What motivates people to work hard? (Or: Productivity and Frederick Herzberg)

Imagine a man sitting across from you. He has brown wavy hair, kind eyes and a broad smile. He is dressed in a black suit and talks, very appropriately, as if he is a professor of esteemed learning. Leaning forward in his chair, he speaks slowly and methodically.

Think of a time when you felt exceptionally good or exceptionally bad about your job, either your present job or any other job you have had. Tell me about it.

This man is a psychologist by the name of Frederick Herzberg. In the 1950s, Herzberg and his team at the University of Utah devised this sentence as a way of understanding what motivates people to work. They were interested in finding out what made some people love their jobs and others hate theirs.

Together with his colleagues Bernard Mausner and Barbara Snyderman, Herzberg created a list of interview questions. He wanted to know the truth. As a result, he never asked the most basic question: “do you like your job, and why?” Typically, when asked so directly, people tended to lie. Instead, he focused on experiences. What kind of experiences had people had, good or bad, in their jobs?

                How long ago did this happen?

                How long did the feeling last?

“Work is one of the most absorbing things men can think and talk about,” Herzberg wrote at the time, “It fills the greater part of the waking day for most of us. For the fortunate it is the source of great satisfactions; for many others it is the cause of grief.” To understand this grief, Herzberg had to dig into the experiences of each individual employee he met. But first, he needed to find a few people to interview.

Limited by local geography, he sought out workers in his local city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the time, Pittsburgh was the steel heartland of America. Low-rise brick factories dominated the town centre and smoke billowed from downtown chimneys at every hour of the day. The streets were filled with ash and smog. Working men wore suits and working women wore skirts and hats, as if every day were a day at the races. The city was rebuilding after World War 2. Steel and other metal manufacturers were in the midst of a boom. They had to produce enough metal to hold up the new skyscrapers being built downtown. It was a new skyline for a new age. An age of industry. And the factory workers of Pittsburgh were at the heart of that industry.

In 1952, Herzberg drove to each of the factories in downtown Pittsburgh and recruited hundreds of employees to interview. Originally, he aimed to recruit 200, but he ended up with 203. The majority of Herzberg’s factory workers were members of The Greatest Generation, people who grew up in the Great Depression and fought during World War 2. These men were not entitled or spoilt children, as the young are regarded today, but tough men who had seen the worst of humanity up close and personal. Herzberg himself was a member of the Greatest Generation. As a patrol sergeant in the U.S. army, he helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany in 1945. His experience at the camp shaped his world view, and would go in to influence his writing about society and fulfilling work.

“A society does not go insane because of the insane,” he wrote a few years later, “A society goes insane when the sane go insane”. If people could stay sane in their jobs, he believed, then society could avoid the insanities of the past, including the horrors of war and conflict.

In Pittsburgh, Herzberg’s study began with a letter to each factory worker explaining what he wanted to find out. He explained that each worker would be interviewed about their views on their jobs. Of course, he promised that all of their answers would remain anonymous. There would be no reprisals from bosses for negative comments, as any employee would naturally fear. It was only after gaining the trust of each individual worker that Herzberg could advance onto the actual interview itself.

Each interview was conducted after hours, once the factory machinery was switched off for the day. At the start of the interview, each employee was asked the question above: to describe a real experience they had at work, whether good or bad. The answers were honest, raw and at times, brutal. “After I saw the least competent man promoted because he was friendly with the chief, I was through,” said one. “When I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere with my supervisor, I quit trying,” said another. “I’m doing creative work and this keeps me content. In another year I won’t be doing creative work… and I’ll quit,” said a third.

Herzberg read through each and every word. He was looking for patterns, key ideas that linked together in some manner. Finding a pattern was difficult. Sometimes, employees would be angry for not receiving a promotion. Sometimes the work itself was dull and repetitive. Sometimes they weren’t being paid enough for the work they did. From each interview however, he pulled out the key connecting ideas and came up with several ‘factors’. These factors could determine whether someone would like or dislike their job.

They were broken down into two categories. Hygiene and motivator factors.

On the one hand, there were hygiene factors. Without these factors, a worker would lose all motivation to work in their job. These included good working conditions, good pay and job security. Imagine a factory with poor lighting conditions, low pay and low job security, this would produce many disgruntled employees. But just because a factory has good lights, good pay and job security doesn’t mean everyone loves their job either. Hygiene factors are merely the things that make us comfortable at work but not necessarily excited to go the extra mile. According to Herzberg, they stem “from humankind’s animal nature. The built-in drive to avoid pain from the environment.” Workers need security to avoid becoming de-motivated. But to make them motivated, more is needed.

That’s where Herzberg’s motivator factors came in in. With these, workers could gain motivation to work hard. These included promotional opportunities, recognition, achievement and responsibility. Think of the motivators as the rewards that make you strive harder, work longer, and feel immensely proud in your job. According to Herzberg, the motivators “relate to that unique human characteristic, the ability to achieve and through achievement, to experience psychological growth.” We grow when we see the direct results of our efforts translated into a reward or recognition for our actions. “After they put me in charge of the project,” said one factory worker in the study, “Everything seemed to click. I don’t think I ever did a better piece of work in my life.”

By getting properly recognized and rewarded, employees can rise to their full potential and they can start seeing themselves as part of something bigger than themselves.

In 1959, Herzberg and his colleagues released their research findings in a book called The Motivation to Work. The book became an instant classic. Short, precise and descriptive, it laid the reasons why some people love their jobs, while others hate theirs. A summary article released a decade later, in 1968, became the most requested article in the history of the Harvard Business Review. The book has since had a lasting effect on the way companies treat their employees. Many companies have since adopted the idea that recognition, autonomy and promotions can be as important to employees as good pay and good working conditions.

Of course, there are some who say that Herzberg’s research can be exploited. Herzberg himself admitted that knowing what motivates employees “could be used as a device for manipulation”. With the rise of tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook, we have seen the rise of employee manipulation firsthand. Today, tech companies create highly motivating workplaces with recognition, promotions, rewards, free food and bean bags. The problem with a theory purely based on motivation is that sometimes people can be motivated to do the wrong thing with their lives. A rewarding workplace can suck us in, changing our beliefs, ambitions and dreams. By the time many of us wake up, in middle age during a mid-life crisis, it is too late to change course. Motivation can change who we are.

Despite this threat however, Herzberg’s study gives us a starting point for how we can make our jobs more engaging. What the story of Herzberg’s factory workers of the 1950s tells us is that every generation wants the same thing out of work. Just like the millennials, members of the Greatest Generation wanted a meaningful job, rewards and recognition for a job well done.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not a measurement of weakness or entitlement to want these things, but a basic human drive.

When our basic needs for security are met, we want to go beyond these and gain recognition, advancement and achievement. This is what makes us human. We limit pain by gaining security. We become our true selves by chasing meaning. Money and job security has never been enough on their own.

In the 1950s, as now, people want to feel connected to the work they do and feel they get the recognition they deserve.


This originally formed part of a larger, unpublished book project on employment conditions for young people today. If you would like to know more about this project, contact me here.

Follow me on Twitter: @JoshKrook

You can find my other books on jobs, empathy and law here.