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What Motivates the Modern Worker? Peter Drucker on Leading Millennials

Contributor: Robert Swaim
Posted: 01/17/2017
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When it comes to managing millennials, so-called “millennial experts” have it all wrong. Instead, the answers to effectively leading the youngest generation in the workforce can be found in a simple theory my friend Peter Drucker formulated 40 years ago. 

First, a majority of American millennials are “knowledge workers”—a term Drucker coined in 1959 to categorize professionals, such as computer programmers, who must engage in problem-solving or creative thinking. 

Once you learn to motivate and lead knowledge workers, you’ll discover that it’s unnecessary to develop a specialized management approach for millennials. Instead, understand the needs of the knowledge worker, then implement a consistent leadership style and practice for all ages. 

Manual Workers vs. Knowledge Workers 

In the 20th century, organizations and researchers focused on increasing the productivity of manual workers—people doing work with their hands. 

Studies by management theorists like Fredrick Taylor (Scientific Management), Max Weber (Bureaucratic Management), and Henry Fayol (Administrative Management) in the early 1900s led to a 50-fold increase in the productivity of manual workers.



Knowledge work, on the other hand, is all about handling and using information. Knowledge workers produce a different type of product, such as a new computer software program, a design for a new gadget, or a marketing campaign. 

In developed countries, there are far more knowledge workers than manual workers. Increasingly, knowledge is the key factor in a country’s international economic strength. Drucker stressed the need to understand how to increase the productivity of knowledge work. 

Drucker also said, “Where manual worker productivity has dramatically increased, the productivity of knowledge workers has been decreasing.” 

The question is: How do you measure and improve the productivity of knowledge workers when you can’t observe what they are doing in the same way you can do for manual workers? In other words, are they looking out the window at the birds, or are they creating a new product?

Reasons for Low Knowledge Worker Productivity

Peter F. Drucker identified the following reason for the decreasing productivity of the knowledge worker: The tendency to confuse busyness (filling out paper, passing paper back and forth, and attending meetings) with productivity. 

A study of knowledge workers in the United States revealed they feel less productive today compared to a decade ago. The decrease was attributed to technology, namely the Internet and time consumed reading and responding to emails each day.

The problem is few people know how to increase knowledge worker productivity. In fact, Drucker said, “Knowledge workers need to be led, not managed.” 

Understanding the Knowledge Worker

To boost their productivity, it is necessary to understand what motivates them:

  • They are motivated by achievement, not by fear, and they want to see the results of their work.
  • They consider the productivity of their work to be the quality, not quantity, of their output.
  • They are self-motivated—provided they have a positive organizational environment. They like to work on problems and find solutions. 
  • Money and promotional opportunities are low on their list of motivation factors—typically they are paid well and enjoy what they do. Their chief reward is in their job and the work itself, especially if it is meaningful and contributes to the organization.
  • They are self-directed, but need support from their manager. They have their own routines and patterns of work, which may not conform to the typical 9-to-5 office hours.
  • Their authorities and responsibilities need to be clear. They need to know what decisions they can make.
  • They are highly mobile and can move to a new company if learning and personal growth opportunities do not exist, or if they are underutilized in their present positions. As such, they are more committed to their professions rather than to the organization where they are employed.
  • Continuous learning in their field is extremely important.

As can be seen, the characteristics, job needs, and motivation for knowledge workers are considerably different than that of manual workers. (For more information on how to motivate manual workers, check out Part II of this story.) 

Contributor: Robert Swaim