I have always been intrigued with the complicated concept of motivating employees within an organisation. Since there are a few issues running around in our current organisation, I figured it was the right time to look back on an article I had written about a year ago.
The article attempts to explore the impact of various aspects of motivation that are influential in a professional environment. Narrowing down the focus to the effects of ‘ownership’ and ‘loyalty’, as drivers of motivation. The notion of ownership and its varying definitions are considered from the perspectives of both, the employer and the employee, and will attempt to understand the discrepancies between the two.
The ideas are presented in the context of a small start-up company in India, citing well known theories that have previously approached the concept of motivation. The aim is to critically analyse these theories with specific relevance to the company and its work environment in the attempt to understand the reasoning behind the varying levels of motivation among the employees.
The company and its work culture
Brand Harvest Consultancy (BH) is a small start-up core branding company in India that I joined in the capacity of a Strategist. The company, in its fourth year now, has a small team of twenty employees. BH is a privately held firm run by a senior advertising professional with over 16 years of industry experience. As with most start-ups with a small team, the working environment adopted an informal culture. This encouraged creativity and instilled thought leadership within the team. Employees were challenged to contribute beyond the job description and take the initiative to get involved in cross-functional activities. This atmosphere inspired a sense of camaraderie which extended well beyond the office space. I believe that the team size served as a strength and this must be owed to the MD’s initiative to undertake regular team building activities involving every employee.
During my tenure in BH, there were many lessons to be learnt in management. One of the key aspects was that of employee motivation. In a situation like ours, one would believe that the burden of a lower salary or the lack of a well defined job structure with little potential for promotion would have a perceptible impact on an individual’s performance and hence, on motivation. However, my observations showed a significant deviation from this norm. The level of motivation I witnessed in a few employees was remarkable with some even placing the companies goals in line with their own personal ambitions.
However, not every individual expressed this belief in attitude and there was a noticeable disparity in the levels of motivation between the employees. This inequality could be observed throughout the hierarchy of the organisation. What was further interesting, was that there was no evident commonality in the job features between the two groups, the motivated and the unmotivated respectively.
Analysis of theories
According to the “Equity Theory” by Adams (1963, 1965), employees are motivated to act if there is a sense of inequity or if the individual perceives the situation to be unfair. It focuses on the actions that one might take when faced with such inequity, driven primarily towards financial inequity. The theory could possibly explain the lower levels of motivation amongst some employees. However, since there are others with similar situations who are motivated, it would be unfair to rely excessively on the equity theory for justification. McGregor (1960) in his “Theory X” is in accordance with Adams with regard to financially incentivising the employee to gain higher levels of motivation. However, given the relatively low remuneration within the company, the theories are unable to provide any conclusive evidence to support the situation in BH. One of the biggest criticisms that the
two theories stated above endured is that they both rely heavily on just one aspect of employee needs and ignore potentially more important influences. Trying to understand and explore these other aspects would give us a better comprehension of the dichotomy of the situation within the company.
Since an individual plays many roles in society there are different forces working simultaneously; family, work, friends, society are all factors influencing motivation. “The Inner Work Life theory developed by Amabile and Kramer (2007) argues that our behaviour and work performance are influenced by the way in which our perceptions, motives and emotions interact with each other, triggered by everyday events” (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2010, p.277). There are two interesting aspects of the theory, the influence of “the self – role in team, project and organisation” and “emotions – happiness and pride”. When the theory is applied to BH we can understand that people who feel a sense of belonging and believe they have an important role to play within the company, portray a higher level of motivation. Such a positive and emotional belief in the organisation can perhaps be directly attributable to higher productivity. Furthermore, psychological research has shown that there is a close link between cognition and emotion – and each one has a strong impact on the other(Bower, Forgas, Niedenthal (Eds.)). However, the theory only gives reason to the higher motivation, but still fails to reason the lack of it, given equality in situation within the work environment.
Influence of investment in motivation: The Investment Theory
Rusbult (1980), brought in the concept of “investment” within motivation. She explains that the motivation of an individual to remain committed would depend on the level of investment made. Although her research dealt with relationships between individuals and not relations between an employee and his/her company, we can attempt to draw parallels within context. Let’s take the example of the MD of the company. He has invested his life’s savings, time, physical and emotional energy to make the company a success. Keeping with the investment theory, there certainly is a high level of investment to stay motivated and make the company successful.
Furthermore, when we look at employees who have had a long standing relationship with the company and have maybe even been around since inception, we do find a high correlation between the investments made and the levels of motivation of those employees. However, in the case of relatively newer employees, the theory breaks down. According to the theory, newer employees should experience lower motivational levels in comparison as their investment quotients are lesser. However, stating my own personal example, I observed quite the contrary. Many newer employees were equally motivated to make a contribution and in some cases, this desire surpassed the levels of motivation in some of the older employees.
The investment theory, although aptly, only partially explains the varying levels of motivation amongst the employees at BH. When an individual invests in form of equity within a company, there is a higher sense of motivation to make the company work as compared to other investments and this in legal terms gives the individual “ownership” of the company.
Importance of ownership
Managers now use employee-ownership as a tool to inculcate motivation, primarily in the form of equity linked incentives within the company; the most common is in the form of profit sharing. A strategy such as this allows the company to place its financial well being in line with the individual’s personal financial goals, thereby increasing one’s productivity and motivation. However, the concept of ownership has a myriad of meanings in the minds of the employee and the legal documented form is only one among many. One psychological study of ownership concludes: “culturally and behaviourally grounded conceptions of ownership may not coincide with explicitly legalistic conceptions.” (Rudmin and Berry, 1987, p.257)
According to the above definitions, there are many factors apart from the legal, where, the employees take psychological ownership of the company. According to an “ownership and motivation” study (Ownership Associates Inc, 2001), there are broadly five major aspects by which an employee is likely to define ownership, “Financial Payoff, Participation, Influence, Community, Fairness” (Ownership Associates Inc, 2001). If we were to take a closer look at the findings we can see that three of the five main factors relate to an employee’s contribution to management decisions and a sense of belonging within a community. Since we are dealing with a company which is small in employee strength and given the nature of the work culture described earlier, all three factors serve as possible explanations and within BH they were indeed a reality. When a majority of the factors contributing to motivation are satisfied, there is a sense of ownership of the company within the minds of the employees leading to higher motivation levels.
However, perceived ownership and/or equity linked ownership of the company does not ensure that BH would retain its valuable employees within the highly competitive industry. Thus, one of the most important ways in which a company can protect its human resources is by instilling a sense of loyalty towards the organisation.
Importance of loyalty
Let me introduce the role of loyalty with an example. A small software start-up company in Bucharest developed an anti-virus software in the 90’s. However, in 2003 the company sold the product to Microsoft. During the buy-out, all managers and technicians were given an opportunity to join Microsoft in departments of their choice. This could have been perceived as a dream job, moving from a small company to a well-established brand, but only 10 per cent of employees defected (Condon, 2007). The example above shows the understated power of loyalty, wherein the employees of a smaller firm refused to defect for better prospects, as the employees wanted to witness and contribute to their “own” company’s growth.
Ajit Rao, a market researcher and author, argues that employee loyalty is one of the most important aspects of business productivity. One aspect of his research is of particular importance in our understanding of motivation – “emotional loyalty” (Rao, 2006). He defines emotional loyalty as “the positive disposition that an employee has towards the organisation, the “feel-good” element or how psychologically wedded the employee is to the organisation” (Rao, 2006, p.34). Within BH, most of us believed that the company’s problems and success was our own and this motivated us to work harder to achieve our collective goals. Rao would suggest that our team expressed a high sense of emotional loyalty towards the organisation. Hence, as we can see from the example above and from BH, loyalty plays a vital role not only in the ability to retain employees but also to boost productivity of the employees within an organisation.
Having analysed the various theories in light of my experience at Brand Harvest, I am moved to the realisation that there are multiple layers and dimensions to motivation that may influence employee behaviour. However, some factors seemingly have a stronger bearing over the others. Arguably, factors that are more intrinsic in nature eclipse those that may be considered more extrinsic. A sense of ownership, an intuitive loyalty and the feeling of belonging within a community are some factors that I believe have a very strong influence over an individual’s behaviour within the work space. Financial equity and designation certainly shape one’s choices but perhaps play a secondary role to the intrinsic core.
The “Investment Theory” (Rusbult, 1980), offers an excellent perspective on the higher levels of motivation portrayed by employees who have been with the company for a longer time. This, in combination with the theory of ownership and the importance of employee loyalty helps immensely in our understanding of the varying levels of motivation across the organisation
However, there are other groups of people who seem relatively less motivated. Since every individual’s motivational needs are different, it is vital for BH to understand these varying needs. Employees portraying a noticeable lack in motivation prove to be hurdles that could hinder the growth of the company. A lack motivation severely influences productivity negatively and might even weigh down the company’s morale. There are a few processes that BH can implement that might address these specific problems. One might introduce one-on-one dialogue along with a structured feedback mechanism between the managers and the employees to better understand the individual’s unique concerns. Exercise more “hand-holding” with people who experience lower levels of motivation, making them feel like a part of the team by involving them in more decision making processes. Provide training programs to ensure that they know their value is respected within the organisation.
To conclude, although theories of motivation have helped structure my understanding of the situation within BH, there are many questions which need answering that deal with other controllable aspects such as the impact of leadership, teams and working environment. It would also be interesting to implement some of the concepts of motivation and see if they boost the overall motivational levels of the company.
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