When it comes to motivating people on a large scale, what does the research tell us about what works best?

In their book Organizational Behavior: Securing Competitive Advantage, John A. Wagner III and John R. Hollenbeck, both from Michigan State University, answer that question with an interesting quiz.

You are the leader of a large organization and you recognize that you need to improve the performance of your organization, but you are not sure about how to go about it. You decide to invite four consultants to look at your operation and suggest ways to improve it.

  • Consultant 1 studies your organization and tells you the problem is that many jobs today are so simple and monotonous that they offer employees no fulfillment. They are bored, unmotivated and some are even resentful. He suggests that you redesign jobs so that they are more complex, stimulating and fulfilling.
  • Consultant 2 does her own analysis and she decides that the problem is an absence of clear, challenging goals. Without these motivation and productivity suffer. She suggests that you launch a program of formal goal setting that reaches down to all levels of the organization.
  • Consultant 3 investigates your organization and he agrees with the findings of the first two consultants — but suggests that the best solution to productivity and motivation problems is the lack of a contingent payment program. He argues that “we get what we pay for,” and says that ways have to be found to regard people on the basis of their productivity. That’s not easy apart from manufacturing environments, and even there union work rules may make the effort difficult. But this consultant assures you that he can set up a sound system for you.
  • Consultant 4 looks at your operation and says that any or all of the approaches already suggested might help, but she is convinced that the solution to your problems of motivation — and thus productivity — are to allow employees to participate in decision making. It’s an approach that’s been tried at several major organizations and it should work for yours.

You’d like to recommend all four approaches for your organization, but you know that you have only enough resources to implement one of them. Which do you choose for best results?

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