Hygiene factors vs. motivators: applying the lens of two-factor theory to processes

In the 1960s, a psychologist named Frederick Herzberg developed a “two-factor theory” for management, saying that some things are “hygiene factors” for people and other things are “motivators.” A hygiene factor needs to be present, but to a minimal extent; a motivator creates continued incentive the more it’s available.

Now, I don’t agree with Herzberg about this approach to managing people–it’s very behaviorist. However, you can use the lens of two-factor theory to think about how people are perceiving processes. Are people perceiving this process as a hygiene factor (a necessary evil)? Or are they perceiving the process as a motivator (something they want to build and improve)?

If people see a process as a hygiene factor, it’s something that has to exist but they want as little to do with it as possible. For example, most people don’t tend to enjoy the travel & expense reporting process, but they understand it’s needed for legal reasons or to get their reimbursements.

However, if people see a process as a motivator, then it’s something they want to put more time into because they know there will be a return. For example, people may find their fantasy football league process to be a motivator–they want the process to be better and better because they feel it’s fun. Or they’re a HR recruiter and they want to improve the recruiting process, because they see the process as strategic.

My canonical example for applying two-factor theory as a lens is the process of change management. Do people in your organization see change management as a hygiene factor (they don’t like it, but it has to exist to satisfy audit)? Or do they perceive change management as a motivator (they see that by investing more in change management, they wake up less at 2 AM to deal with service outages)?

I’ve found this lens is really helpful for understanding your current state and potential gaps in expectations. You might want the process to be a motivator, and are acting as if everyone else wants that too. But if most people are thinking of the process as a hygiene factor, you’ve got work to do to build quick wins and to show people enough value that they start thinking of the process as a motivator.

If your process is being perceived as a hygiene factor right now, is that the goal? Or is the process more strategic, and should it become a motivator?