The Fundamentals of Cognitive Theories of Motivation

In this paper I will be aiming to cover the following areas. Firstly an overview of the fundamentals behind the cognitive theories of motivation, focusing on three main theories – Equity theory, Expectancy theory and Goal setting theory. Within these theory bases I will outline some of the developmental research that has been occurring, particularly those studies which have added empirical evidence to consolidate or expand on the basic theories. Secondly I will show some practical applications of these theories and evidence of how successful they have been or could be within an organisational environment. Finally a short comment on the adaptability of these models to an international context which has become a dominant feature of current literature in this increasing time of globalisation.
The Cognitive Theories – An Overview
Motivation can be visualised as the energising force that provides the impetus to make people act. More specifically it is “the individual internal process that energises directs and sustains behavior; the personal force that causes one to behave in a particular way” (Olsen, 1996, p.1). It is a fundamental concept for management to understand in learning to comprehend the way individuals will behave within a work place context.

The cognitive theories of motivation aim to develop this understanding by focusing on the action and choices made in the motivation process. The focus is on the processes that occur within a person’s mind, which influence their decision to act. (Wood, Wallace, Zeffane, Schermerhorn, Hunt, Osborn (1998)) They rely on the assumption that behavior is purposeful and being undertaken to achieve a desired outcome or goal. This means that analysing the way choices are made between a variety of perceived outcomes can provide valuable insight into understanding why and how individuals choose to act.
Equity theory relies on the way people make comparisons of both effort/return and with those around them, arguing that “when people gauge the fairness of their work outcomes in comparison with others, felt inequity is the motivating state of mind.” (Wood et al p 183) People resolve the felt inequities by working in such a way as to restore a sense of equity.
The equity comparison occurs on two levels. The first is an individuals subjective assessment of whether the effort required will be commensurate with the benefits achieved. The second comparison occurs on a social level using those around as a yardstick against which to measure the individuals own sense of equity. Studies (Adams 1963 in Wood et al; Vecchio 1981) have generally supported this theory.
A number of recent studies have sought to develop this principle further. By looking at the relationship between Equity theory and Interpersonal Attraction (Griffeth, Vecchio & Logan 1989) the authors were seeking to determine whether an attraction (or hostility) between the individual and their referent other had any influence upon the way they perceived and reacted to inequities. Their research, through a cross referencing technique of equity factors and attraction factors, provided results that indicated that attraction was indeed a contributing factor in the way individuals perceived equity balances. Although this does not undermine the essentials of equity theory, it adds the need to consider how and with who referent comparisons are made, as extra considerations when using the model.
Meanwhile Barr & Conlon (1994) have been looking at the impact of distribution of feedback (both group and individuals) upon individual intentions. In particular for us, this study brings into question the applicability of equity theory assumptions within a group context. It proposes that, in a group setting, where other members would act as referents and rewards are distributed equally based on group performance, individuals would make equity comparisons within the group before deciding whether to persist. This was thought to override the impacts that feedback would otherwise cause.
The results supported this contention. It showed that where the impact of individual feedback worked to create a perception of underpayment (due to perceived greater effort than other group members) that individuals were less interested in continuing the behavior that they believe led to the underpayment. Thus the social comparison effect was strong enough to override any of the individual positive feedback received. The study illustrates that social comparison within a group, where felt inequity is present, can have an impact on performance, and equity theory provides a good model for predicting this impact.
Once a goal is selected, it allows people to channel their energies toward goal achievement. Four factors are stated as being important in goal setting to stimulate performance (Knowles 1991). These are
The theory comes into use within the domain of “purposefully directed action.” Basically it states that the simplest and most direct motivational explanation of why some people perform better on work tasks than others is because they have different performance goals. (Ryan 1970 in Latham & Locke 1990).
While much of the research has previously surrounded assigned goals, more emphasis is now being placed explicitly on self regulation. That is, the extent to which individuals will use goal setting, self monitoring and self rewarding/ self punishing behavior to attain a goal. (Latham & Locke 1990) This may especially be useful in breaking a larger goal down into more specific stepping stone goals. The implication for managers from the study is that the addition of skills in self regulation, acquired through experience, training or effort will lead to a greater likelihood of goals being achieved.
Victor Vroom (1964, cited in Wood et al, 1998) developed one of the most widely used models for the understanding of the motivation process. It aims to predict the effort that will be expended by a person in completing a task. It argues that goals are chosen according to the relative attractiveness of the outcome. Diagrammatically it can be represented as follows
The contention is that the motivation to work results from the product of Expectancy, Instrumentality and Valence. (M=E x I x V) These elements are defined as follows:
Expectancy is the probability of the extent to which the individual believes that a given level of achieved Work Performance will follow work effort.
Instrumentality is the probability assigned that a given level of achieved performance will lead to various work outcomes.
Valence is the value attached by the individual to those work outcomes. (Wood et al 1998)
The implication of the model is that managers need to take into account the importance of the task being achieved along with the likelihood of the task being achieved and the likelihood that the task achievement will lead to a reward that has value to the individual. An individual requires all these factors to provide the impetus to exert the work effort. The fact that the theory does not attempt to specify the types of rewards that will motivate particular employees gives it a robustness that can be useful in application.
Klein (1991) has been looking to clarify the relationship between goal setting and expectancy theories. Traditional theoretical approaches suggested viewing “expectancies and attractiveness as interacting to influence goal choice, with goals being the more direct determinants of effort” (Klein 1991 p 231). However there is also some competing evidence (Garland 1985) which contradicted this view contending that goal attributes affect expectancy theory constructs rather than resulting from them.
Klein’s study hence sought to expand evidence of how the expectancy theory constructs relate to goal choice, goal commitment and performance. His findings replicated those of Garland. The perceived explanation for this for this was that goals form a dual role of being targets to shoot for as well as standards for evaluating one performance. The research into combining the two theories is continuing, with much discussion currently surrounding “issues of causal ordering, measurement and the meanings of those measurements”. (Klein 1991 p 230) It appears that we have to wait on the world of academia to conduct more research before a widely accepted combination of the two models evolves.
Practical Applications of the Cognitive Theories
I now wish to bring in a number of specific examples of how and where these theories can and have been applied.
Using Goal Setting to improve Safety Behavior.
An application area of particular interest has been the use of goal setting techniques in improving safety performance On an anecdotal level I have seen this prove successful at my own work site at a steelworks at Western Port. I have seen much evidence of the positive use of goal setting techniques in an attempt to address the behavioral component of safe working practices. The focus upon systematic monitoring of safety related behavior and the provision of extensive feedback in conjunction with widely accepted goals on injury performance at a crew and organisational level has seen safety performance improve by over 50% in under two years (BHP Western Port Lost Time Injury Statistics). However it is difficult to read too much into the improvement given that a number of other initiatives are also being concurrently undertaken.
A study into the UK construction industry (Marsh, Robertson, Phillips, Duff 1995) provides some empirical support for the premise that hard, specific goals with wide feedback of the results of ones behavior can lead to positive changes in safety behavior. This study found that by using quantitative measures of awareness and review sessions, that the intervention was having positive impacts, supporting my own anecdotal evidence. It supports the notion that clearly identified and well publicised safety targets can perform a crucial role in influencing safety behavior.

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