A Reflection of the Impacts of Pandemic on the Utility of Motivation Theories

By Dr Goh Seh Kai

23 Oct 2020

We know motivation theories are useful to managers, and the ability to apply them to motivate workers is crucial to managers as well. During the current pandemic, I will like to reflect on how the pandemic has impacted the utility of motivation theories. Let us take a look at the concept of motivation and then followed by the impacts of the pandemic on the utility of motivation theories.

Concept of Motivation

If a worker is motivated, he/she is anxious and energetic in driving himself/herself towards work accomplishment. The cause of his/her motivation is due to human beings have needs which must be satisfied. We could motivate people if we know their current needs and strategize to satisfy them. For example, if workers are hungry now, managers can motivate them by allowing them to consume food on the condition that they must complete their task. Workers will be encouraged to complete their job fast so that that they can consume food for satisfying their needs. If workers are aspired to pursue a part-time degree study, then managers can motivate them by sponsoring their course fee instead of giving them monetary rewards. Hence, striving to meet the wrong needs of workers will not motivate them. Traditionally, managers could apply these motivation theories, such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory, Theory X and Theory Y, Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation and so forth to encourage their subordinates. As a consequence of the pandemic, it is worth reflecting on how it has impacted the utility of these theories.

The Impacts of Pandemic on the Utility of Motivation Theories

Order of Needs: according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, every human being has a hierarchy of five needs from the low-level to high-level, namely physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs. Each lower level of needs has to be satisfied before we could fulfil the next higher level of needs. The implication of this theory to managers is that they have to understand the current status of their workers’ needs before they can strategize how to motivate them. According to the theory, workers will need to satisfy their physiological needs and then followed by the safety needs, belongingness needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs. However, in the present pandemic, most workers are worried about jobs security and health safety. Hence, safety needs are higher than the belongingness needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs and become the most important in the hierarchy. The hierarchical order of the needs as advocated by Maslow’s theory has changed as a result of the pandemic since most people may have already satisfied their belongingness needs, esteem needs and even self-actualization needs. This phenomenon implies that the theory is generally valid but depend on the context.

Applicability of Theories: Most managers will find it more challenging to motivating their workers during the pandemic as compared with the pre-pandemic because of the poor business outlook. Except for some businesses, which have benefited from the pandemic, the majority of companies are struggling to be viable. Currently, most workers are worried about their job security. It becomes more challenging for managers to encourage their workers to stay optimistic in their business. Managers find it harder to make their workers feel secure emotionally and physically during work. Also, the retrenchment of workers may be inevitable, which undermines the morale of workers and the ability of managers in motivating them. The pandemic has indeed undermined the applicability of motivation theories.

Preference of Management Style: Theory X states that managers believe workers inherently dislike work and avoid responsibility, and therefore they need to be coerced to get things done. Theory-X managers will adopt the autocratic leadership style to command and control their workers to ensure they will work accordingly. As a result, workers are motivated to work by coercion. On the contrary, Theory Y claims that managers believe workers inherently like to have more tasks, duties and responsivities. Hence, Theory-Y managers will use democratic leadership style for managing their workers where workers feel more satisfied and motivated because they are respected. Traditionally, Theory Y is more favourable than Theory X. However, in an abnormality situation like the current pandemic, Theory-X leaders instead of Theory-Y leaders seem to be more appropriate for motivating people. For example, strict legislative control on lockdown, wearing a mask, social distancing and social grouping size requirements for people while outside of their house and so forth have helped to protect people from being infected and contain the spread of Covid-19 virus. It is evident from the result of some countries with a low infection rate of Covid-19 virus since everyone has followed the legislations strictly to avoid being penalized. In this instance, Theory X, which advocates that people dislike work and responsibility, is more superior than Theory Y, which claims the opposite. The Theory-X manager is, therefore, more favourable than Theory-Y manager in the context of the pandemic.

Use of Goal-Setting: Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation states that managers should set specific and challenging goals and provide timely feedback for motivating their workers. During the pandemic, except for those businesses which can help to prevent infection and fatality rate of Covid-19 virus and enable virtual communication, the majority of companies are not doing well or grinding to a halt. Besides the cost reduction target, managers will find it very challenging to set promising goals for their workers. As a result, workers will not feel motivated since they cannot see the future direction of their company. Traditionally, managers have used management by objectives (MBO) approach to measure their workers’ performance. But it is futile for managers to pursue such technique now since it has lost its effectiveness. Likewise, the use of the expectancy theory of motivation is also weakened. Expectancy theory of motivation claims that managers could motivate their workers by improving the likelihood of their effort to achieve the goals set and the possibility of obtaining the rewards, which meet their needs after they have reached the objectives. Since goals-setting is difficult during the gloomy economy, and rewards will be insignificant due to the low or moderate financial performance, the pandemic has undermined the usefulness of goal-setting in supporting the motivation theories.

Effort-Reward Inequity: The equity theory of motivation states that the ratio of the outcome to the input of workers should be equal or more than the ratio of others so that the workers will feel motivated. The “input” is referred to as the effort or time exerted by a worker. As for the outcome, it is referred to as the rewards that the worker will receive. The “others” include the workers’ colleagues in the same company, such as their peer, superiors and subordinates. “Others” could also be the workers themselves when they worked in the same company and other companies previously, or their friends who work in other companies. During the pandemic, since workers have little or no work, their outcome or reward is minimal. The ratio of their outcome over input is lower than their friends who work in other companies in more promising industries. It seems it is equitable because the workers should not demand high reward since they have performed little work. But these workers will perceive inequity and feel demotivated when they compare with their friends in well-performed companies. The reason is they think it is unfair because they have devoted themselves to the same amount of time in their company as their friends who are working in other well-performed companies. Although managers could reward their workers equitably internally, they are unable to ensure externally. As a consequence, it is more challenging for managers to motivate their workers.

In summary, motivation theories are useful to managers but should be dependent on the context. The pandemic has exposed the glitches of motivation theories. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, safety needs have overtaken belongingness needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs and climbed to the top of the hierarchy. As a result, managers need to change their motivation approach by focusing on safety needs. Organizations should try to keep the job of their workers, although retrenchment may be inevitable, it should be the last resort. Also, managers need to stay optimistic and support their workers so that they will be encouraged during work. Due to the health safety concern, autocratic style is more preferred to democratic style in containing the spread of the virus. Managers must abide by strict governmental Covid-19 legislations in administering policies, rules and procedures for ensuring the health of workers is protected during work. Theory-X managers are more superiors than Theory-Y managers in this instance. Goal-setting becomes more difficult in supporting the goal-setting and reinforcement theories of motivation. Perception of inequality by workers will pose difficulties to managers as well. Organisations should beware of the impacts on the utility of these motivation theories by the pandemic and change their motivational strategies to cope with the challenges.

An educator with more than 30 years of lecturing and managerial experience is keen on journaling and publishing.