Motivation, Black Holes and ROI

Motivation, Black Holes and ROI

Recently I have learned that someone is publishing a book about “50 most bu****it theories” managers may come across during corporate training. Author challenges Maslow and other fundamental theories by gathering contradictory results of various psychological studies. This reminded me also of some situations when business managers have discredited employee survey results around motivation, or HR tools in general.

Hence my question for today is how can psychology / HR experts find a common language with business? Usually it gets easier when the discussion is brought down to numbers – but is it possible to precisely quantify all the factors that explain human behavior at work? Business usually deals with problems that have data based solutions and can be easily verified. Working on HR issues usually evokes more questions than answers.

Does the uncertainty mean we should discredit it? I believe a good starting point is to start thinking about psychology as comparable to research on black holes, rather than black magic.

Black magic or black holes?

Let’s imagine a business meeting where a person is introduced as a researcher on black holes invited to consult a strategic project. My guess is that most participants would acknowledge the advice given by the consultant. Afterall, astronomy is a natural science that can’t be defied. And now let me cite a paragraph from NASA website: How do we know black holes exist? We can’t see them (they are, after all, black holes!), but we can see the effect they have on other, more familiar objects close to them*.

To me it sounds a bit like a definition of any psychological state or concept – we don’t see the motivation or personality itself, we only see the effect they have on persons’ behavior. Psychology is using various tools: questionnaires, observation, experiments, supported with robust methodology and psychometrics to test hypothetical constructs and make statistically valid predictions.

Quite similarly astronomers are using telescopes to observe the environment surrounding the spots where allegedly black holes are located. And based on that they are making predictions. I wrote allegedly because in fact until we manage to physically explore a bunch of black holes, we are still dealing with some kind of hypothetical constructs. A bit like in psychology. We can even wander, what is more probable: direct (physical) exploration of black holes or of motivation?

Loading guns

Of course experienced (or good) managers understand that psychology / HR is about predicting things with some probability. However rookies and poor managers expect simple tools, like one-fit-all theory of human behavior at work. Unfortunately there is no 100% certain recruitment test, talent development programme, feedback scenario – because people and their behavior is unpredictable.

Coming back to the discredited theories of motivation mentioned in the intro – in my opinion such books are only loading guns of the incompetent and inexperienced managers, that can’t embrace the VUCA environment and don’t grasp the complexity of human nature. And how the bullets look like? Probably like this: The sample is only 30%, why not 100%? Who came up with this questions? Why is it a 5 point scale and not a 7 point one? How do we know this for sure? Dear team, HR invented a new stupid survey  –  the list of phrases underestimating the value of opinion surveys, psychological tests is quite standard and long.

But as already said – there is no 100% certain solution, or one good theory. These are just inspirations, road signs that help us go somewhere towards the right direction. Often managers challenge single survey results, expecting some ultimate truth behind them. For example if we know that satisfaction with one manager is 3.80 on 1-5 scale, we can say it is fairly good, but still, one value doesn’t mean much. On the other hand, if we have evaluations of managers vary from 3.70 to 4.25, we can start drawing some conclusions about the 3.80.

To sum up – we should embrace the variety of theories, as people are like snowflakes – no two are the same. You want to use Maslow? Great! Jack Welch is better? Go for it – as long as you don’t perceive it as the one ultimate truth.

Do we need ROI?

When exploring the predictability of HR/ psychology maybe we should also take a look at a core business concept – ROI. When you want to change anything in an organization, or need a budget to be stretched – ROI will be the first question. In my opinion, calculating accurate return on investment from HR activities requires business artistry and skills similar to NASA experts. Prediction of exactly how much sales will increase after a series of trainings is probably impossible.

However, maybe it is worth to use the ROI acronym, but talk about the Risk-Of-Investment. In the past two years I have befriended a bit more with the investment world and can definitely say that risk is a ubiquitous word there. Risk is estimated, mitigated, explored in various scenarios, and it is incorporated into all investments. One thing is sure about risk – it is accepted and obvious, as no significant investment is 100% certain.

At the same time, it seems easier for some companies to invest 1 mln $ in equities with the risk of losing it all, than it is to spend 50k on a training programme. Investing in people is still investing – we expect a positive financial gain somewhere in the end, so risk related to HR shouldn’t be such a problem, but still is**. Maybe to make the discussion between HR and business easier, we should build a new dictionary revolving around investments? HR tools could be compared to different types of investments, based on risk. For example:

  • Good working conditions (pay, benefits) are like savings accounts, this is a low risk and low return tool, as in general pay helps motivation, but won’t make a big influence in the long run.
  • Talent programmes could be compared to investment funds – if managed well and are based on well selected tools (aka participants), they can give reasonable return, but also the risk is greater.

Summing up, the most important point is that in general investments are something good, both in HR and finance, despite the risk. It is also worth noticing that investors use diversified strategies – similarly, we shouldn’t expect that one sales training programme will work miracles.We need to embrace the ambiguity, and instead of discrediting theories and tools, try to make the most of them.