Motivating the Knowledge Worker

The term knowledge worker was first used by Peter Drucker in his 1959 book, Landmarks of Tomorrow, to describe the developing importance of office-based workers engaged in such activities as analyzing, researching and marketing relative to workers engaged in such physical activities as manufacturing.

Educators are the ultimate knowledge workers. They often are involved in research that leads to new valuable knowledge but they also are key to developing the knowledge processing skills of their students, who will become the next generation of knowledge workers. 

Researchers divide motivation into two parts. Intrinsic motivation arises from within, i.e. we are motivated to spend time on things that interest us. Extrinsic motivation arises from an external source like a financial reward or the threat of punishment. Educators often have a high level of intrinsic motivation; however, this goes only so far. The organizational culture will play a part in either supplementing or diminishing this motivation. How can educational administrators sustain and enhance the motivation of their educators? And how, in turn, do the educators motivate their students? 

Early theories of motivation were very much influenced by the behaviorist movement in psychology, centering on extrinsic rewards and punishments. Later, many theories balanced this with a greater focus on intrinsic motivation. One of the better-known theories is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which identifies tiers of motivation in which higher-level needs become more important when lower-level needs are met:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Hertzberg’s two-factor theory separates motivation into satisfiers and dissatisfiers. Employers tend to concentrate on creating satisfiers (e.g., incentive programs) and miss or ignore dissatisfiers (e.g., lack of transparency in decision-making). As a result they become baffled when, despite increasing rewards, employees become more dissatisfied. There is at least one study that suggests this theory is also important in student motivation (DeShields, Kara & Kaynak, 2005). Providing quality leisure facilities (a satisfier) may not cancel out the negative effect of a dissatisfier such as not keeping students informed of policy changes.

Dan Pink presents a good summary on the latest science-based thinking on motivation of knowledge workers. You can view a version as a conventional TED talk – Dan Pink, “The Puzzle of Motivation”:

or in the increasingly popular illustrated version, Dan Pink’s talk at the RSA:

I recommend viewing and comparing both. Do you think the visual reinforcement helped you learn more from the talk?
An important point he makes is that we need to get past the “lazy dangerous ideology of carrot and sticks” that still dominates a lot of management and educational thinking. Motivation for the knowledge worker builds on intrinsic motivation, which organizational culture can either enhance or suppress.