# Process-Based Theories

### Learning Objectives

1. Explain how employees evaluate the fairness of reward distributions.
2. List the three questions individuals consider when deciding whether to put forth effort at work.
3. Describe how managers can use learning and reinforcement principles to motivate employees.
4. Learn the role that job design plays in motivating employees.
5. Describe why goal setting motivates employees.

In contrast to the need-based theories we have covered so far, process-based theories view motivation as a rational process. Individuals analyze their environment, develop reactions and feelings, and react in certain ways. Under this category, we will review equity theory, expectancy theory, and reinforcement theory. We will also discuss the concepts of job design and goal setting as motivational strategies.

## Equity Theory

Imagine that your friend Marie is paid $10 an hour working as an office assistant. She has held this job for six months. She is very good at what she does, she comes up with creative ways to make things easier in the workplace, and she is a good colleague who is willing to help others. She stays late when necessary and is flexible if asked to rearrange her priorities or her work hours. Now imagine that Marie finds out her manager is hiring another employee, Spencer, who is going to work with her, who will hold the same job title and will perform the same type of tasks. Spencer has more advanced computer skills, but it is unclear whether these will be used on the job. The starting pay for Spencer will be$14 an hour. How would Marie feel? Would she be as motivated as before, going above and beyond her duties?

If your reaction to this scenario was along the lines of “Marie would think it’s unfair,” your feelings may be explained using equity theory. According to this theory, individuals are motivated by a sense of fairness in their interactions. Moreover, our sense of fairness is a result of the social comparisons we make. Specifically, we compare our inputs and outputs with someone else’s inputs and outputs. We perceive fairness if we believe that the input-to-output ratio we are bringing into the situation is similar to the input/output ratio of a comparison person, or a referent. Perceptions of inequity create tension within us and drive us to action that will reduce perceived inequity. This process is illustrated in the Equity Formula.

Figure 14.10 The Equity Formula

## Individual Differences in Reactions to Inequity

So far, we have assumed that once people feel that the situation is inequitable, they will be motivated to react. However, does inequity disturb everyone equally? Researchers identified a personality trait that explains different reactions to inequity and named this trait equity sensitivity. Equity sensitive individuals experience distress when they feel they are overrewarded or underrewarded and expect to maintain equitable relationships. At the same time, there are some individuals who are benevolents who give without waiting to receive much in return and entitleds who expect to receive a lot without giving much in return. Thus, the theory is more useful in explaining the behavior of equity sensitive individuals, and organizations will need to pay particular attention to how these individuals view their relationships.

## Fairness Beyond Equity: Procedural and Interactional Justice

Equity theory looks at perceived fairness as a motivator. However, the way equity theory defines fairness is limited to fairness regarding rewards. Starting in the 1970s, researchers of workplace fairness began taking a broader view of justice. Equity theory deals with outcome fairness, and therefore, it is considered to be a distributive justice theory. Distributive justice refers to the degree to which the outputs received from the organization are fair. Two other types of fairness have been identified: Procedural justice and interactional justice.

Let’s assume that Marie found out she is getting a promotion that will include a pay raise, increased responsibilities, and prestige. If Marie feels she deserves to be promoted, she would perceive high distributive justice (“getting the promotion is fair”). However, Marie later found out that the department manager picked her name out of a hat! What would she feel? She might still like the outcome but feel that the decision-making process was unfair since it wasn’t based on performance. This response would involve feelings of procedural injustice. Procedural justice refers to the degree to which fair decision-making procedures are used. Research shows that employees care about procedural justice for many organizational decisions, including layoffs, employee selection, surveillance of employees, performance appraisals, and pay decisions. They tend to care about procedural justice particularly when they do not get the outcome they feel they deserve. If Marie does not get the promotion and finds out that management chose the candidate by picking a name out of a hat, she may view this as adding insult to injury. When people do not get the rewards they want, they tend to hold management responsible if procedures are not fair. Research has identified many ways of achieving procedural justice. For example, giving employees advance notice before laying them off, firing them, or disciplining them is perceived as fairer. When designing a performance appraisal system or implementing a reorganization, asking employees for their input may be a good idea because it increases perceptions of fairness. Even when it is not possible to have employees participate, providing explanations is helpful in fostering procedural justice. Finally, people expect consistency in treatment. If one person is given extra time when taking a test while another is not, individuals would perceive decision making as unfair.

Now let’s imagine Marie’s boss telling her she is getting the promotion. The manager’s exact words: “Yes, Marie, we are giving you the promotion. The job is so simple that we thought even you can handle it.” Now what is Marie’s reaction? The unpleasant feelings she may now experience are explained by interactional justice. Interactional justice refers to the degree to which people are treated with respect, kindness, and dignity in interpersonal interactions. We expect to be treated with dignity by our peers, supervisors, and customers. When the opposite happens, we feel angry. Even when faced with negative outcomes such as a pay cut, being treated with dignity and respect serves as a buffer and alleviates our stress.

Employers would benefit from paying attention to all three types of justice perceptions. In addition to being the right thing to do, justice perceptions lead to outcomes companies care about. Injustice is directly harmful to employee psychological health and well-being and contributes to stress. High levels of justice create higher levels of employee commitment to organizations, are related to higher job performance, higher levels of organizational citizenship (behaviors that are not part of one’s job description but help the organization in other ways such as speaking positively about the company and helping others), and higher levels of customer satisfaction, whereas low levels of justice lead to retaliation and supporting union certification movements.

## Expectancy Theory

According to expectancy theory, individual motivation to put forth more or less effort is determined by a rational calculation. According to this theory, individuals ask themselves three questions.

Figure 14.11 Summary of Expectancy Theory

The first question is whether the person believes that high levels of effort will lead to desired outcomes. This perception is labeled as expectancy. For example, do you believe that the effort you put forth in a class is related to learning worthwhile material and receiving a good grade? If you do, you are more likely to put forth effort.

The second question is the degree to which the person believes that performance is related to secondary outcomes such as rewards. This perception is labeled as instrumentality. For example, do you believe that passing the class is related to rewards such as getting a better job, or gaining approval from your instructor, from your friends, or parents? If you do, you are more likely to put forth effort.

Finally, individuals are also concerned about the value of the rewards awaiting them as a result of performance. The anticipated satisfaction that will result from an outcome is labeled as valence. For example, do you value getting a better job or gaining approval from your instructor, friends, or parents? If these outcomes are desirable to you, you are more likely to put forth effort.

As a manager, how can you influence these perceptions to motivate employees? In fact, managers can influence all three perceptions. To influence their expectancy perceptions, managers may train their employees, or hire people who are qualified for the jobs in question. Low expectancy may also be due to employees feeling that something other than effort predicts performance, such as political behaviors on the part of employees. In this case, clearing the way to performance and creating an environment in which employees do not feel blocked will be helpful. The first step in influencing instrumentality is to connect pay and other rewards to performance using bonuses, award systems, and merit pay. Publicizing any contests or award programs is helpful in bringing rewards to the awareness of employees. It is also important to highlight that performance and not something else is being rewarded. For example, if a company has an employee-of-the-month award that is rotated among employees, employees are unlikely to believe that performance is being rewarded. In the name of being egalitarian, such a reward system may actually hamper the motivation of highest performing employees by eroding instrumentality. Finally, to influence valence, managers will need to find out what their employees value. This can be done by talking to employees, or surveying them about what rewards they find valuable.

## Reinforcement Theory

Reinforcement theory is based on the work of Ivan Pavlov in behavioral conditioning and the later work B. F. Skinner did on operant conditioning. According to this theory, behavior is a function of its consequences. Imagine that even though no one asked you to, you stayed late and drafted a report. When the manager found out, she was ecstatic and took you out to lunch and thanked you genuinely. The consequences following your good deed were favorable, and therefore you are more likely to do similar good deeds in the future. In contrast, if your manager had said nothing about it and ignored the sacrifice you made, you would be less likely to demonstrate similar behaviors in the future, or your behavior would likely become extinct.

Despite the simplicity of reinforcement theory, how many times have you seen positive behavior ignored or, worse, negative behavior rewarded? In many organizations, this is a familiar scenario. People go above and beyond the call of duty, and yet their behaviors are ignored or criticized. People with disruptive habits may receive no punishments because the manager is afraid of the reaction the person will give when confronted. They may even receive rewards such as promotions so that the person is transferred to a different location and becomes someone else’s problem! Moreover, it is common for people to be rewarded for the wrong kind of behavior. Steven Kerr labeled this phenomenon as “the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B." For example, a company may make public statements about the importance of quality. Yet, they choose to reward shipments on time regardless of the number of known defects contained in the shipments. As a result, employees are more likely to ignore quality and focus on hurrying the delivery process.

## Reinforcement Interventions

Figure 14.12 Reinforcement Methods

Reinforcement theory describes four interventions to modify employee behavior. Two of these are methods of increasing the frequency of desired behaviors while the remaining two are methods of reducing the frequency of undesired behaviors.

Positive reinforcement is a method of increasing the desired behavior. Positive reinforcement involves making sure that behavior is met with positive consequences. Praising an employee for treating a customer respectfully is an example of positive reinforcement. If the praise immediately follows the positive behavior, the employee will see a link between behavior and positive consequences and will be motivated to repeat similar behaviors.

Negative reinforcement is also used to increase the desired behavior. Negative reinforcement involves removal of unpleasant outcomes once desired behavior is demonstrated. Nagging an employee to complete a report is an example of negative reinforcement. The negative stimulus in the environment will remain present until positive behavior is demonstrated. The problem with negative reinforcement may be that the negative stimulus may lead to unexpected behaviors and may fail to stimulate the desired behavior. For example, the person may start avoiding the manager to avoid being nagged.

Extinction occurs when a behavior ceases as a result of receiving no reinforcement. For example, suppose an employee has an annoying habit of forwarding e-mail jokes to everyone in the department, cluttering up people’s in-boxes and distracting them from their work. Commenting about the jokes, whether in favorable or unfavorable terms, may be encouraging the person to keep forwarding them. Completely ignoring the jokes may reduce their frequency.

Punishment is another method of reducing the frequency of undesirable behaviors. Punishment involves presenting negative consequences following unwanted behaviors. Giving an employee a warning for consistently being late to work is an example of punishment.

## Reinforcement Schedules

In addition to types of reinforcements, the timing or schedule on which reinforcement is delivered has a bearing on behavior. Reinforcement is presented on a continuous schedule if reinforcers follow all instances of positive behavior. An example of a continuous schedule would be giving an employee a sales commission every time he makes a sale. Fixed ratio schedules involve providing rewards every nth time the right behavior is demonstrated, for example, giving the employee a bonus for every 10th sale he makes. Fixed interval schedules involve providing a reward after a specified period of time, such as giving a sales bonus once a month regardless of how many sales have been made. Variable ratio involves a random pattern, such as giving a sales bonus every time the manager is in a good mood.

A systematic way in which reinforcement theory principles are applied is called Organizational Behavior Modification (or OB Mod). This is a systematic application of reinforcement theory to modify employee behaviors. The model consists of five stages. The process starts with identifying the behavior that will be modified. Let’s assume that we are interested in reducing absenteeism among employees. In step 2, we need to measure the baseline level of absenteeism. In step 3, the behavior’s antecedents and consequences are determined. Why are employees absent? More importantly, what is happening when an employee is absent? If the behavior is being unintentionally rewarded, we may expect these to reinforce absenteeism behavior. For example, suppose that absences peak each month on the days when a departmental monthly report is due, meaning that coworkers and supervisors must do extra work to prepare the report. To reduce the frequency of absenteeism, it will be necessary to think of financial or social incentives to follow positive behavior and negative consequences to follow negative behavior. In step 4, an intervention is implemented. Removing the positive consequences of negative behavior may be an effective way of dealing with the situation, for example, starting the monthly report preparation a few days earlier, or letting employees know that if they are absent when the monthly report is being prepared, their contribution to the report will be submitted as incomplete until they finish it. Punishments may be used in persistent cases. Finally, in step 5 the behavior is measured periodically and maintained. Studies examining the effectiveness of OB Mod have been supportive of the model in general. A review of the literature found that OB Mod interventions resulted in an average of 17% improvement in performance.
Figure 14.14 Stages of OB Modification

## Job Design

Many of us assume that the most important motivator at work would be pay. Yet, studies point to a different factor as the major influence over worker motivation: Job design. How a job is designed has a major impact on employee motivation, job satisfaction, commitment to organization, as well as absenteeism and turnover. Job design is just one of the many organizational design decisions managers must make when engaged in the organizing function.

The question of how to properly design jobs so that employees are more productive and more satisfied has received managerial and research attention since the beginning of the 20th century.

## Scientific Management and Job Specialization

Perhaps the earliest attempt to design jobs was presented by Frederick Taylor in his 1911 book Principles of Scientific Management. Scientific management proposed a number of ideas that have been influential in job design. One idea was to minimize waste by identifying the best method to perform the job to ensure maximum efficiency. Another one of the major advances of scientific management was job specialization, which entails breaking down tasks to their simplest components and assigning them to employees so that each person would perform few tasks in a repetitive manner. While this technique may be very efficient in terms of automation and standardization, from a motivational perspective, these jobs will be boring and repetitive and therefore associated with negative outcomes such as absenteeism. Job specialization is also an ineffective way of organizing jobs in rapidly changing environments where employees close to the problem should modify their approach based on the demands of the situation.

## Rotation, Job Enlargement, and Enrichment

One of the early alternatives to job specialization was job rotation, which involves moving employees from job to job at regular intervals, thereby relieving the monotony and boredom typical in repetitive jobs. For example, Maids International, a company that provides cleaning services to households and businesses, uses job rotation such that maids cleaning the kitchen in one house would clean the bedroom in another house. Using this technique, among others, the company was able to reduce its turnover level. In a study conducted in a supermarket, cashiers were rotated to work in different departments. As a result of the rotation, employee stress level was reduced as measured by their blood pressure. Moreover, they reported fewer pain symptoms in their neck and shoulders. Job rotation has a number of advantages for organizations. It is an effective way for employees to acquire new skills, as the rotation involves cross-training to new tasks; this means that organizations increase the overall skill level of their employees. In addition, job rotation is a means of knowledge transfer between departments. For the employees, rotation is a benefit because they acquire new skills, which keeps them marketable in the long run.

## Job Characteristics Model

The job characteristics model is one of the most influential attempts to design jobs to increase their motivational properties. Proposed in the 1970s by Hackman and Oldham, the model describes five core job dimensions, leading to three critical psychological states, which lead to work-related outcomes. In this model, shown in the following figure, there are five core job dimensions.

Figure 14.16 Job Characteristics Model

Skill variety refers to the extent to which the job requires the person to use multiple high-level skills. A car wash employee whose job consists of directing employees into the automated carwash demonstrates low levels of skill variety, whereas a car wash employee who acts as a cashier, maintains carwash equipment, and manages the inventory of chemicals demonstrates high skill variety.

Task identity refers to the degree to which the person completes a piece of work from start to finish. A Web designer who designs parts of a Web site will have low task identity because the work blends in with other Web designers’ work, and in the end, it will be hard for the person to claim responsibility for the final output. The Webmaster who designs the entire Web site will have high task identity.

The mere presence of feedback is not sufficient for employees to feel motivated to perform better, however. In fact, in about one-third of the cases, feedback was detrimental to performance. In addition to whether feedback is present, the character of the feedback (positive or negative), whether the person is ready to receive the feedback, and the manner in which feedback was given will all determine whether employees feel motivated or demotivated as a result of feedback.

## Goal Setting Theory

Goal setting theory  is one of the most influential and practical theories of motivation. It has been supported in over 1,000 studies with employees, ranging from blue-collar workers to research and development employees, and there is strong evidence that setting goals is related to performance improvements. On the basis of evidence such as this, thousands of companies around the world are using goal setting in some form, including companies such as Coca-Cola, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Nike, Intel, and Microsoft to name a few.

## Setting SMART Goals

The mere presence of a goal does not motivate individuals. Think about New Year’s resolutions that you may have made and failed to keep. Maybe you decided that you should lose some weight but then never put a concrete plan in action. Maybe you decided that you would read more but didn’t. Why did you, like 97% of those who set New Year’s resolutions, fail to meet your goal?

Accumulating research evidence indicates that effective goals are SMART. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Here is a sample SMART goal: Wal-Mart recently set a goal to eliminate 25% of the solid waste from its U.S. stores by the year 2009. This goal meets all the conditions of being SMART if we assume that it is an achievable goal. Even though it seems like a simple concept, in reality many goals that are set within organizations may not be SMART. For example, Microsoft recently conducted an audit of its goal-setting and performance review system and found that only about 40% of the goals were specific and measurable.

## Why Do SMART Goals Motivate?

Figure 14.17

Why do SMART goals motivate?

There are at least four reasons why goals motivate. First, goals give us direction; therefore, goals should be set carefully. Giving employees goals that are not aligned with company goals will be a problem because goals will direct employee’s energy to a certain end. Second, goals energize people and tell them not to stop until they reach that point. Third, having a goal provides a challenge. When people have goals and when they reach them, they feel a sense of accomplishment. Finally, SMART goals urge people to think outside the box and rethink how they are working. If a goal is substantially difficult, merely working harder will not get you the results. Instead, you will need to rethink the way you usually work and devise a creative way of working. It has been argued that this is how designers and engineers in Japan came up with the bullet train. Having a goal that went way beyond the current speed of trains prevented engineers from making minor improvements and urged them to come up with a radically different concept.

## Are There Downsides to Goal Setting?

As with any management technique, there may be some downsides to goal setting. First, setting goals for specific outcomes may hamper employee performance if employees lack skills and abilities to reach the goals. In these situations, setting goals for behaviors and for learning may be more effective than setting goals for outcomes. Second, goal setting may motivate employees to focus on a goal and ignore the need to respond to new challenges. For example, one study found that when teams had difficult goals and when employees within the team had high levels of performance orientation, teams had difficulty adapting to unforeseen circumstances. Third, goals focus employee attention on the activities that are measured, which may lead to sacrificing other important elements of performance. When goals are set for production numbers, quality may suffer. As a result, it is important to set goals touching on all critical aspects of performance. Finally, aggressive pursuit of goals may lead to unethical behaviors. Particularly when employees are rewarded for goal accomplishment but there are no rewards whatsoever for coming very close to reaching the goal, employees may be tempted to cheat.

None of these theories are complete by themselves, but each theory provides us with a framework we can use to analyze, interpret, and manage employee behaviors in the workplace, which are important skills managers use when conducting their leading function. In fact, motivation is important throughout the entire P-O-L-C framework because most managerial functions involve accomplishing tasks and goals through others.

### Key Takeaway

Process-based theories use the mental processes of employees as the key to understanding employee motivation. According to equity theory, employees are demotivated when they view reward distribution as unfair. In addition to distributive justice, research identified two other types of fairness (procedural and interactional), which also affect worker reactions and motivation. According to expectancy theory, employees are motivated when they believe that their effort will lead to high performance (expectancy), that their performance will lead to outcomes (instrumentality), and that the outcomes following performance are desirable (valence). Reinforcement theory argues that behavior is a function of its consequences. By properly tying rewards to positive behaviors, eliminating rewards following negative behaviors and punishing negative behaviors, leaders can increase the frequency of desired behaviors. In job design, there are five components that increase the motivating potential of a job: Skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback. These theories are particularly useful in designing reward systems within a company. Goal-setting theory is one of the most influential theories of motivation. To motivate employees, goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely). Setting goals and objectives is a task managers undertake when involved in the planning portion of the P-O-L-C function.

### Exercises

1. Your manager tells you that the best way of ensuring fairness in reward distribution is to keep the pay a secret. How would you respond to this assertion?
2. What are the distinctions among procedural, interactional, and distributive justice? List ways in which you could increase each of these justice perceptions.
3. Using an example from your own experience in school or at work, explain the concepts of expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.
4. Some practitioners and researchers consider OB Mod as unethical because it may be viewed as employee manipulation. What would be your reaction to this criticism?
5. Consider a job you held in the past. Analyze the job using the framework of job characteristics model.
6. If a manager tells you to “sell as much as you can,” is this goal likely to be effective? Why or why not?