Motivating Critical Talent To Perform

Employees must be motivated to contribute to meeting organizational objectives by performing at a high level.

There is an abundance of research that supports the power of rewards to motivate performance. Of course that same research suggests employees must believe rewards are based on performance and that the rewards are equitable, competitive and appropriate. Occasionally claims are made that extrinsic rewards can negatively impact the intrinsic rewards experienced by employees. But these conclusions are generally based on laboratory research unrelated to the world of work, and there is no evidence the results are generalizable to the field.

The three most widely researched behavioral theories related to motivation are expectancy theory, equity theory and reinforcement theory. The model shown above incorporates all of these theories, suggesting there are four pre-requisites for performance the employee must:

  • Be able to do what is required
  • Be allowed to do what is required
  • Know what is required
  • Want to do what is required

There are numerous things an organization can do to motivate their employees to perform well. Research has found that “knowing what is expected” has the most impact on employee satisfaction and effectiveness. Although it is easy to claim employees clearly understand the criteria and standards used to evaluate their performance this is very often not the case. My experience with focus groups is that employees frequently admit they have a general idea of what is expected, but feel they lack the information necessary to give them confidence that they are on the same wavelength as their managers. Extensive research on goal setting and feedback establishes that a clear understanding and acceptance of stretch goals has more impact on motivation than most other factors. But even though an organization has a goal-based performance management system, much can get in the way of effectiveness.

Rewards practitioners should pay particular attention to how their programs impact the “wants to do it” pre-requisite. For example, if a high performer finds that the “consequences” of their contribution (pay increase, incentives) bear an uncomfortable resemblance to what poor performers received, it is unlikely there will be strong motivation for them to repeat the high level of performance. This situation is a common by-product of the “automatic step rate” systems that have been prevalent in many public sector organizations. The message sent, intended or not, is “stay employed, get a satisfactory performance appraisal and you get the same step increase as those who perform at much higher levels.” This is probably acceptable to those who perform at lower levels but those are rarely the employees an organization most wants to keep.

If individuals are to be motivated to do their best individually and to do their work in a manner that contributes to both the effectiveness of other team members and the effectiveness of the team, it is important to provide incentives to provide that motivation.


An excerpt from the article “Attracting, Retaining, and Motivating Critical Talent” Email to request a copy of the full article by Robert J. Greene, PhD, CCP, CBP, GRP, SPHR, GPH