Ability and Motivation on Employee Performance: Implications for Hiring

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Van Iddekinge, C. H., Aguinis, H., Mackey, J. D., & DeOrtentiis, P. S. (2017). A meta-analysis of the interactive, additive, and relative effects of cognitive ability and motivation on performance. Journal of Management, 44(1), 249–279. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206317702220

Employee performance, the thing all organizations wish to maximize. But what are the key things that influence employee performance? Specifically, what attributes do individuals possess that determine their performance on the job? According to Organizational Psychologists and researchers Iddekinge et al., it was indicated that there are two things that interact together to influence performance: cognitive ability and motivation. 

Motivation is defined by researchers Diefendorff & Chandler as “an unobservable force the directs, energizes, and sustains behavior”. It is the central force that influences performance by directing an employee’s attention, resources, and energy towards a task; and it dictates the amount of effort they may expend in order to achieve that goal. Motivation is present in many aspects of our lives. The force that makes you want to go to the gym (or insert something you actually enjoy doing), is the same force that drives you to complete a long-term project at work.

Cognitive ability, defined by researchers Hunter & Schmidt as “the capacity to mentally process, understand, and learn information”, is another critical element to employee performance at work. Cognitive ability allows employees to acquire, process, and use knowledge specific to the job in order to effectively perform job tasks. For example, if an employee is asked to learn a new computer program for their organization, they must be able to read, research, train and understand how this new program works so they can use it appropriately and potentially train other employees to use it as well. In other words, cognitive ability is how good employees can learn fast, to become better and better at more and more. 


In a meta-analysis by workplace scientists Van Iddekinge et al. they tested the common belief that employee performance is a result of the interactive combination of cognitive ability and motivation. Meaning, that these two elements combined improve performance in a multiplicative way to impact employee performance more than they do by themselves independently.  Meta-analyses are an examination of several independent studies over the same subject, and it attempts to determine what the overall trend is amongst those studies. In this meta-analysis the authors collected research studies (published and unpublished) that included measures of cognitive ability, motivation, and performance. Once they collected all the data output, they also requested the original data from the authors. That data was then used to calculate the multiplicative effects of cognitive ability and motivation on performance for each of the studies used. 

The authors used 56 independent studies (in this case the samples are articles from previous studies looking at cognitive ability, motivation, and performance) to test the proposed relationships. Additionally, all the studies that were included were either conducted in field settings that reflected job or training performance or laboratory settings that were designed to simulate job or training performance. Only studies that used objective measures of cognitive ability (such as: quantitative, verbal, or spatial ability) were included. Finally, they used the meta-analysis to dive into explaining the differences in cognitive ability and motivation in what magnitude they influence performance. 

Cognitive ability and motivation are good predictors of performance, this is true, but what Van Iddekinge et al., highlights is that both do not necessarily have to be present for one to influence performance. It is like saying that two people have to be present to change a lightbulb. One person can effectively change a lightbulb, right? So, motivation can influence performance on its own and cognitive ability can influence performance on its own. To say it a different way, an individual who is highly motivated but didn’t perform well on a cognitive ability assessment is not necessarily going to be a lower performer than someone who did well on the cognitive ability assessment and is not very motivated. In short, cognitive ability and motivation are separate indicators of employee performance. Iddekinge et al., (2018) discusses this longstanding belief in detail. The authors wanted to test the relationship between cognitive ability and motivation to see if the variables exerted additive or multiplicative effects on performance. Those words have very specific meaning in the context of managerial science, so we broke them down a little more. 

Additive effects: the effects of cognitive ability and motivation on performance are independent of each other, both do not have to be present for one to influence performance. 

  • Cognitive ability 🡪 Performance
  • Motivation 🡪 Performance 

This relationship holds that cognitive ability and motivation can separately impact performance. Meaning, an individual can display lower levels of motivation but could still be a good performer if they display high levels of cognitive ability. The same goes for those lower in cognitive ability. Maybe an individual scores average on cognitive ability, but they display high levels of motivation, so they are still meeting organizational standards. This means that cognitive ability can influence performance on its own and motivation can influence performance on its own. 

Multiplicative: When one is low in cognitive ability, they will demonstrate low levels of performance regardless of the level of motivation and vice versa. Maybe this looks like a brilliant employee who is extremely lazy or a really motivated person who struggles to catch on to new tasks. It makes sense in either of these situations that performance might be lower.

  • Cognitive ability x Motivation 🡪 Performance

Basically, this hypothesis asserts that performance levels will likely be lower if an individual does not possess high levels of BOTH cognitive ability and motivation. Or that performance levels will be the best when individuals are both brilliant and very motivated. 


So, which is better, cognitive ability or motivation? The short answer is both are important, and one is not necessarily better than the other. They both influence performance in different ways. This is important because if one were to assume that an individual can only be a good performer if they are both highly intelligent and motivated then you may underestimate that extremely motivated and hardworking individual who isn’t a math genius or that leisurely, slow working individual who is an excel wizard. It might be possible, in some cases, that being high in one of these things can compensate for lower levels in another. 

If your organization wants to hire candidates who are likely to perform well, should you hire individuals who are highly motivated and perform well on cognitive ability assessments? Having both would definitely be a bonus but could also consider hiring an individual who may have scored low in cognitive ability but shows high levels of motivation. Now, let’s say that you hired a bunch of employees because they had high scores on a cognitive ability assessment, but they are still performing below your organization’s performance standards. This might mean you have a motivation problem. These are just a few examples of how the two might trade off in certain circumstances. 

To break it down further, think of it this way. 

  1. Being high in both cognitive ability and motivation is good. In fact, in some cases there is incremental validity, meaning there is a slight increase in your high performing employee who possess both high levels of cognitive ability and high level of motivation.
  2. Being high in one can still be good as they can compensate for each other (i.e. they predict performance independent of each other).
  3. Being low in both cognitive ability and motivation might present some problems.

You see the dilemma? We can’t begin to influence performance accurately unless we know the how and why behind the relationship of the things that we believe are predicting performance. Iddekinge et al., (2018) point out some other reasons why it is important to consider how motivation and cognitive ability are influencing performance. Here are some implications for talent management practices… 

  • Since the evidence in the study indicates cognitive ability and motivation are more additive in nature (and influencing performance independently) organizations should measure both to identify top performers. 
  • Evaluating both cognitive ability and motivation independently before hiring can inform if a candidate will be a good performer. They can potentially score lower in one domain and still be a good performer. 
  • Perhaps setting a minimum or average score cutoff across both of these dimensions to identify who may be a potential good hire. 
  • Ability is a better predictor of objective performance measures like sales output and productivity.
  • Motivation is a better predictor of supervisor rated performance. 
  • Interventions aimed at improving motivation, increasing employee engagement for example, should focus on employees of all ability levels.

Here’s the main take away, organizations might be missing out on valuable candidates by trying to hire those that are high in both of these areas. This research shows that while being high on both is better, these dimensions can compensate for each other. 

Employees high in motivation and low in cognitive ability may just need a little more training and time to learn while those employees that are very smart and not very motivated may need more encouragement or a more supportive environment to drive their performance. Keep both in mind when assessing performance and remember not to disregard applicants who may have lower levels of one (i.e., cognitive ability or motivation) compared to the other, they may still be a good performer!

Actionable Steps

If you read all that and you are wondering what to do if you encounter these problems, here are some suggestions. 

  1. Use both cognitive ability and personality measure of conscientiousness (detail orientation, dependability, need for achievement, etc.) when hiring new employees. 
  2. Evaluate your organization levels of motivation and employee engagement to help shape the organizational environment to support your employees with lower levels of motivation. 
  3. Make sure you are using a good cognitive ability measure. Consult and IO psychologist for help! Or do some google scholar searches and see what current research is supporting and go from there. 
  4. Know what your organization needs. Your current needs will determine if it is more important to focus on improving motivation or cognitive ability.  
  5. Know what your employees need. Those who have higher levels of cognitive ability may learn faster than those who score lower. Know what employees might need additional training. 
  6. Try a needs analysis. Evaluate employee performance and then create an intervention based on those findings. 

Authors: Cassidy Jordan, Thomas Ayres & Brandon Jordan

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