Transcending the context in which it originally arose is the mark of a great insight. Truth, in the sense of power to explain or predict, is another.
Dating from the 1950s, Fred Herzberg’s theory of motivation is just such an insight in my opinion. And I wondered, watching the November 2nd US election, whether Karl Rove, chief strategist to Dubya, realised the debt he owed to Fred’s understanding. I’m sure he did.
Under normal circumstances, productivity, according to Fred’s theory – for this example read voter-turnout - potters along at some dismally low level that he called the ‘potter line’. His research taught him he could realistically draw this line anywhere between 35% and 55% of maximum as a rule. In order to bump up productivity, management traditionally delivered some kind of KITA – a kick in the arse. KITA was either something ‘positive’, a pay-rise say, or something ‘negative’ such as replacing half the workforce. Short-term, whatever the KITA, the effects were invariably good and the potter line went up. The improvement though was quite temporary and pottering soon resumed. The problem Fred's work revealed though was that it always settled at a lower level than pre-KITA.
His insight, when it came to explaining this phenomenon, was to realise that motivation had two components. One of them, motivators, would only have a lasting impact when the other, hygiene, was in place. So he set about describing what we now call hygiene factors - things that don’t, of themselves, motivate us much, but whose absence totally demotivates us.
‘It’s the economy, stupid’, Bill Clinton’s famous election-winning call to arms was essentially an appeal to hygiene factors. So was Karl Rove’s endlessly repeated ‘he shares your values’ message as Dubya endlessly spouted the ‘three Gs’ – God, guns and gays. By whipping up the latent BAC (born-again Christian) hygiene vote in this way, Rove raised the potter line itself.
Then there’s KITA. Clinton lacked any KITA and got by on hygiene alone. Dubya had 9/11, as much KITA as any motivator could wish for. It gave him the terror-nightmare threat that compelled his base to vote out of fear. As far as the non-base was concerned, removing Dubya was itself hygiene enough, though not quite. That’s why Rove was able to say that people voted for Kerry because of who he wasn’t rather than who he was – practically no motivation there at all. The upshot was a motivated electorate with record turnouts, third-world queues at polling places and a practically 50-50 split.
As for the next election, expect the Bush name to get the big hygiene build-up for four years, driving up the fundies' potter line. And watch out for the next KITA.