Motivation Versus Discipline for a Leader

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Motivation Versus Discipline

When it comes to the topic of leadership and motivation, there are two general approaches. The first approach states that a leader should pay attention to motivating the subordinates since they are less likely to work hard without external influence. Motivation can take various forms — from explaining the importance of a company’s mission for the common good to monetary rewards for well-performed assignments. On the other hand, there is an argument that professionals do not need extra motivation from the leader since they are supposed to work hard. As such, solid work ethics and inner discipline are perceived as a part of a mandatory package of a qualified employee. On some occasions, a business may indeed require improvement of discipline before everything else. However, while subordinates with high work rate levels and professional discipline require less attention from the leader, they still need extra motivation to perform their duties. Therefore, a leader should invest time in the motivation of workers to achieve the best possible performance levels.

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Importance of Motivation

Dealing with people who lost motivation and became disengaged with their work and its results might become frustrating. However, Cable (2018) warned leaders from falling into a counterproductive mindset that treats workers’ unhappiness as a flaw that can be rectified by forcing them to work harder. Instead, it is suggested to follow the basics of human psychology and explain to subordinates why their work is valuable. According to Cable (2018), it is natural for human beings to shut off and become disengaged when they feel that their potential is wasted on menial tasks. Cable (2018) provides an example of a website developer who had to work day by day only to meet the metrics, which eventually turned his job into a boring routine. Therefore, a leader is obligated to motivate subordinates in order to prevent possible performance deterioration related to such cases of professional burnout.

In addition to psychological explanation, there is empirical evidence that supports the importance of motivation. For instance, Sardjana and Suharto (2019) studied factors affecting employees’ professional performance at the Sebelas Maret University in Surakarta, Indonesia. While all three factors — discipline, motivation, and remuneration affected the performance simultaneously, discipline produced the least significant influence (Sardjana & Suharto, 2019). On the contrary, motivation was the most critical aspect of performance, and remuneration enhanced it further (Sardjana & Suharto, 2019). Therefore, psychological and material motivation has been confirmed as critical factors of employees’ performance. These results align with a sentiment that human workers require external motivation since they are not robots whose sole purpose lies in serving their superiors efficiently. Moreover, effective motivation directly improves the worker’s performance, so a leader should not neglect it. Furthermore, additional remuneration appeared to amplify the benefits of psychological motivation. This correlation is understandable since subordinates have to pay the bills, feed the families if they have them, and satisfy various material needs.

The importance of motivation over discipline has been confirmed by research in other spheres of professional activities. Hersona and Sidharta (2017) conducted a study on 159 employees at the Department of Manpower and Transmigration in Karawang Regency, Indonesia. According to its results, the most dominant influence on employees’ performance had leadership function with 37,15% (Hersona & Sidharta, 2017). Motivation had a total influence of 21,10%, which is almost twice higher as a discipline with 11,40% (Hersona & Sidharta, 2017). Overall, these numbers confirm that a leader must provide guidance to subordinates and motivate them. Reliance on workers’ discipline would be a lazy approach on the leader’s part since leadership and motivation have a greater impact on employees’ performance. Hersona and Sidharta (2017) admit that work discipline can significantly influence the behavior of a particular employee and ultimately affect their performance. However, a leader should focus on the bigger picture and treat any violations of professional discipline and work ethics individually. Therefore, the right course of action for a leader lies in the constant motivation of their team with a combination of psychological and material elements. If a leader wants the subordinates to work as hard as possible, they must provide them with a clear purpose and leave room for professional self-expression. Appropriate financial compensation such as decent wages and premiums for the best-performing employees can also serve as a valuable means of motivation.

Importance of Discipline or Why Motivation Can Be Less Important

While various sources confirm the positive impact of motivation on performance, it is necessary to explore the opposite argument. First of all, a particular sphere of activity might require discipline and work ethic over the motivation for optimal performance. Pawirosumarto et al. (2017) studied the influence of leadership style, motivation, and discipline at PT Kiyokuni Indonesia, the manufacturer of Epson printer products. Contrary to similar research at the Sebelas Maret University, discipline appeared to be the most powerful influence on workers’ performance (Pawirosumarto et al., 2017). In this case, motivation was less important, despite providing an overall positive impact on performance (Pawirosumarto et al., 2017). Therefore, a leader should understand the specific traits of a particular business sphere. Self-expression and creative freedom might be more important for a teacher, whereas a worker on the assembly line might need stricter discipline to perform better. However, it does not mean that people occupied in manual labor can be left without psychological or financial motivation entirely. Treating plant workers as cogs in the machine would still lead to the deterioration of their performance.

Another way in which motivation can be arguably inferior to discipline is the longevity of a positive impact on performance. Tang (2018) compared motivation to a sugar rush, a short-living external source of inspiration. In that regard, discipline can be compared to a steam engine that allows one to keep going regardless of the wind (Tang, 2018). Therefore, discipline might be perceived as a heavy-duty motor that drives a person to perform better and achieve greater goals. However, a leader should remember that not every person has a significant level of inherent discipline. As a result, a leader cannot expect subordinates to perform well only because discipline obligates them. In the end, motivation provides a necessary safeguarding measure that prevents performance drops due to the lack of discipline.


A leader might think that investing time in motivating the subordinates is not worth it. In certain spheres of activity, discipline might have more impact on performance as opposed to motivation. Moreover, if the leader is lucky enough to have a team of subordinates with high levels of inherent discipline, it would become feasible to pay less attention to motivation. However, a total neglection of motivation would be harmful since it has a confirmed positive impact on the performance of even well-disciplined employees. Overreliance on professional ethics and discipline can lead to significant deterioration of performance because the subordinates might stop seeing the purpose of their work. Therefore, a leader should always motivate employees depending on what level and type of motivation are necessary for optimal results.

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Cable, D. (2018). Why people lose motivation — and what managers can do to help. Harvard Business Review.

Hersona, S., & Sidharta, I. (2017). Influence of leadership function, motivation and work discipline on employees’ performance. Journal of Applied Management, 15(3), 528-537.

Pawirosumarto, S., Sarjana, P. K., & Muchtar, M. (2017). Factors affecting employee performance of PT. Kiyokuni Indonesia. International Journal of Law and Management, 59(4), 602-614.

Sardjana, E., Sudarmo, S., & Suharto, D. G. (2019). The effect of remuneration, work discipline, motivation on performance. International Journal of Multicultural and Multireligious Understanding, 5(6), 136-150.

Tang, S. (2018). Motivation is useless: The key to getting it done. Medium.

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BusinessEssay. 2022. "Motivation Versus Discipline for a Leader." September 14, 2022.

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BusinessEssay. "Motivation Versus Discipline for a Leader." September 14, 2022.