UNDERSTANDING THE BASIS OF EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

​​Dr. Frederick Herzberg’s Foundational Work on Engagement

Background

Dr. Frederick Herzberg (1923 – 2000) Professor of Psychology, Professor of Management, International Consultant and influential researcher/behavioral psychologist pertaining to employee motivation, is regarded as the original architect of what is now termed “employee engagement”. Dr. Herzberg successfully identified and dissected the leading influences on employee attitudes, motivation and engagement over a period of 50 years. His detailed findings are published in “The Motivation to Work”, “Work and the Nature of Man” and summarized in the #1 reprinted Harvard Business Review article “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees?’ 

Herzberg identified two sets of primary influencers on behavior- related to productivity: Hygienic and Motivational Factors. Hygienic dealing with dissatisfaction and disengagement, and Motivational dealing with internally driven passions that fuel engagement and associated positive discretionary effort. 

Herzberg was educated at the City College of NY (where he interacted with Ken Scarlett Sr. after WWII - both former Army Sergeants) and later received his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh. He became a Professor at Case Western Reserve and later at the University of Utah’s College of Business. 

Findings:


Dr. Herzberg’s life-work studying employee motivation and what would eventually become known as “engagement” was heavily influenced by his experiences as a Patrol Sergeant during WWII. His unit liberated prisoners at the infamous Dachau concentration camp and afterwards he was assigned the duty of interviewing guards, freed prisoners and area residents. He reasoned that the root cause of people cooperating with the Nazi program of extermination of other people was the absence of opportunities to be involved in meaningful work that provided purpose and strengthened character. Thus, he set his life on a path to understand and promote meaningful work and organizational relationships which motivates people from within.

Herzberg’s research challenges assumptions that employees are motivated solely by money and other tangibles. Or, that the opposite of employee dissatisfaction is satisfaction. Or, that motivation can be externally applied. He found that while low pay and subpar working conditions could make employees so dissatisfied they become disengaged and perform below standard, fixing those “dissatisfiers” was not enough to engage or “satisfy” them to the point of  stimulating their internal motivation to sustainably increase work effort. 

He found that to truly motivate and engage employees, organizations need to first neutralize these "dissatisfiers" and then institute management practices that enable employees to achieve, have the freedom to be responsible for best outcomes, be recognized for achievements, and have personal growth and advancement opportunities. He termed this group of “dissatisfiers”, hygienic factors, because those negative experiences are like physical wounds that hurt and require cleaning and healing.  Healing those wounds or removing those pains do not internally inspire employees to do an excellent job. It just stops the pain. 

His conclusion is that management can eliminate hygienic conditions that cause dissatisfaction/disengagement and separately, management can create conditions that internally motivate and engage employees. But, they require two different techniques of management. The payoff of managing in this way is meaningful work for the employee, and for the employer, reduction of negative events, consistent conscientious effort, reduction in top talent defection, higher revenue per employee and less direct supervision.

“True motivation comes from achievement, personal development, job satisfaction and recognition – but you have to get all the hygienic things neutralized first.” - Ken Scarlett 

Employee Experiences that Influence Engagement 

Dr. Herzberg’s breakthrough book “The Motivation to Work” details the results of his studies to find a universal set of factors that most affect employee motivation in the workplace. Through extensive use of employee surveys conducted with engineers, accountants and shop floor associates his research team discovered that there are two different sets of employee needs operating at work which profoundly influence attitudes and behavior. Herzberg’s considerable preparatory investigations and the open design of the research enabled his team to gather and analyze a sophisticated level of cause-and-effect attitudinal data. This in turn led his team to identify a list of satisfying conditions which most often resulted in employees becoming predisposed to peak performance. Herzberg’s research used open-ended questions and few limiting assumptions to collect and analyze “critical incidents” that led to certain attitudes and behaviors. His research methodology was assisted by the eventual Director of the American Institute for Research, John Flanagan, who developed the Critical Incident method used successfully in WWII for Army personnel selection. Herzberg then compared his team’s results to a meta-analysis of 155 previous research studies of job attitudes over a 34 year period to draw reliable conclusions about the motivation to work.


Findings: 

Herzberg arrived at a list of job factors that have the most lasting attitudinal influence on employee motivation and behavior. Employee experiences with these factors have a short or long term effect on their attitudes and intensity of effort. They are interrelated. They can be statistically measured by surveying employees. In sum, employee experiences with these job factors shape their attitudes which in turn, drive their planned and unplanned behavior in the workplace.

According to the Institute for Scientific Information “The original study has produced more replications than any other research in the history of industrial and organizational psychology.” 

Herzberg’s books “The Managerial Choice” and “Herzberg on Motivation” detail 15 of the most influential “job attitude factors” which are acquired through employee experiences. He concludes these job attitude factors can be proactively managed so employees become emotionally connected to the organization (engaged) and feel fulfilled performing their work. When the preponderance of attitudes towards these 15 factors are positive, employees become internally motivated to consistently do their best work. 

What Really Motivates and Engages Us at Work. 

Herzberg was the first to show that employee engagement and dissatisfaction at work were caused by two different sets of experiences and were not simply opposites. In addition to identifying a universal set of job attitude factors that most influence employee willingness to perform, Herzberg’s breakthrough centerpiece of  motivational research is “employee experiences that satisfy [engage] people are different than those that dissatisfy them”. They are not opposites. If you remove the experiences that are causing dissatisfaction, employees do not become engaged. They are just no longer dissatisfied. If you try to engage people without first neutralizing the "dissatisfiers", you fail. They can’t get past the “hurting” or the “noise” of dissatisfaction.  He proved that “ job satisfiers” are employee experiences that deal with factors in doing the job, whereas ”job dissatisfiers” deal with factors that define the job context. Therefore, these factor sets should be managed differently to produce different outcomes. 

“Idleness, indifference and irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work.” - Dr. Frederick Herzberg 

The following graphic shows how these two sets of job attitude factors operate:

EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT SERIES

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Dr. Herzberg summarized his Hygiene - Motivation Research findings with this biblical example” Adam after his expulsion from Eden having the need for food, warmth, shelter, safety, etc. – the hygiene factors [dissatisfiers]; and Abraham, capable and achieving great things through self-development – the motivational factors [satisfiers].” 

While Herzberg is most noted for his expansive work on employee dissatisfaction, motivation to work and the mechanics of engagement, he was essentially concerned with the wellbeing of people at work. His shocking experience unpacking the inhumanity of Hitler’s concentration camps, focused his life’s pursuit to bring more humanity and caring into the workplace. He did not develop his research to simply be used as a management motivational tool to improve organizational performance. He sought to teach others how to lead properly for the good of all working people and the stability of civilization; to become “Eupsychian” leaders for the benefit of both employee and employer. 

His research proves that employees strive to achieve “hygiene” needs first because they are unhappy without them, but once these needs are satisfied the positive quid pro quo effect soon wears off.  Hygiene is temporary. He found that employees become emotionally attached to the organization (engaged) through positive experiences with job attitude factors that Herzberg identified as “motivators” - but only after hygienic needs are neutralized. When both sets of hygienic and motivational job attitude factors are viewed positively, employee discretionary efforts favor the organization - the employee is intrinsically motivated, the employee is engaged to the welfare of the organization. 

“The most powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements.” - Dr. Frederick Herzberg 

Herzberg disproved that motivating employees requires giving rewards. Instead, Herzberg found that employees are internally motivated through feeling responsible for and being connected to their work. He proved that making the work itself rewarding, is fundamental to motivation and employee engagement. He showed that designing jobs to be enriching for both the employee and the company is profitable for both parties.   

“If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.” - Dr. Frederick Herzberg 

Dr. Frederick Herzberg’s lifelong Motivation to Work studies provides the basis for understanding, measuring and managing employee engagement. He successfully identified the 15 job attitude factors which most influence our intrinsic motivation to consistently do our best work; and which drive employee engagement at its core.

“It is only when a person has their own generator that we can talk about motivation. He then needs no outside stimulation. He wants to do it.” - Dr. Frederick Herzberg

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Author’s Note:
Scarlett Surveys has surveyed over 15 million employees over 54 years and has empirically validated the 15 drivers of engagement, developed by Dr. Frederick Herzberg, with their Associate Engagement Research (AER™) employee engagement survey instruments, worldwide.

"What is Employee Engagement?" is the most viewed and quoted White Paper on employee engagement.  Ken can be reached at Ken.Scarlett@ScarlettSurveys.com. 


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