How to Motivate the Minimal Performer

            As I look back on my management career to date, I find that one of the most difficult employees to motivate was the minimal performer. Ruth Davidhizar and Anna Vance put it quite well in their 1998 article on healthcare management:

It is relatively easy to motivate someone who wants to work, who enjoys work, and who comes to work with the intention to contribute. It is quite another matter to motivate employees who frequently arrive late, who resist suggestions, who act as if the work site were there to serve their needs, and who seemingly only want to put in their time and be paid instead of contribute productively.[1]

 Motivating minimal performers is a challenge to say the least. This lesson will attempt to grasp a couple theories of motivation and use them to develop ideas that can make motivating the minimal performer a less daunting task.

            Let’s begin with Adams’ Equity Theory of Motivation; Paul Goodman and Abraham Friedman examined Adams’ theory and published their research in the Administrative Science Quarterly in 1971. Adam’s theorizes that an individual worker compares themselves to other workers and that their motivation is subject to this comparison and whether or not they feel there is inequity present. An “inequity exists for Person whenever he perceives that the ratio of his outcomes to inputs and the ratio of Other's outcomes to Other's inputs are unequal.”[2] In this theory, outcomes refer to rewards given for performance, such as job titles, pay, bonuses, additional projects, or other items viewed as compensation when given by management. Input is fairly straight-forward; it is the work put in by an employee in relation to the employee’s output. The theory treats inequity as a source of tension and discusses how to possibly resolve this feeling of tension. Tension can be generated when an employee feels overcompensated or undercompensated for their work in comparison to others. Adams postulates “that overpaid subjects increase their productivity as a way of bringing their inputs and outcomes in balance and thus of reducing feelings of inequity.”[3]

            Adams defines two categories of compensation, piece-rate and hourly, and analyzes results in each category. Piece-rate compensation is pretty much what it sounds like; employees are paid based on how many of something they produce. In Adams’ theory, he hypothesizes “that overpaid subjects will produce higher quality and lower quantity than equitably paid subjects.”[4] He surmises that overpaid employees will increase their output as a way to resolve the inequity. The increase in output can be obtained by a higher yield or by better quality. However, Goodman points out that an employee’s feelings regarding job security can skew these findings. He states that “job insecurity can lead to higher quality productivity as a way of protecting the job”[5] instead of as a result of feelings of inequity. In contrast to overpaid employees, Adams states that underpaid employees “will produce a large number of low quality outputs because the production of low quality outputs permits increasing outcomes without substantially increasing inputs.”[6] In order for the employee to increase quality of work, they would have to expend effort that is inconsistent with what their current wage requires. The basic premise surrounding hourly employees is that if they feel they are underpaid, they will not put as much into the job in order “to achieve an input-outcome balance.”[7] On the flip-side, if they feel overpaid, employees “will raise their inputs by producing more as a means of reducing inequity.”[8]

Goodman and Vance delve further into this theory by discussing different conditions that add to or detract from feelings of inequity. They point out that other factors can contribute to feelings of inequity, such as, “when pay was determined by budgetary constraints rather than by inputs, dissatisfaction with pay resulted.”[9] They also discuss how an employee’s input-output ratio at past jobs can affect their feelings of inequity at a new job.

After reviewing several tests of Adams’ theory, Goodman and Vance conclude that “inequity is a source of tension; the greater the inequity the greater the drive to reduce it”[10] and that the drive to reduce tension occurs more quickly when faced with underpayment than with overpayment. They also conclude that employees will resist managers trying to change their input-output ratio until they feel they are being compensated fairly in relation to another employee they are comparing themselves to. Overall Goodman and Vance determine that “overpaid-hourly subjects produce more than equitably paid subjects; overpaid piece-rate subjects produce less quantity and higher quality than equitably paid subjects; underpaid-hourly subjects will invest lower inputs than equitably paid subjects; Person will leave the field when inequity is high and other reduction strategies are unavailable.”[11]

The authors then make a minor comparison to Expectancy Theory, which would not predict an increase in performance by an employee who feels feelings of overpayment because expectancy theory states that increased performance is not related to pay like inequity theory surmises. This leads into my next article by J.W. Harder which discusses expectancy theory and equity theory in relation to Major League Baseball Fee Agency.  Harder attempts to fuse these two theories and postulates that “equity performance effects depend on the strength of the performance-outcome expectancy.”[12] He chose baseball players facing free-agency in the next season as test subjects, attempting to determine how their performance in the current year related to their expectations regarding free-agent salary. According to Harder “these free agents probably felt under-rewarded before entering the free-agent market yet probably also had expectations of higher salaries after becoming free agents.”[13] He compared the baseball player’s batting average and home run ratio to their salary outcome the following year. He concludes that the players’ viewed batting average as having less an effect on future salary than home run ratio, and therefore batting averages declined in the year before free agency and home run ratios increased.

Harder dives into equity and expectancy theory to help explain the results of the baseball experiment. He notes that the two theories sometimes yield opposite predictions. He reviews equity theory, agreeing that tension is caused by states of inequity which motivates individuals to work to mitigate the inequity. He reviews expectancy theory as well, summarizing it as follows: “according to expectancy theory individuals will be motivated to perform by two expectancies. The first expectancy is the probability that a given performance will lead to certain desired outcomes. The second expectancy is the probability that effort exerted will lead to the desired performance. These two expectancies interact with each other and with the valence (attractiveness) of outcomes to determine the overall level of motivation.”[14] Harder discusses that conflicting results arise when dealing with complex pay systems. He notes one such complex pay system: “when individuals perceive themselves as under-rewarded with relatively fixed pay while still perceiving strong performance-outcome contingencies.”[15] He goes on to point out that equity theory would have an employee decrease performance when faced with an under-reward situation. Expectancy theory, on the other hand, has employees increasing performance due to their expectancy of better outcomes based on high performance.

Harder attempts to synthesize the two theories, relating them to Major League Baseball free agency signings; he hypothesizes that “if the performance-outcome expectancy is weak, performance will decrease and if the performance-outcome expectancy is strong, performance will increase.”[16] Harder notes that a player’s performance in their last year before free agency should effect the player’s value. He discusses how different types of performance may have different effects, namely home run ratio and batting averages.  “If hitting for power is more strongly linked to salary, expectancy theory predictions of increased performance should hold for the home run ratio. If high batting average is less strongly linked to salary, equity theory predictions of decreased performance should hold.”[17]

Harder’s findings proved expectancy theory in that home run ratio was strongly linked to their future salary. If they expected to be awarded a high salary in their first year of free agency, they needed to have a high home run ratio in the year prior to their new contract. These results are in conflict with equity theory; baseball players feeling that they are underpaid [the reason they enter the free-agent market] should lower performance in order to mitigate the tension caused by inequity between salary and performance. On the other hand, batting average of players’ right before free agency declined, aligning with equity theory instead of expectancy theory.  Harder surmises that “equity effects on performance will occur if there are not strong performance-outcome expectancies.”[18] His conclusion was that home run ratio was linked to free agent salary more than batting average; therefore, batting average would follow equity theory and decline because players felt they were not being paid enough to justify a higher performance level. Home run ratio, on the other hand, was directly related to free agent pay, so players would increase their home run output in an effort to attain a higher free agent salary. “The results presented here suggest that individuals faced with inequitable under-reward will choose the avenue of decreased performance to the extent that it does not affect future rewards. If decreasing performance will adversely affect future rewards, then alternative avenues for restoring equity will be undertaken.”[19] From my vantage point, an alternative explanation in this scenario is that home runs are directly related to free agent salary so batters in their last year of a contract would swing for the fence almost every time they went up to bat. This batting mindset will increase home run output but it will also decrease batting average because the player would hit pop ups most of the time. 

Thomas DeLong in his 2011 article “The Comparing Trap” gives a personal example of his encounter with equity theory and offers suggestions to avoid falling into this type of behavior.  He discusses the thoughts he experienced after he was accepted into the Harvard Business School faculty. He began to compare himself to his colleagues in the adjacent offices. On one side was an internationally recognized scholar who had published twelve books and on the other was a gentleman who had won the Nobel Prize in economics. DeLong said that he experienced negative feelings about himself due to his lack of output in comparison to the other two. He states that “Comparing is a trap that permeates our lives, especially if we're high-need-for-achievement professionals. No matter how successful we are and how many goals we achieve, this trap causes us to recalibrate our accomplishments and reset the bar for how we define success. What we've done in the past doesn't matter; real success or achievement requires something more.”[20] He expounds this idea stating that it becomes a never ending cycle of continually becoming dissatisfied with accomplishments; no matter what is achieved, a person stuck in this comparing mindset is never satisfied with those achievements.

DeLong makes a few suggestions to help people not become engulfed in this trap. First he says that one should devise a report that tracks progress toward a desired position and try to keep one on track en-route to obtaining that position. Secondly he suggests that people keep a “satisfaction index: Keep track of how meaningful and fulfilling your work is; create a numerical satisfaction scale that depends on how much you're enjoying what you do and how purposeful it seems; take a reading regularly.”[21] Thirdly he suggests that people assess the skills or knowledge they have acquired and decide if they are becoming an expert in their field, which is alternative to comparison views. DeLong concludes that “comparing becomes a trap, however, when people become so consumed by measuring themselves against others that they fail to step back and see how it's impacting their actions, and fail to acknowledge and celebrate their own unique successes.”[22] The comparing trap is a manifestation of Adams’ Equity Theory that should be avoided.

Ruth Davidhizar and Anna Vance discuss how to motivate the minimal performer in their 1998 article in Hospital Topics.  They remark that “the ability to be motivated lies with the employee,”[23] but offer techniques to help motivate them. They describe the minimal performer as an employee who does only the bare minimum, never going above and beyond. The minimal performer also tends to leave items incomplete or does below standard work. They tend to take excessive breaks and abuse absence policies. The article notes that “minimal performers are an economic detriment. The organization's overall efficiency declines when bogged down by minimal employees.”[24] The authors offer six suggestions to help motivate the minimal performer.

First they suggest making sure that the employee is aware of and understands the organization’s vision and remind the employee how their contribution helps fulfill the vision or mission. Secondly they discuss being more effective with performance appraisals by ensuring that the employee is well informed of the expectations of his job function and what level of performance will equate to a positive rating. Next they suggest that managers use “facilitative listening which involves the use of empathetic reflective comments to encourage an employee to share feelings and thoughts, for example, ‘You were feeling very tired that day?’ Through this technique, the minimal performer may realize what needs to be done without specific suggestions from the manager.”[25] Davidhizar and Vance suggest that this technique may also help employees feel more confident as they begin to correct their issues on their own. They extend the listening technique to include treating the employee with dignity and respect as well as giving positive feedback to help create incentives. Their fourth suggestion is to empower the employee to complete assignments without supervision, allowing them to work independently and reward them for completing the assignment. This aligns with their fifth suggestion: be sure to recognize employee accomplishments. “Minimal performers may want desperately to be recognized but feel that their performance is too inadequate for that ever to occur. Responding to these needs can be powerfully motivating in the workplace and increase job satisfaction.”[26] Lastly, they advocate maintaining high visibility in the workplace. Being a working part of the team, a role model and a mentor is important. Being visible will go a long way towards curbing undesirable behavior and will help motivate minimal performers to step up their game when the manager is near.

After careful review of these and other theories of motivation, I can look back on my tenure as a manager and have a clearer understanding of the minimal performers. Many of them were adhering to Adams’ Equity Theory and lowering their performance based either on other’s performance or a feeling of being undercompensated.  I have had many discussions with employees in which they were completely transfixed by comparing their performance to others. Some minimal performers may have been yielding to the effects of Expectancy Theory but in kind of a reverse way. Many minimal performers were also tenured employees not in line for promotions or other perks. These employees had no expectation that any increase in performance would lead to any promotions or preferential treatment on the job; therefore, they only did the bare minimum. Listening to your minimal performers can yield valuable information regarding what is de-motivating them which will guide you toward a workable solution that fits the particular employee. Being visible and actively participating in the workflow will also help managers to glean these types of answers.

Regardless of how visible a manger is or how carefully he/she listen to employees, it can still be a daunting task to try to motivate minimal performers.  Janet Mills and Melvin McKnight developed an exercise (below) to teach managers about motivation and help them apply the concepts. These exercises can help you better understand what can motivate employees and how to apply these concepts to change employee behavior.     [27]   

[1] Ruth DavidHizar and Anna Vance, “Motivating the Minimal Performer,” Hospital Topics 76/4 (1998): 8.

[2] Paul S. Goodman and Abraham Friedman, “An Examination of Adams' Theory of Inequity,” Administrative Science Quarterly 16/3(1971):271.

[3] Ibid. 274.

[4] Ibid. 274.

[5] Ibid. 276.

[6] Ibid. 277.

[7] Ibid. 277.

[8] Ibid. 272.

[9] Ibid. 281.

[10] Ibid. 284.

[11] Ibid. 284.

[12] Harder J.W., “Equity Theory Versus Expectancy Theory: The Case of Major League Baseball Free Agents,” Journal of Applied Psychology 76/3 (1991): 458.

[13] Ibid. 458.

[14] Ibid. 458.

[15] Ibid. 459.

[16] Ibid. 460.

[17] Ibid. 460.

[18] Ibid. 463.

[19] Ibid. 464.

[20] DeLong, Thomas J. "The Comparing Trap." HBR Blog Network. Harvard Business Review, 09Jun2011. Web. 1 Oct. 2011. P2. <>.

[21] Ibid. 2.

[22] Ibid. 2.

[23] Davidhizar, Ruth, and Anna Vance. "Motivating the Minimal Performer." Hospital Topics. 76.4 (1998): 8.

[24] Ibid. 8.

[25] Ibid. 8.

[26] Ibid.8.

[27] McKnight, Melvin, and Janet Mills. "Two Exercises for Teaching about Motivation." Developments in Business Simulation & Experiential Exercises. 15. (1988): 1-5.

Robert Pannell,
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