Heroes of Employee Engagement: No.8 Greg R. Oldham & J. Richard Hackman

James Young
Heroes of Employee Engagement: No.8 Greg R. Oldham & J. Richard Hackman

When an employee loses interest in their role, it affects their motivation levels – and ultimately, their productivity. Loss of interest could be due to a number of reasons: perhaps they begin to find the work monotonous, or maybe it isn’t challenging enough for them.

The reality is that many jobs have their mundane elements, and some have more than others. So how can we ensure that our teams are motivated to carry out the less stimulating aspects of their roles?

This is the issue that organisational psychologists Greg R. Oldham and J. Richard Hackman addressed. In 1975, they studied 658 workers in 62 jobs across seven organisations, publishing the resulting theory the following year. Their Job Characteristics Model remains a blueprint for job design 40 years later.

Hackman & Oldham’s Job Characteristics Model

In the 1960s, organisational psychologists and management theorists started to realise that a production-line approach to work was literally counter-productive. Repetitive tasks resulted in a demotivated workforce, who were actually far less productive than they had been before.

Using this initial research, Hackman & Oldham introduced the Job Characteristics Model. This was based on the idea that the key to maintaining motivation is in the job itself. They found that mundane tasks reduced motivation and productivity, and varied tasks improved them.

What’s more, the theory they produced was universal and could be applied to any role. They identified the following job characteristics that must be in place to achieve employee satisfaction:

  • Skills variety: do tasks vary, and are they challenging? Or are they monotonous and too easy?
  • Task identity: do tasks have a defined beginning, middle and end? Without this, it’s hard to achieve the satisfaction of an attained goal.
  • Task significance: does the employee feel that their role has meaning?
  • Task autonomy: can individuals have a say in how they carry out their work?
  • Job feedback: are employees receiving feedback on their performance?

If a job is consciously created to be varied and meaningful, with plenty of two-way communication, the employee will be more engaged with their role. According to Hackman & Oldham, they will also have an increased sense of responsibility for their work outcomes.

The model still acknowledges the role of intrinsic motivators, as proposed by Edward Deci & Richard Ryan, which said that motivation falls on a scale that ranges from ‘extrinsic’ (controlled) to ‘intrinsic’ (autonomous). However, Hackman & Oldham place more onus on HR and management to ensure that the job creation stage hits the right notes.

Applying Hackman & Oldham’s model to employee engagement

Hackman & Oldham’s model was well-received, due in part to the fact that their findings were clear and easily applied in the workplace. The five characteristics could be used as a checklist for job creation or job review. For example, during the job design stage employers could ask whether there were multiple key tasks to break the monotony of the role, or whether the job was clearly placed in a wider context so that its relevance was understood.

Two common motivational methods that have developed from the job design model are job rotation and job enrichment. The former involves employees crossing over to tasks normally carried out by a colleague, and is designed to break up work (while creating a multi-skilled workforce). Tech giant Intel uses job rotation to fill temporary positions, which improves employee satisfaction, teaches new skills, broadens organisational knowledge – and keeps things moving.

Job enrichment introduces engaging elements to the role. A good example of this is asking an experienced employee to take on some coaching, adding interest and demonstrating recognition. Volvo introduced job enrichment schemes into its manufacturing plants as far back as the 1970s, recognising the issues with production-line dissatisfaction. Enrichment included small working groups, job rotation, and employee-owned councils.

Understanding Hackman & Oldham’s model as engagement ‘drivers’

There are few models that translate so easily to engagement drivers – which proves just how comprehensive Hackman & Oldham’s Job Characteristics Model is.

The skills variety characteristic addresses Growth and the need for employees to feel a sense of personal and professional development from their role, which can partly be addressed by job rotation and enrichment as we’ve discussed. Task significance highlights the need for Meaningful Work and the importance of the link between the role and the organisation’s success to be clear.

Hackman & Oldham also singled out the value of employee Autonomy, in line with similar findings by Ryan & Deci, and Locke. The ability to approach a task in one’s own way goes a long way to reducing repetition, and the feelings of alienation that routine can bring. Identity and feedback ensure that Goal-Setting and Recognition are being met: the model has genuine two-way communication at its centre.

If we design our jobs with these characteristics in mind, employees in any role will be more motivated and productive. For identifying these essential factors, and presenting them so clearly, Hackman & Oldham fully deserve to be hailed as heroes of engagement.



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