The Demotivation Trap and What You Can Do About It

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There are many textbook definitions of what managers are supposed to do, but perhaps one of the more pragmatic definitions is by Peter Drucker:

"A manager is paid to enable those people who are able and capable of work to earn their wage and not hinder them in the process." Peter Drucker at Claremont Graduate School (1976)

Along this line, Drucker pointed out that, "People know they're on the payroll to get work out. They respect this and also want to respect the company and manager they work for. When people aren't allowed to do the work they're paid for, they lose respect."

The Seven Keys to Motivation

There are seven key areas in which Drucker suggested the manager needs to ask questions relative to motivating performance that include:

  • The performance of your people
  • Time–the scarce resource
  • Taking responsibility for relationships with others
  • Establishing and maintaining relationships with others
  • Accountability for results
  • The relationship with your manager
  • Assignment control and staffing


In terms of motivating the performance of your people, Drucker suggested the first thing you as a manager can do today is to ask the following questions:

  • What does this organization do that allows your people to do the job they are paid for?

When you've identified what "helps," provide them with more.

When you've identified what "hinders," remove it. In terms of what hinders your employees the most, don’t speculate and assume you know–ask your employees.


  • Am I wasting my people’s time?

Another area worthy of exploration is the resource of time. No matter what the demand for time, there's no more supply–it's a perishable resource.

Investigate to see if you're taking time away from your people by making them do things they really aren’t paid for.

In other words, make sure your people can do the work they're paid for and have the necessary tools to do it.

Understanding Relationships

  • Who depends on me for information, ideas, products, etc.?
  • Whose input is my output?
  • Who do I depend on for my input?

As a manager, you must take responsibility for your relationships. When you've answered these questions, take responsibility for establishing and maintaining the relationship. It will probably be no surprise to find many of these relationships are with your counterparts in other functional areas.

Drucker pointed out that, "Work and information flow sideways thorough the organization, not through the organization chart."

Therefore, it would also be helpful to keep in mind that you're responsible for the work of other people, not just subordinates. This includes yourself, your manager, your peers, and finally, your subordinates, in the order of easiest to control, to most difficult to control.

Maintaining Relationships

This logically leads to the fourth area of how to establish and maintain relationships, and can be summarized by a very simple Drucker rule:

"Don’t ever assume there are mind readers at work." 

Drucker, in support of this rule stated, "There is no such thing as a communications problem–you have not told them and further more, assumed they understood."

Therefore, concentrate on relationships, not communications. You can’t assume that people you deal with don’t need to know–take responsibility by keeping them informed and let them make the decision whether they need to know or not.

People don't trust things they don't understand, so make sure they understand. They may not approve of what you're doing, but they should at least know what you're trying to do.

Also, it's important they understand what you're not trying to do otherwise people will be working on it.


The fifth area you should investigate is accountability by asking the next series of questions:

  • What do you do that explains your being on the payroll?
  • Why do you do this work?
  • If you don’t do this, what happens?

When you've answered these questions, take responsibility for the results and contribution, and demand the same of everyone who reports to you.

After you've accomplished this, appraise the results of your people–don’t judge. Your job is not to judge people, but to get them to perform.

With respect to this analysis or appraisal, don’t let effort absorb you–remind yourself of why it's done, and what the result is supposed to be.

The Relationship With Your Manager

The sixth area to explore closely corresponds to relationships and specifically, the relationship you have with your manager. In this regard, it would be helpful to ask him/her the following questions:

  • What do I need to know about what you're trying to do?
  • What is it that you consider to be our organization’s greatest contribution?
  • What is it you think I should be doing to support you?
  • What is it I should be concentrating on and held accountable for?

When you have answers to these questions, establish a priority list of what must be done, and begin by concentrating on the first thing on your list. When you've completed the first thing, don’t go on to number two on the list, but rather make another priority list. You may find number two is still number two, replaced by something more critical.

Assignment Control

The seventh and final area is Assignment Control, or as traditional management texts describe it–staffing.

Every six months, make a list of the people who report to you, deliver and produce. Then ask the question:

  • Are they assigned where the results are?

If they're not assigned where the demands are for results, they're being mis-allocated. Look at these assignments every six months in terms of planning.

Drucker stated, "Plans fail because you don’t allocate an individual who can perform."

If you identify an opportunity in your plan that can be exploited, it should be staffed with people who can deliver.

In terms of making this list, don’t get confused between performance and potential. If you have someone on the list that has potential, ask what he or she has done. Don’t be mislead by those with high potential, but don’t deliver–look for low potential people who perform.

Drucker expanded on this idea by indicating that, "Low potential people have learned to perform, to do honest work and not to fail because they aren't bright enough to improvise."

Finally, don’t leave high performing people assigned to problem areas too long for it's a poor use of them.

Assigning the best salesmen to move the dead products in Drucker’s view, "May be an honest and respectable goal, but it's hard work, useless, and the quickest way to create a market for competition."

Drucker on Motivation

"There are only two books that a publisher doesn't lose money on–cook books and books on motivation. The reason is, they're purchased by people who can do neither."-  Peter Drucker, Drucker’s Criticism of the Behavioral Sciences and Motivational Theories

"There've been no major substantive intellectual breakthroughs in our understanding of employee motivation since the Hawthorne Study of seventy years ago (Elton Mayo)." - Peter Drucker

Drucker’s quote above is in reference to a major event that led to the evolution of the Human Relations School in the 1930s. This was the conclusions that were generally reached as a result of the infamous "Hawthorne Studies" by Elton Mayo and his colleagues at Harvard, F.J. Roethlisberger and T. N. Whitehead.

Although the studies were originally designed to attempt to measure changes in the employees’ working environment and their effect on productivity (the "Illumination Experiments"), it was finally discovered that the changes that were observed were the result of other factors, such as how the employees were treated.

This led to the "human relations-be kind to people" approach to motivation that was really more manipulative than sincere in attempts to improve productivity. Drucker therefore felt that nothing meaningful in the way of research on motivation has occurred since then.

Of the 39 books Drucker wrote, not one was solely dedicated to discussing leadership and motivation–in fact, Drucker had little use for the behavioral sciences.

Drucker’s major criticism of the behavioral science was that many of their theories focused on job satisfaction and ignored productivity. The problem he cited here was that there was no measurement as to what employee satisfaction really is. If the mean score on the results of employee attitude surveys registered 85, are the employees more satisfied than if the score was 75?

Drucker also argued that there was no evidence from the behavioral sciences to substantiate that employee satisfaction results in any better organizational performance–in other words a "happy worker" is not necessarily a productive worker.

Actually, Drucker did feel Frederick Herzberg’s "Two-Factor" theory of motivation was useful as a diagnostic tool in terms of assessing an organization’s environment from the perspective of "dissatisfiers" that tended to support his own views on motivation.

Drucker therefore made a limited contribution to this school based on a somewhat simplistic approach to leadership and motivation as shared in this article.

The Research Supports Drucker’s Views

Many studies have been conducted in an attempt to show a relationship between job satisfaction and productivity, and the results of those studies actually support Drucker’s views in terms of their inability to prove a positive relationship.

Some other studies have actually suggested a causal relationship exists in the opposite direction in that productivity leads to job satisfaction.

These studies concluded that, "If you do a good job, you intrinsically feel good about it. Additionally, assuming that the organization rewards productivity, your higher productivity should increase verbal recognition, your pay level and probabilities for promotion.

These rewards, in turn, increase your level of satisfaction with the job." Once again, this different relationship may actually support Drucker’s views on motivation.

Drucker took a completely different and unique approach to the subject of motivation by expressing the following views:

  • It's easier to de-motivate people than to motivate them.

  • The best way to motivate people is through example.

  • To set an example by having standards, both of performance and of basics, by realizing that being a manager is not a rank and a privilege, but a responsibility.

To motivate professionals, knowledge people and managers is by making demands on them for performance and responsibility. 

What De-motivates Your People?

In keeping with Drucker’s view, refer to the following statements and ask if you and your organization are contributing to some of these de-motivators. My Organization and Management:

  • Creates a company environment of internal politics as the way to get promoted.
  • Promotes destructive internal competition between workers.
  • Changes the rules in the middle of a project.
  • Creates unclear expectations regarding employee's performance and results.
  • Creates a bureaucracy of forms and reports and unnecessary rules for individuals to follow.
  • Over manages (tells what to do, how to do, and controls) vs. leading and does not allow autonomy.
  • Withholds information that individuals need to perform their jobs, lying, and claiming it’s a misunderstanding.
  • Takes time from people by having them attend unproductive meetings.
  • Emphasizes criticism and negative feedback vs. recognition and positive feedback.
  • Tolerates poor performance of others so that high performing people feel taken advantage of.
  • Treats people unfairly and show favoritism to a select few.
  • Under utilizes the capabilities of people and inhibits their personal growth.

What Should You Do as Manager?

Refer to the above statements. These were management actions that Drucker felt contributed to employee de-motivation. Which actions do you and your organization need to change to create a more positive and motivating environment?

Also review the seven key areas Drucker suggested contribute to organizational performance and answer the key questions relative to each area.

Ideally, you'll find Drucker’s approach to be more useful as compared to reviewing the countless number of books and theories on employee motivation.

How does your organization measure up? Take the Demotivation Index test to find out.