Local Government Innovation & Redesign

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Can I say that out loud?

Originally published in the Winter 2004 issue of Human Resource Management, this paper by Rynes, Gerhart, and Minette cautions leaders and managers to be skeptical of scholarly articles and studies that deemphasize the importance of pay in recruitment, retention, and motivation.

...when asked directly about the importance of pay, people tend to give it answers that place somewhere around fifth (range = second to eighth) in lists of potential motivators. In contrast, meta-analytic studies of actual behaviors in response to motivational initiatives (second column) nearly always show pay to be the most effective motivator.

Why? The authors suggest that survey respondents are falling into a relatively common psychological trap: "socially desirable responding." That, even when their response is anonymous, they feel pressure to respond in a way consistent with societal norms. Nunnally and Bernstein suggest that this socially desirable response arises out of "either a lack of self-insight or a lack of frankness."

In the case of pay, people are likely to understate importance either because they misjudge how they might react to, say, an offer of a higher paying job, or due to social norms that view money as a less noble source of motivation than factors such as challenging work or work that makes a contribution to society.

This excerpt is among the most interesting, I think:

...The presence of socially desirable responding has been revealed using a number of other research techniques as well. For example, one common psychological research strategy is to adopt projective techniques (e.g., asking what people think others probably think or do, or asking them to create a motivational story from an ambiguous picture) to draw out sensitive or threatening information. A creative example of this approach was implemented by Jurgensen (1978), who assessed the relative importance of ten job characteristics (including pay) to 50,000 job applicants over a 30-year period by asking them to "decide which of the following [job attributes] is most important to you� (p. 268). Based on these direct responses, males reported pay to be only the fifth most important factor, while women reported it to be even lower (seventh; see Table I). However, when Jurgensen asked the same men and women to rank the importance of the same ten attributes to "someone just like yourself—same age, education, and gender,� pay jumped to first place among both men and women. In other words, job applicants seemed to believe that pay is the most important attribute to everyone except themselves!

It's important to note that recruitment ≠ retention ≠ motivation. Further, these results may not generalize across all workers or all occupations (and the authors of the primary paper note circumstances under which this generalization may not hold true). However, a growing body of literature seems to take a contrary position: that pay as a means to motivate employees is less effective than other techniques. How do you think this research informs current strategic human resource practices?

I'm not sure. At the very least, I learned a new dimension along which to evaluate the reliability of survey data. What other popularly-held assumptions should we skeptical of in light of this "social desirable response" bias?

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