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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Your Motivational Efforts Are Counterproductive


I think I suck as a leader. I mean really. I guess I’m not doing a good job when it comes to self-promotion, am I?

Yes, I’ve heard once or twice from former colleagues I was pretty charismatic in comparison to my successor. I was able to cherry-pick a few of best people from my former company to the new team (a couple of times actually) and they willingly followed me. Sometimes it happens I hear very warm words about teams I led from people who were a part of them. And yet I believe I suck as a leader.

I believe I could do a better job motivating people I work with, and yes, I do believe it is possible to motivate people. I should pay more attention to people on everyday basis. I should deliver and try to trigger getting feedback much more often. I should show more enthusiasm. I should be more patient. I should, I should, I should…

By the way if you happen to be recruiter and look for a candidate for my dream job just pretend you haven’t read previous paragraphs.

But it happens sometimes I see things aren’t so bad with me. Unfortunately these aren’t moments of epiphany when it appears I actually do pretty good job as a leader, which is usually my unconscious effort anyway. These are moments when I see other um… the word “leader” isn’t really appropriate here, let’s call them “managers” or something… so when I see these managers trying to motivate their people.

It’s not even about their efforts falling flat on the face. No. It’s even worse. Effect of their efforts is counterproductive. The organization, or the part of the organization, they lead is not a bunch of numbers in Excel sheet. The approach of their people is not a simple result of paying less or paying more or introducing this or that bonus system. Outcome produced by their teams is not linearly dependent of their so-called motivational speeches. And public critic, no matter if well-earned or not, doesn’t make people more determined to do a good job next time.

What I see so often is a manager trying to raise motivation with systemic approaches which are doomed by default. You can’t raise motivation changing accents of bonus system. You can’t raise motivation reorganizing teams. You can’t raise motivation telling people how they are responsible for the job. You can’t raise motivation setting the rules and breaking them just ten minutes later at the very same meeting. You can’t raise motivation while working with Excel sheet.

If that’s how you act your efforts to motivate people are counterproductive.

What you could do instead is to try to talk with people. You know, this old cool concept of face-to-face discussions. Possibly one-on-ones especially if there’s a need to criticize someone, which you definitely do in a constructive way, don’t you? Try to understand what drives a specific person in the first place and then think what would be a motivator for this very individual. Look for specific tools which works for specific people. Don’t look for a general motivational system – it’s like a unicorn: cool but doesn’t exist.

If you still think there is a technique which works for everyone in the room, you may want to reconsider whether you really need to attend this meeting. It may be a better choice not to show up and leave this whole motivational thing to people who, on average, don’t ruin morale with their efforts.

So maybe, just maybe, it isn’t so bad with me after all.

in: team management

9 comments… add one

  • Szymon Pobiega April 21, 2010, 10:15 pm

    I like and agree with this statement ‘You can’t raise motivation telling people how they are responsible for the job’.

    Yesterday, when chatting with colleagues about new company policies I realized that there is a similar truth about software quality and developer productivity: ‘You can’t raise neither quality nor productivity just by telling people that they now should be productive and write quality code’.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 21, 2010, 11:08 pm

    And somehow you see it every now and then that leaders telling at people “this product is in your hands” or “quality is in your hands” and considering their job done.

    Well, maybe they get this warm fuzzy feeling that they ignited people but what I see as a reaction is usually no change whatsoever at best. And if the message is delivered in a wrong manner the effect is opposite – morale fall flat on the face.

  • Podly Rysard April 22, 2010, 2:48 am

    Couldn’t agree more. Having said that, I think it would be great to show some kind of evidence to back those statements. Right now they remind be of religious truths that you either believe in or you don’t. Of course one can assume you are drawing conclusions based on your experience, but that’s just what it is, YOUR experience.

    I think Deming’s Red Bead Experiment is a good illustration of systematic motivation approach failure. I realize that one this does not qualify as an evidence, but I still find it inspiring.

    Here’s a link to the video on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBW1_GhRKTA

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 22, 2010, 3:29 am

    I’m not sure if you ask about positive examples for individual motivation (a few I pointed in the thread at kanbandev group) or rather about negative examples of systemic approaches to people motivation which suck.

    Actually each situation mentioned in the post could be supported with real-life story and yes all these stories are a part of what I have experienced. I don’t try to find proper theory for each pattern I see since, to be honest, you can always find a theory which confirms any situation if you seek long enough. And by the way I believe it works so for every “soft” area and motivation is definitely one of them.

    I hope I don’t disappoint you much with this approach.

    Deming’s experiment is amusing to some point but it brings things to extreme. What people are forced to do there is to turn their minds off which I guess none of knowledge companies would directly encourage.

  • Podly Ryszard April 22, 2010, 3:46 am

    I agree that “soft” areas are hardly scientific and there are many competing theories. But that’s not necessarily what I meant. I was hoping you could just take one step further in trying to identify the objective causes for the patterns you observe.

    In other words, I would suggest trying to figure out WHY certain techniques don’t work instead of simply stating the don’t.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 22, 2010, 6:11 am

    Well, that would be a few stories but I think it is a good idea to write them so you may expect a couple of them soon.

    Anyway I guess the bottom line would be similar in each case: failing to understand what drives individuals and failing to understand how different is situation of people who “motivate” and those who are being motivated. Or, to put it other words, forgetting that you deal with individual people.

  • Mark Phillips April 22, 2010, 7:35 am

    Funny, this topic is definitely in the air. I just blogged about it as well (see below).

    I too believe you can motivate people. But you can’t push people. Its about inspiring and team building, which is a long-term effort (not a single cheerleading meeting). Its about creating a sense of togetherness.

    A very simple technique is simply to not exclude people. Don’t make people feel left out. That can go a long way to creating a culture of respect which allows people’s better-side to prevail when faced with tough situations.


  • Podly Ryszard April 22, 2010, 7:57 am

    Great! I’m looking forward to reading those stories.

    If I was to add something to your conclusion I’d say that one-way communication (top to bottom) is a bad approach to motivation and management in general just like making decisions based on Excel sheets without a full understanding of people and processes they measure.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 22, 2010, 11:36 am


    You actually bring another perspective which is creating opportunities for willing people. This the same thing I ranted about in posts about learning but taken as general rule. And you right, people often build their own businesses in contrast to what they had when they were working for some organization.

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