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Dr W. Edwards Deming

Forces of destruction

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Dr W. Edwards Deming
Published: 21 Feb 2024

Christopher Chinapoo CQP FCQI and Dr Kevan Leach from the CQI’s Deming special interest group look at the perils of extrinsic motivators in systemic perspectives and how to build functional relationships and teams.

'Forces of destruction' are the consequences – intended or otherwise – of the way we organise and operate relationships, either in a commercial or social setting. How we handle those relationships can be a force for good, conveying learning, development and growth, or one of destruction, through the way we manage and treat others within those associations.

To accomplish anything, we need to communicate with and engage the help of others. How we do that will have a profound effect on any outcome.

Dr W. Edwards Deming made an indelible mark on quality management and provided invaluable insights into the perils of overreliance on extrinsic motivators within organisational settings.

Businesses often overlook or dismiss Deming's caution against practices such as reward and recognition, pay for performance, and other forms he considered manipulation. This oversight can lead to unforeseen demoralisation of people, relationships and the vital interactions required for cooperation and success.

Here, we explore Deming's perspective on the adverse effects of extrinsic motivators and delve into the systemic approach he advocated.

What are the forces of destruction?

The forces of destruction encompass mechanisms and organisational norms that, while often implemented with good intentions, work against the inherent intrinsic motivation of individuals.

These forces undermine the natural tendencies of people who are born with an exploratory, knowledge-acquiring, and innovative mindset; people are naturally intrinsically motivated and social at heart.

The essence of these forces lies in societal norms that erode the innate growth instincts of individuals, acting as inhibitors to natural development. The imposition of even well-intentioned mechanisms and rules can inadvertently stifle the intrinsic motivation with which individuals are born. Rather than nurturing the inherent drive for exploration and innovation, these forces of destruction create barriers, hindering personal and professional growth and fostering disengagement.

Analyst Julia Rozovsky (2016) in The five keys to a successful Google team found that: "The performance of a team does not depend on how people in a team perform individually, or their academic prowess, but on how they communicate, interact and perform collectively."

In essence, the forces of destruction operate in contradiction to the fundamental qualities with which individuals are endowed at birth, impeding the very characteristics that contribute to creativity, learning, and advancement. Recognising and mitigating these forces is crucial for fostering environments that allow individuals to thrive, unleashing their full potential.

In The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, Deming goes on to show how the forces of destruction insidiously rob people of the native and intrinsic motivation and joy in life with which they were born.

Using targets to motivate is the ultimate management conceit. You can’t motivate people; they are already intrinsically motivated.

Deming says: "One is born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, joy in learning. These attributes are high at the beginning of life, but are gradually crushed by the forces of destruction."

He also says: "Where there is fear, you do not get honest figures."

This should be a red flag to all management; if you can’t rely on the information you are receiving, how can you make a sound business call? 

"Deming's warning about the forces of destruction serves as a cautionary reminder against the dependence on extrinsic motivators within organisational performance management and quality management frameworks."

Elements eroding effectiveness

One challenge often encountered in grasping Deming's ideas is the intricate interconnectivity embedded within his management philosophy. Leading an organisation by selectively embracing certain aspects of the management system, while disregarding psychology or favouring extrinsic motivation, poses a fundamental contradiction. In a Deming management system, leaders must conscientiously consider the holistic, interrelated nature of the entire system.

Deming identified forces of destruction from extrinsic motivators as elements that can erode the effectiveness of a system.

Building on an original idea by author, statistician and quality control expert, Dr Donald J Wheeler, we could say: "The focus of an organisation drives its thinking; the thinking of an organisation drives its activity; the activity of an organisation drives its relationships; the relationships of an organisation, both internal and external (customers) determines its long-term survival."

The pitfalls of extrinsic motivators

Such extrinsic motivators are often wielded mechanistically to drive performance. However, Deming argued that this singular focus on extrinsic motivators fails to recognise the intricacies of a system and neglects the vital importance of interactions. Here's why:

  • Short-term focus: extrinsic motivators yields short-term results. Long-term motivation necessitates understanding the intrinsic factors that drive individuals to excel over time.
  • Undermining collaboration: extrinsic motivators can breed a competitive environment rather than a collaborative one, leading to a fragmented system where individual success comes at the expense of the overall organisation.
  • Ignorance of systemic interactions: organisations, Deming stressed, are systems of interconnected components. An over-emphasis on extrinsic motivators overlooks this interdependence.
  • Inhibiting innovation and creativity: extrinsic motivators may stifle innovation and creativity by confining employees to predefined goals and rewards. Deming advocated for intrinsic motivation, fostering an environment where individuals are driven by a sense of purpose, autonomy, and mastery.
  • The systemic perspective: Deming's approach advocates for adopting a systemic perspective, recognising that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Deming proposed a shift toward intrinsic motivation and cooperation by removing obstacles that impede joy and pride in workmanship. This aligns with the understanding that a healthy organisation thrives on collaborative efforts.

Overcoming the pitfalls

Designing a system that mitigates the problems associated with numerical goals demands a deep understanding of variation, systems thinking, psychology, and the theory of knowledge, collectively referred to as the System of Profound Knowledge.

To overcome the pitfalls of extrinsic motivators, organisations should embrace Deming's profound knowledge. This involves:

  • cultivating intrinsic motivation: create an environment where employees find joy in their work and feel a sense of purpose.
  • encouraging collaboration: promote a collaborative culture where teamwork is valued over individual achievements for, long-term success.
  • understanding systems: educate employees and leaders about the interconnected nature of organisational systems to understand the impact of decisions on the entire system.
  • learning environments: encouraging a learning environment where failure is celebrated and learnt from.
  • trust environments: people flourish and contribute when they feel safe to do so. Their ideas increase substantively, to the benefit of the organisation.

These last two elements are the foundations for any cohesive, high-performing team.


Deming's warning about the forces of destruction serves as a cautionary reminder against the dependence on extrinsic motivators within organisational performance management and quality management frameworks.

The key to sustained success lies in adopting a systemic perspective, coupled with a profound understanding of psychology and intrinsic motivation, limiting the urge to manipulate people. Organisations that comprehend and proactively address these destructive forces can foster environments conducive to collaboration, innovation, and excellence.

Deming's teachings persist as a timeless guide for those seeking to enhance organisational performance through a comprehensive and systemic approach, emphasising the enduring importance of intrinsic motivation, managing interactions and holistic management principles.

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