Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | October 3, 2011

HR Concepts: Stimuli

By Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA

We are motivated when a stimulus spurs us into doing something. The stimulus can be internal – I want to save money for a new outfit. It can be external – The weather report calls for heavy rain. I need to leave early for work tomorrow. The stimulus may come from circumstances – My rent is due. It may come from another person – My boss expects me to be prepared for this meeting. Or, it may come from membership in a group – The scouts expect me to wear my uniform on the trip. Wherever it originates, a stimulus kick starts our internal engine. It gets us to put our transmission into drive so that we can achieve a goal, satisfy a need, or change a situation.

Managers often talk to Human Resources Professionals about motivation – all too often in negative terms. They say things like, “Barney isn’t motivated” or “I don’t know what it takes to motivate Molly.” They rarely talk about a stimulus. An astute HR Professional helps line managers look for and maximize the value of a stimulus.

In St. Louis, a Customer Service Manager complained that she was tired of trying to motivate people to get to work on time. In the midst of a conversation, the HR Manager asked her what it was like for people to arrive at work on time in her department. “I never thought about that,” said the Customer Service Manager. “What does that have to do with motivating people to get to work on time?” The HR Manager paused for a moment and then responded with, “Everything.”

Have you ever stopped to think about why you stop at a coffee shop on the way to work to spend three dollars for a cup of coffee that you could get for free at the office? Is it the quality of the coffee or is it a few seconds of interaction with a cheerful Barista behind the counter? Think of it this way – Do you change coffee shops because of the quality of the coffee or the quality of your interaction with the Barista? In all likelihood, the stimulus that motivates you to spend three dollars you do not have to spend is the interaction with the Barista. (You may argue that you get a latte that is not available at work. That justifies the $4.50 for the latte, but it does not change the stimulus that got you into the coffee shop in the first place.)

The interesting thing about stimuli is that in the greater scheme of things most of them are small. An earthquake would be a big stimulus that would motivate you to move quickly. A smiling manager with a friendly good morning on the way to your desk would not be a big stimulus. It would be a welcome experience that would quietly motivate you to come back to work the next day.

The challenge for the HR Professional is to be constantly on the lookout for stimuli that motivate or de-motivate people at work. They are everywhere. One of the most obvious is a performance review. Does a once a year discussion provide a stimulus that motivates an employee to do a good job for the ensuing twelve months? The answer is no, not by itself. Does an honest discussion that summarizes an on-going dialogue about performance, sets clear goals for the future, and commits the supervisor and the employee to continue the on-going dialogue motivate an employee to do the best job he or she can do? The answer is yes, it does.

The frequent question then for an HR professional is, “Does this system, policy, or practice provide a stimulus to motivate people to do what we expect them to do?” In manufacturing, for example, it is common to find a month end bonus system (stimulus) that motivates production workers to ship products by month end. The result is often a mad rush to get products out the back door before the close of business on the last day of the month. Within days, however, new trucks arrive at the loading dock to return defective products that result from a poorly planned stimulus. The same thing happens in Sales. Incentive plans stimulate sales professionals to meet month end targets. In the rush to meet the target, they make promises that cannot be kept to make a sale. Disappointed customers take their future business elsewhere.

The HR Professional plays a key role in the design of these systems. He or she constantly analyzes each stimulus to determine if it motivates employees to do what the organization expects them to do. In the case of manufacturing, quality must be designed into the stimulus; in sales it must include customer satisfaction.

Unfortunately, finding a stimulus is not always as clear as quality and customer service. A manager, for example, may lose confidence in an employee. Instead of talking to the employee about the issue, the manager unconsciously avoids contact with the employee. On the few occasions when they do meet, the manager talks to the employee in a new stern or less formal voice. The reduced contact and the changed tone become stimuli that “motivate” the employee to become nervous and make more mistakes.

Meetings provide another example. Have you ever noticed that the same people are constantly late to meetings? The people who arrive on time are forced to wait for their tardy colleagues. When the forever late coworker arrives, they have to start over, summarize what has already occurred, or rush through the agenda to end on time. Not having to worry about being late is the stimulus. The late participant is motivated to be late by knowing that there is no consequence, but rather a reward for their annoying behavior.

The middle performance review rating may provide the best example of a stimulus gone wrong. Most employers use “Satisfactory.” Some use “Meets Expectations.” Still others use the number “3.” At least one uses “Competent.” Do any of those motivate an employee to do a good job in the upcoming review period? A stimulus sensitive HR Professional might change such a rating to something like “Successful.” They might follow the lead of one of their colleagues in Minnesota who designed a review form with a middle rating of “Doing Just Fine.”

A motivated person takes action. They do something. They are spurred to act by a stimulus. Successful HR Professionals develop a keen knack for finding, understanding, and influencing stimuli within the organization. They analyze every stimulus they encounter to determine if it has a positive or negative influence on employee morale, performance, and productivity. They design programs and systems that provide positive stimuli to motivate employees, managers and employees to create successful organizations.

Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA, designs and presents on-site seminars and workshops for front-line workplace leaders. He provides coaching support for supervisors and supports HR professionals through special projects to help their organizations achieve strategic goals. Mike writes HR Concepts to help HR professionals better understand and use fundamental HR principles. Share your feedback on this article with Mike at


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