The Power of Moderation

Have you ever heard of “mild commitment,” “soft motivation,” “moderate consensus,” “peripheral values” or “balanced loyalty”? It’s unlikely. Business and management publications are replete with articles about strong commitment, deep motivation, wide consensus, core values and unquestioned loyalty. So in their quest for improved efficiency, continuous innovation and other business goals, companies have repeatedly launched programs to strengthen, deepen, widen or harden whatever quality that is perceived to be essential to success. When it comes to management issues, businesses are in love with the extreme. Mild is only lukewarm, and the half-hearted need not apply.

To make matters worse, companies have been continually raising the ante. Years ago, “motivation” sufficed as an important attribute of employees. Today, even “strong” motivation has apparently started to look feeble, and the pumped-up concept of “volition” has begun to gain currency. Can talk of “strengthening” or “deepening” volition be far off? Before that day arrives, though, managers might best ask themselves why they’ve been so fired up about highly involved employees in the first place.

Why the Drive for Intensity?

Theories of organizational behavior and economics offer several explanations. First, high involvement through loyalty and organizational culture is a way of ensuring that workers are not excessively opportunistic (that is, selfish), thus reducing the cost of monitoring their behavior. Second, hierarchies (that is, organizations) operate by rules and authority, which require employee commitment, motivation and identification with the company’s goals. Third, internal coordination is much easier when everyone shares strong values. Fourth, sustained cooperative behavior requires a high degree of consensus about organizational goals and legitimate authority, and strong cultures and identities stabilize such a consensus. Lastly, intense motivation, strong cultures and deep values help focus everyone’s attention on a narrow range of relevant issues, while also providing guidelines for group decision making.

To be sure, companies can reap valuable benefits from high involvement: maximum worker efforts, producing great efficiency in exploiting available resources; autonomous adaptive behavior, resulting in quick responses to shifts in market demands and other changes in the environment; and mobilization of individual and collective resources, spurring creative ideas that may give the organization an edge over its competitors. But does that mean that organizations always benefit from an abundance of employee motivation, commitment, loyalty and the like?

The Downside of High Involvement

The simple fact is that high-involvement strategies have numerous organizational risks.

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