the IRA index, which has nothing to do with retirement plans.

This final article packages the thinking and research that went into the creation of the IRA index, plus some ideas on how to use it as well as other suggestions regarding the less important factors.

How the IRA Index works

Taking the Hawthorne outputs by Elton Mayo and the ideas presented by Daniel Pink described in the January article, plus the experiments of many others, the concept of self-determination takes formal shape in the work known as self-determination theory (SDT), credited to professors Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan of Rochester University. SDT is a macro theory of human motivation and personality that concerns people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs. It is concerned with the motivation behind choices people make without external influence and interfer-ence. SDT focuses on the degree to which an individual’s behavior is self-motivated and self-determined.

In the 1970s, research on SDT evolved from studies comparing intrinsic and extrinsic motives and from growing understanding of the dominant role intrinsic motivation played in an individual’s behavior. But it was not until the mid-1980s that SDT was formally introduced and accepted as a sound empirical theory. Research applying SDT to different areas in social psychology has increased considerably in the 2000s.

Key studies that led to the emergence of SDT included research on intrinsic motivation, which refers to initiating an activity for its own sake because it is interesting and satisfying in itself, as opposed to extrinsic motivation, which is doing an activity to obtain an external goal. Different types of motivations have been described based on the degree they have been internalized. Internalization refers to the active attempt to transform an extrinsic motive into personally endorsed values and thus assimilate behavioral regulations that were originally external.

Deci and Ryan later expanded on the early work differentiating between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and proposed three main intrinsic needs involved in self-determination. According to their theory, these three psychological needs motivate the self to initiate behavior and specify nutriments that are essential for an individual’s psychological health and well-being. These needs are said to be universal, innate and psychological and include the need for competence, autonomy and psychological relatedness.

Recalling the findings of Mayo in the Hawthorne Experiments described in the January article and Pink’s explorations, the resemblance to the words of Deci and Ryan in SDT is quite amazing. There is more than coincidence at work here.

Taking the data from Hawthorne, Pink and self-determination theory plus my own experiences, I propose the use of a factor called IRA composed of three elements:

  1. Indispensability. This element, it can be argued, is not an element in the sense that it can’t be seen or felt by the five senses. It might be regarded as a “sixth” sense but it is more important than any of the other elements that affect the productivity of the worker. Behaviorists have many ideas and theories in this regard. My experience has been that workers who strongly feel their work is essential to the success of the business are the most productive. How to imbue this sense of indispensability is the challenge a manager faces every working day. If the manager does not do this, the worker – in most cases – will not respond.
  2. Remuneration. Depending on the type of work being performed, there are several ways of paying employees. Salary, flat rate hourly and incentive systems are the most common, along with variations that include company stock, stock options, etc. Coupled with this is the structure of the performance evaluation system. Many systems do not differentiate the rewards enough between levels of performance. In those cases, the difference between pay increases for outstanding performance and those for average performance are minimal. This acts in a way that leads top performers to find another job.
  3. Ambience. This factor encompasses items such as workplace layouts, cleanliness of facilities, heat, light, safety, security, etc. It may also include the attitudes and behaviors of co-workers.

Each of these elements is manageable by itself but should be measured as a group. This measurement that I call the IRA Index clearly depicts performance level. The chart in Figure 1 explains this more fully.

The range of IRA scores would be a high of 36 and representative of highly productive employees down to a low of 12, which would probably be indicative of poorly performing workers. The numbering scheme is purposely skewed to reflect the Hawthorne effect

The chart in Figure 2 gives an example for someone who is about in the middle of the IRA range, a 24 out of the maximum of 36.

Ideally, an organization that has all employees with an IRA score of 36 would be a manager’s dream. That is not very likely, but the use of the IRA test on a periodic basis with all employees can provide insights and highlight items that management can use to help improve many of the factors that affect the performance of work.

Address employees’ mental, physical health

The myriad other factors that will impact job performance can be considered either primarily physical or mental in nature.

The mental factors affecting performance have an impact before any of the physical factors come into play. Very simply, if someone has a very low IQ and is assigned the task of designing a complex piece of machinery, their performance will likely be poor no matter how high their IRA Index is or how much they are enthusiastic about their work.

Mental factors for purposes of this discussion are those driving forces that stir an individual to want at all costs to be successful. These people get to the point of interviews usually because of high IQs, grade-point averages near 4.0, significant honors or awards or other work achievements. Be careful, though; I once had an employee with all of these characteristics who had not been promoted from a nearentry level position in 15 years. He simply could not work within the “system” and could not adjust to large corporate life.

I have found that over and above the drive for success at all costs, it is good to get a feel for how an individual discerns the people in their life outside of work. A discussion about outside activities, sports, family, etc., can give you a feel for whether an individual would make a good team player, if that is what you want. You may be looking for a more inward style to focus on complex design issues, for example (see accompanying article).

Beyond the mental factors, the primary physical factors are those which have already been mentioned as part of the ambient element in the IRA factor. It has been my experience that cleanliness and safety in the workplace are very important.

The shift from the traditional family structure of husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker and mother leads to the growing importance of factors that take into consideration the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, family leave options for new dads and the ability to work from home or other remote locations.

Ideas to enhance worker wellness

Wellness factors are gaining much importance as the wellness and mind connection becomes more and more apparent. When employees are healthy, they are happier and can work up to their full abilities. According to a Society for Human Resource Management ( study released in 2015, “Every dollar invested in wellness intervention yielded $6 in health care savings.” Wellness programs can be rolled out for a small investment and can include programs such as the following:

Onsite wellness services. Chair massages, meditation sessions, yoga instruction, acupuncture and more can be valuable wellness services that can be offered at low cost to employees.

Free healthy snacks. Employee break areas and meeting rooms should be stocked with plenty of healthy lowfat snacks instead of salty or sugary ones.

Walking and bike paths. It costs next to nothing to establish an area around the company building for walking or biking.

Destress zones. Every office needs at least one “safe” area where employees can cry, vent or unwind after a particularly tough day without the embarrassment of losing their composure in front of peers.

Employee assistance programs. These lowcost programs give employees the ability to call a caring counselor about any area of their work or personal life to get confidential support when they need it the most.

Water coolers. Water is essential for a healthy mind and body, so your office should provide fresh water at all times.

Corporate health discounts. There are many ways to pass corporate health discounts on to employees for local gyms, YMCAs and health product vendors.

Fitness room. Establish a workout area in one large office in your workplace by investing in secondhand gym equipment, floor mats and a smoothie bar.

Catered lunches. Employees may skip meals or make unhealthy meal choices when they are too busy or stressed out.

Ergonomic workstations. A lowcost way to maintain employee wellness is creating workstations that include back-supporting chairs, lots of natural lighting and decluttered desks.

Exercise clubs. Make the workplace fun and encourage employees to get up and moving with exercise clubs for walkers, runners and those who love organized sports.

Employee incentives. When employees make the ultimate choice to get healthy, lose weight or break a bad habit, they often respond well to incentives like peer recognition, movie tickets and reduced health insurance costs, things you can support.

Cooking classes. Talk to local restaurants and universities to see if there is a professional chef willing to come in to conduct a cooking class for your employees.

Wellness technology. There are many free and lowcost wellness apps and web tools for managing weight, blood pressure, diabetes, stress, smoking cessation and more; be sure to provide access to these to your employees.

Health libraries. Create a corporate library that includes plenty of books on health and wellness topics or add a digital health library to your company website for health information ondemand.

Wellness workshops. Along with health cooking classes, you can invite various health and wellness vendors and practitioners in your area to conduct wellness workshops in a “brown bag” lunch format.

Health and wellness fair. Take this to the next level by planning an annual health and wellness fair that groups dozens of wellness and health practitioners, vendors, and services into one big area onsite.

Management retreats. Your management team faces a lot of pressure all the time, so it’s important to give members the support they need to lead by example.

Stair challenges. If your building has stairs, challenge your employees to use them instead of elevators with stair step challenges.

Breakroom games. Gaming can help employees reduce the tension from their workdays.

Group outings. Company picnics, team building and other group outings can be very beneficial to employee well-being.

Food coop. Work with farmers and produce groups to bring in healthy fruits and veggies as part of a company wide food coop program at least once a month.

Paid voluntary insurance. Voluntary benefits can be very inexpensive and provide just the wellness support employees need.

Corporate rewards. While you are developing a wellness program for employees, remember that a rewards-based system often produces more favorable results.

Paid time off. Offering employees the ability to take much needed time off with pay doesn’t have to cost a lot. Give them at least one PTO day that they can use for whatever they want to do for themselves.

Volunteer days. Once a quarter, gather your employees and get them involved in a community wide cleanup day or some other type of volunteer service.

Pets at work. Stress is a No. 1 killer in the workplace, and pets have been shown to reduce stress dramatically.

24/7 nurse hotline. Having fast access to medical advice is a low cost option that can be included in a corporate wellness program.

Using data in hiring, maintaining performance, employees’ satisfaction

I would suggest several possible paths for using this information about factors that affect performance.

First, where practical, the best use of this data is certainly in the hiring process. If you hit a home run here, you won’t have to call on the factors later to resolve batting slumps or fielding errors. Unfortunately, the home runs here will be similar in occurrence to the frequency of real home runs on the baseball diamond. An important thing to remember is not to get discouraged when you don’t have a lot of hiring home runs. That is one of the chief reasons for this treatise.

Second, using this information as part of an ongoing day-to-day communication vehicle is probably the best way to build a solid “marriage” with an employee. I use the word “marriage” nearly in the literal sense because the most successful managers I have found build “marriages” with their employees. That is, they develop an open, honest relationship that resembles a happily married couple.

This relationship is best maintained by having regular discussion sessions that can cover any topic, work issues or problems, personal items, etc. There is no agenda for these sessions; nonjudgmental listening is critical. It’s best to have these closed door, do-not-disturb sessions as frequently as possible. Weekly is the best, monthly is not as effective and less frequently than that is not worth doing at all. If you are too “busy” to engage in the level of communication suggested, your employees will in all likelihood never become home run hitters.

Third, the IRA Index is a great way to assess employee satisfaction. Used in conjunction with the human resource opinion surveys, or even in lieu of them, it is a convenient way to track the pulse of an organization across time. Tracking the elements within the index can be very useful for spotting areas that need action plans for improvement.Some of the new ideas and concepts such as the IRA Index will be quite radical in the eyes of the “establishment” and may evoke some chuckles and guffaws. When you get that kind of reaction you could be well on the way to making a significant improvement to the business.

 Source: IISE Magazine April 2020