Employee Engagement Initiatives: Is this Just Another Layer of Perfume Being Sprayed on the Pig?

Have you ever read anything by Derek Irvine? He writes the Globoforce Blog and I usually catch his pieces on Human Capital League. I love Derek’s writing, concise, lucid and spot on when it comes to employee recognition.

Today I was reading Derek’s piece entitled “Paying Bonuses” – When Will We Ever Learn?” As is often the case I was flowing right along with Derek, “Yes, you are right about that, glad you mentioned that, couldn’t agree with you more” etc., etc. I wasn’t far into the piece when suddenly a couple of words hooked me and sent me reeling.  In speaking about the folly of many annual bonus programs he said, among other things, “The challenge with them tends to arise when bonuses become an entitlement.”

Whoa! The room started to spin, back, back back! Suddenly it was 1972 and I was in the classroom , Kedzie Hall at Michigan State and we were discussing an article that was making its way around the graduate programs in Labor Relations at the time and causing quite a stir. The article, “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees?” authored by Frederick Herzberg, had been published in Harvard Business Review in 1968.

In his article, considered a breakthrough in thinking for the times, Herzberg argued that if employers were truly interested in motivating employees they must realize the distinction between what he called Movement and Motivation. At that time, often as not employers relied on tools that were external to employees in hopes of spurring performance, Herzberg called this Movement. He labeled these tools as extrinsic motivators, Hygiene Factors, a bit of a sterile term but this was after all 1968! He stated that these factors, external to the employee, had little to do with motivation and were in fact not dissatisfying at best.

Herzberg went on to label another category of factors as the true Motivators for employees and all these were in fact internal and idiosyncratic to an individual employee.

Here’s How Herzberg saw the world of Motivation:


So now here we are and it is 2010, forty two years since Herzberg published his landmark piece and I am reading a blog post about the folly of many bonus programs!

Right after Derek’s article I see a comment from Doug Shaw, who regularly writes pieces I really like in his blog, ‘Stop Doing Dumb Things to Customers’ and he says to Derek, “…I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever learn….but then I read your good stuff and I am heartened that some folk do get it and are making changes to business practice…” and Derek responds with “…I agree — collectively, we are making great strides in changing business practices…”, and I gag!  Sorry guys, with all due respect, forty-two years seems like a long time to keep doing something that doesn’t work. I admire both your enthusiasm and perseverance.

I suspect the attachment to bonuses has more to do with what matters most to senior management than it does to what works! They do like their bonuses.

Just how long will it be before we accept the premise Herzberg distinguished for us all those years ago? Like a lot of other things, not everyone wants to hear that the world is not flat…say the people in the extrinsic motivation industry for example. Coffee cups, hats, key chains anyone!



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