Motivation and Our Regrets

By Sally Solidum-Protacio, 22 August 2013

One of the biggest challenges besetting work organizations has always been in the human capital domain of motivation and work productivity. Since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, a wealth of studies have been devoted to theory formulation and social research in finding the “holy grail” for achieving optimal work performance and employee satisfaction. Management has pumped millions in budget to address employee needs by providing improved compensation and benefit packages, developmental training and Organizational Development (OD) interventions, comprehensive health and safety programs, and a healthy balance of work-life experience. The measures are implemented on the assertions that satisfaction of employee “needs” leads to a motivated work force capable of achieving peak and efficient process output. Notwithstanding, there has been no letup to nagging human resource issues such as high turnover, low morale, increasing customer complaints, and discordant industrial relationship. Is there an arcane frontier that remains to be explored and mapped out in dealing with employee motivation?

Inspired by the collected observations of Bronnie Ware (2011), an Australian nurse who recorded the common regrets of the dying, I found myself exploring the concept of employee “regrets” and its correlation to employee motivation. Could there be a link between what individuals feel guilty about and how they perform at work? Classic motivational theories focus on satisfying employee “needs” (such as food, salary, security, self-esteem, etc.) to achieve employee satisfaction. Could there be more to satisfying employee “needs” other than providing extrinsic and intrinsic rewards? Will data on employee “regrets” enrich current understanding of what motivates employees to perform better?

The general perception of “regret” is one of negative emotion. It arouses undesirable feelings that stem from a sense of guilt due to a wrong-called decision (Connolly & Zeelenberg, 2002). A person experiences regret when a personal choice, out of a number of available options, does not go well, and there is no one to blame but one’s self. It comes into play when the “what if” or “what could have been” scenarios play boundlessly in the imagination, and a different choice (other than the faulty choice made) opens a prospect for changing the situation.

Recognizing the overwhelming magnitude of undertaking research on perceptions of regrets, I realistically confined my scale of study to the field of employment relations with the work organization as the arena of interest. Using survey as my research methodology, 13 perception statements were formulated to measure employee regrets. In collecting data, random sampling of respondents across various industries was undertaken. Most respondents were participants in an academic training program predominantly attended by HR practitioners, managers, and employees.Out of 72 responses from a total 100 survey forms distributed, the top ten regrets of employees were as follows:

  • I wish I am able to spend more time with my family or friends. (80.6%)
  • I wish I am less stressed and anxious. (69.4%)
  • I wish I am able to stay in touch with my friends, family or relatives more often. (68.1%)
  • I wish people would appreciate me and my work more. (66.7%)
  • I wish I am pursuing the work or career I really love to do or I am more passionate about. (61.1%)
  • I wish I am receiving a fair compensation commensurate to my effort, dedication and work time. (59.4%)
  • I wish I live a life true to my dreams, instead of what others expect of me or forced by circumstances. (58.3%)
  • I wish people will like me for who I really am. (58.3%)
  • I wish I am less fearful or unsure. (54.2%)
  • I wish I allow myself to be happier. (52.8%)

Pushing the study further, statistical tests were conducted to determine if employee regrets significantly correlate to employee motivational needs. Notably, the result funneled into two significant findings, suggesting the following implications:

  • As employee regrets intensify (due to losing touch of relations with friends and family), the employee becomes less engaged to pursue needs, thus resulting in decline in levels of motivation. Conversely, the lower the level of regret felt over losing touch with friends and family, the higher the employee’s level of motivation; and
  • Whenever employees regret not pursuing a happier life, the compulsion to do so or the level of motivation to achieve their desires intensify.It would therefore appear, at least from the random sampling of Filipino managers and employees surveyed across industries, that relationship with family and friends impact significantly on the employee’s motivational level. Likewise, the conscious pursuit for a happier life heightens the employee’s desire to achieve it.

These results should not be underestimated, especially when read against the current backdrop of corporate reward programs. Traditional perception overly emphasizes monetary rewards as motivational tools. Often, compensation is used as an enticing carrot in boosting performance and work force satisfaction. The study results, however, yield the contrary. There appears to be no significant correlation between regrets in monetary compensation and an individual’s level of motivation to pursue desires, career goals and other employee needs, save for mere statistical chance or error.

Perhaps, there is a need to further uncover the unfamiliar mantle of “Employee Regrets” and see how it can generate critical information that will deepen current understanding of motivation and employee satisfaction. While orthodox theories (such as those of Maslow, Herzberg, etc.) and corporate HR practices utilize “Needs” as the compass to point motivational orientations, it may be worthwhile to refocus optical paradigms towards considering “Regrets” as a tool for excavating negative emotions over past experiences. For instance, employee reward programs are ordinarily designed to cater to present employee needs. In far contrast, “Regrets” may provide a more analytical throughput churned from layers of inferences (e.g. “what if” or “what could have been” scenarios) that find their way in human introspection. Under new investigative lenses, the possibilities for analyzing, interpreting and dealing with conventional human resource issues, such as motivation, become endless.

Is there more to the quest of motivating employees to peak performance? Perchance, existing research have barely scratched the surface. By demystifying employee “Regrets,” investigative efforts provide a primordial step towards reinventing the industrial wheel of motivational work policies and paradigms.

The author is a consultant at the Tax Services Department of Isla Lipana & Co., the Philippine member firm of the PwC network. 


Views or opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Isla Lipana & Co. The firm will not accept any liability arising from such article; the author will be personally liable for any consequent damages or other liabilities.