Who is Responsible for Your Motivation?


Shifting attitudes about worker motivation show that we put more responsibility on the worker to motivate himself or herself, rather than expecting the job to motivate the worker. It wasn’t always this way.

People used to believe that if you wanted to increase a worker’s motivation, you had to make the work better. One of the leading theories about worker motivation in the 1960s (Herzberg, Mausner, & Snyderman, 1959 and Herzberg,1966; cited in Hackman & Oldham, 1976) said that a job would be highly motivating if it provided the employee recognition, responsibility, personal growth opportunities, and other benefits to employees. Now it’s very much the other way around. Today’s employees are expected to motivate themselves.

This change could be in part due to the increase in knowledge work. With knowledge work, as opposed to manual labor, organizations have increased expectations of employees. The “work” often is the employee, after all. It’s whatever comes out of his or her brain. With manual labor, the work is the process of making the finished product. It’s turning screws and painting detail and polishing veneers.

But it’s important not to lose sight of the job’s role in increasing worker motivation, as it does play some part. As theories have developed over the years, we’ve seen how external motivators, such as bonus pay, often fall short of producing the desired results, namely greater returns for the employer. That’s not to say, however, that we shouldn’t consider how the employee and job interact at all.

J. Richard Hackman studied this very interaction between worker and job. In his later years, Hackman, who died in 2013, became well known for his research on teamwork, particularly for showing how teamwork often fails to achieve desired results. In the 1970s, however, Hackman and co-author G. R. Oldham (1976) developed a theory that examined three psychological states of the worker in relationship to her work:

  1. Experienced Meaningfulness of the Work. The degree to which the individual experiences the job as one which is generally meaningful, valuable, and worthwhile;
  2. Experienced Responsibility for Work Outcomes. The degree to which the individual feels personally accountable and responsible for the results of the work he or she does;
  3. Knowledge of Results. The degree to which the individual knows and understands, on a continuous basis, how effectively he or she is performing the job.”

Before we castigate workers for not thoroughly motivating themselves, let’s keep in mind the relationship that grows between employees and their tasks. Is there something about the tasks or larger work that allows the worker to experience its meaningfulness? And are workers being shown results of their efforts, because if they are not, how are they to feel responsibility for the outcomes?


Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 16: 250-79.

Image by ILO Asia Pacific, CC


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