Blog: Does the past hold the key to enhancing staff motivation today?

Employee Relations

Does the past hold the key to enhancing staff motivation today?

Given that there is no precedent for how leaders ought to act during a pandemic, can turning the pages of classical management theories hold the key for employee motivation and engagement?
Does the past hold the key to enhancing staff motivation today?

We live in disruptive times. Lockdown has meant that the way we work has changed dramatically. Many employees the world over are feeling demotivated while having to work from home (WFH) during the pandemic, especially with the threat of job loss looming large. WFH has its own challenges, from some employees not being able to make a distinct boundary between work and family priorities, to simply missing the ‘human element.’ 

In such a nebulous context can classical motivation and leadership theories hold relevance for leaders? Possibly yes. Says management guru Peter Drucker, “Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes.”

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is based on the premise that there are different motivational levels for each of us, which alter according to our life cycle context. We first try and satiate physiological demands such as food, water and shelter.  Once these are reasonably satisfied we look to safety needs such as steady employment and personal security. Thereafter we crave for the third level of love, belonging and social acceptance. Finally, we seek esteem – such as respect from others – and then self-actualization. 

"It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled? At once other (and higher) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism,” (Maslow, 1943, p. 375).

During the pandemic, the focus of most employees has shifted to basic needs of food (buying and storing of provisions), shelter (some are stuck at places which are not their homes), personal safety (hand washing and sanitizing) and professional safety (threat of job, or modification of job). Apart from these two levels, the third level in Maslow’s hierarchy has also come into prominence: we are missing socializing, our freedom of movement, team-work and even the water-cooler chats. After all, we as humans are social beings, and “no man is an island” (John Donne).

So what can leaders do? Given that we are all having to focus on the most basic of needs - not out of choice but out of compulsion - leaders need to ensure first and foremost that their employees are safe and comfortable. Many companies have begun motivational webinars on how to stay motivated, or how to stay healthy. But apart from this leaders need to have one-to-one chats asking each employee about their specific challenges e.g cramped living space with many family members could make webex meetings difficult, or there may be a family member who is autistic that the employee also has to take care of. Such individualized meetings are indicative that the leader cares and helps to instil greater trust and confidence in the leader during this tumultuous phase.

Katz’s three-skill approach

Katz’s three-skill approach is one of the earliest leadership theories that seems to have stood the test of time. His article “Skills of an effective administrator” was first published in Harvard Business Review in 1955 and then reprinted in 1974. 

In this article Katz wrote that what is important is not the leader’s traits but rather what the leader can accomplish. More specifically, he argued that it is a set of three core skills which are employed by managers in pursuit of organizational objectives that are important, namely conceptual, human and technical. 

Conceptual skill refers to the ability to work with broad concepts and ideas, abstraction and hypothetical notions, and is of crucial importance for top management. Human skill refers to being able to work with people, which includes listening, communicating effectively and empathy, and is said to be important for leaders at all levels of management. Technical skill refers to proficiency in a specific activity or type of work e.g tools, procedures, and is said to be more important at lower levels of management especially at the supervisory level. 

It can be argued that, like old wine in a new bottle, our work environment has undergone a radical shift – but that Katz’s approach still holds true for the modern-day leader. Even today it is exactly these skills — conceptual and human — that will be ever more important for top leadership. 

Top-level leaders still need to strategize in order to be one step ahead of competitors. How one motivates one’s employees could be a key differentiator e.g some CEOs have become enviable role models by taking a pay cut rather than reducing the salaries of their staff. Top leaders also need to be high on the human element, for example by focusing on deliverables and resisting the temptation to micromanage staff working from home. Also reaching out to earlier clients even if your industry is on the brink of collapse, such as the hospitality and airlines industries, goes a long way in building loyalty.

It is difficult to prepare for a future that no one can really predict. Says Peter Drucker, “Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.” Rather than following the usual default option of one’s leadership style, let us give credence to the classical management theories of the past that may provide us with some light to see ahead.


Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review, 50(4), 370.


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Topics: Employee Relations, Leadership, #GuestArticle

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