Business owners and managers have always been concerned with how best to motivate employees, producing different philosophies of motivation based on rewards and punishments or inspiring employees to do more through other means. All philosophies of motivation at work raise ethical questions that are rarely considered in depth by most business owners.

Effective and Ineffective Motivation

Some companies use a management style based on the authority of the company to discipline, fire or reward employees depending on their productivity and behavior at work. This management style is based on the employees' fear of negative consequences or at best on the employees' self-interest. As such, it is often ineffective. Employees frequently respond to this management style with intense resentment and with various strategies designed to keep management in the dark or reduce the workload as much as possible. Some highly successful companies employ a management style based on giving employees the authority and responsibility to govern themselves and their own work. Most companies do something in between these two approaches, with results varying based on the talents and personalities involved.

Motivation by Fear

Motivation by fear and self-interest is usually ineffective. This theory of motivation is based on the assumption that people make their decisions based on a rational analysis of their interests in the situation. Thus, if an employee knows that extra productivity will earn him a bonus while unacceptable productivity will get him fired, he should theoretically increase his productivity. In reality, emotional states play a much larger role in motivation than this approach can account for. A work environment based on fear is a depressing place to be. When people feel depressed, they are less motivated and less productive.

Inner Motivation

If employees cannot effectively be motivated by fear of consequences or desire for rewards, management needs to find some other way to motivate them. One approach is to try to inspire the inner motivation of employees by various means. The idea behind this philosophy of motivation is that people want to achieve worthwhile things at work and will be deeply motivated from within if given the opportunity to do so. However, this approach is often not as effective as the theory would assume, because many employees continue to resent management and resist attempts to increase productivity. This problem occurs when management applies the concept of inner motivation solely to manipulate employees to produce more. In reality, this is simply a variation on managing through fear and rewards. If management sees employees as a means to an end, the employees will not respond with genuine inner motivation.

Ethical Solutions

Approaching the issue of motivation from an ethical perspective can resolve the dilemma of how to deeply motivate employees. A core principle of ethical philosophy is that all people should be treated as ends and not as means to other ends. This means that each person must be valued for his own sake and not for the benefits he can provide. For instance, the company's delivery driver should never be treated as a mere resource to be punished, rewarded or motivated into making more deliveries within a smaller time frame for the company's benefit. Instead, she should always be treated as a human being with legitimate needs, wishes and feelings, such as the need for time off to spend with family. An employee who feels valued and respected by the company is likely to be deeply motivated to reciprocate by working hard.