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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

How to Ruin Motivation


In one of recent posts I touched the subject of motivation. The article was about typical motivational efforts which don’t work. I brought a few of meta-examples like telling people how much they are responsible for the project/organization, building bonus system which tries to address the problem or public critic as a way to make people care.

In one of comments Ryszard pointed that I just throw these examples as some universal truths like preacher who believes he knows it all and doesn’t really care to explain anything. Well, Ryszard might have used different words, but you get the message.

I guess that’s a time of storytelling then. In won’t be purely on systemic approaches to motivation but it is definitely the leitmotif of the post.

Yet Another Perfect Bonus System

This one is usually a problem of top management. Do I try to tell you that top managers suck at motivation? Well, I’m not sure yet, but looks like this might be another (unplanned) conclusion of these stories.

In vast majority of organizations any additional remuneration is treated as the main (hopefully not the only) motivation booster. Money is overrated as motivation driver but I wouldn’t be so quick in dismissing its motivational value at all. Anyway every bonus system has some input which varies from totally subjective judgment gathered from a group of managers to very complex formulas which allegedly delivers objective feedback about every employee. And of course bonus system has also some output which is a list of names and amounts of money.

Now top management steers the bonus system in order to maximize desired effect. It looks like that: some important guy comes with idea the main problem of organization is low sale volumes. So he tweaks the system to promote big fat contracts. And big fat contracts of course come but, shit happens, they are totally complicated and the company struggle to deliver on time and on scope. No one remember that “on budget” even exists in some ideal world out there.

Top management sees a problem with project quality so they change bonus system in a way that people are dependent on a success of their projects. So what people start to care about is to have big budget and fairly friendly customer and if they can’t join one of these projects they don’t give a damn because their bonus is doomed anyway.

So the system is tweaked once more to bond bonus money with results of the whole company which, at bad times, ends up with lack of engagement even on these projects which would be profitable otherwise. And so on and so forth. At the end of the day no one is really motivated.

Reorganization For The Win

Motivation is a tricky bastard. Once it is in place it should remain unchanged if environment isn’t tweaked but unfortunately it tends to wear out. Well, maybe there should be more new leaders who would ignite people around. So let’s promote our best engineers to leaders or even better to managers. Oh, that would be great. We’ll also have these small teams which generally work better.

Except new so-called leaders are often chosen pretty much randomly, basing on their engineering skills, not leadership abilities managerial skills. What more the way between a line worker who does the real job and decision-maker becomes longer and longer.

But it was supposed to be about motivation, right? Well, how motivating it is to have a mediocre manager over your head? Not much I guess. How motivating it is to see people who are promoted in pretty random way? Well, not so much either.

And then it appears the organization doesn’t work as smoothly as planned and management orders a kind of rollback. Teams are merged which means there are some managers left with no teams, which is a nice way of saying “downgraded.” Since it is systemic change most likely not skills stand behind decisions but the change just affects a group of people no matter who were doing well and who were below average.

With each change motivation is drained out of few people. Slowly. Systemically.

The Speaker

Think about greatest motivational moments of history. All these famous speeches in front of huge crowds. This just must work. Well, yes. No. Sort of.

Now recall last C-level exec who was talking to you. How much of motivation he ignited in you? I guess the answer is likely “none.” Even more, pretty often the result is opposite – people leave the room drained of their motivation thinking “what a jerk.”

Why? Because it really does matter what kind of speaker you are. I believe I’m able to deal with small groups of people. But if you asked me to try to ignite a hundred of them I’d probably fail. And I think I’m not that bad at speaking after all. I often see folks who fail to motivate 5 people sitting in a room just because they utterly suck at communication.

They may forget that situation of people they speak at (they don’t speak to, they speak at) is different than theirs and so are their drivers to do a good job. They may reject the fact that people don’t like to be told how to do their work and just showing the goal and letting people to figure it out works much better. I don’t really know. But what I know is that so-called motivational speeches can do at least as much bad as good. Especially when speaker is crappy, which means that vast majority of people who try to deliver motivational speeches qualify.

You Have the Power, I Tell You

Have you ever heard from your manager that you’ve been responsible for the whole company? Not just for a small piece you’ve ruled but for the whole big company you worked for. Of course you’ve been (allegedly) responsible for it along with others sitting at the same table but still. You likely have heard it. I’ve heard it a number of times.

Have you felt empowered? Me either. Why?

Usually these are words only. You don’t get real power to be able to change anything significant. To feel your importance. To feel this responsibility you’re told about. And even if you happen to have some power your efforts are turned down. Every single time you try to change something.

And then you see your colleagues sitting silently, doing nothing, definitely not feeling responsible for anything and you learn this is the way to go. After all these are words only. And words alone motivate very rarely.

The Critic

I know at least a few managers of this kind. Surprisingly enough, vast majority of them are pretty high in pecking order so it may be something which gets you promoted. At least in some organizations. What I think about is knowing it all better and publicly pointing everybody else how wrong they are or, to put it short, affection for public critic.

If you ever been a part of senior management meeting or steering committee or pretty much any other meeting with some VIP who publicly run someone down this is exactly the situation I have in my mind. I can only guess here but I think a driver for such behavior is expectation that when you vent at people they would react trying to satisfy you next time.

And this is basically stupid.

The first reaction of normal person for such situation is feeling humiliated. It rhymes with motivated (well, not exactly) but that’s not the same really. People facing the situation bring their defenses which mean either trying to find explanation or pointing fingers or switching to a catatonic state when no more unpleasant message reaches their brains. Either way no constructive discussion happens and no empowerment (a buzz word, I know) is possible.

If you look for a way to motivate people you have to find what drives them, which means you need to learn what that might be in the first place. Public critic results people refusing to talk with you when they aren’t forced to which drives your chances to motivate down.

The Conclusion

All these situations have one thing in common. It is failing to understand what drives individuals and why. You know what motivates you but it is highly unlikely 3 other randomly chosen guys from your organization are driven by the same things. Especially if you are in top management and they are not.

Yes, the higher you are the more options you have to do something about motivation but because you don’t really know people who you try to manipulate… um… I mean motivate, you’re likely to fail. Especially if you throw the same solution at every possible problem and every possible person.

If you made it this far and are willing to share more stories about failed motivational efforts you’re more than welcome.

in: personal development, team management

10 comments… add one

  • Podly Ryszard April 29, 2010, 5:15 am


    Thank you for a great article and for… listening. What do you know, suddenly I feel motivated :-) Well, more like appreciated, but that’s pretty close.

    As a comment I’d like to comment on the part about communications skills. Do you think it does really matter that much if a manager is able to give great speeches? After all, as you said it yourself, worlds (alone) motivate very rarely or as I’d put it, they achieve short term motivation at most.
    As a matter of fact I’m asking myself if giving motivational speeches to someone on the level below one’s direct reports makes even sense. Since it’s essential to know every employee’s motivators and there are no universal motivation systems, why bother? I’m curious what’s your view on that.

    Thanks again for an inspiring write up.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 29, 2010, 5:34 am

    Everything for our clients… I mean readers :) It is your place too and you may push me a bit to direction of your choice. After all I don’t write for myself. And good discussion is always appreciated.

    Regarding speeches, first of all good speech is more than words. Good speech is usually a call for action which is responded. And that’s why we consider it as great after all. Think about Martin Luther King and the crowd listening to him – after all these years we remember him and his speeches. On the contrary do you remember what George Bush told US citizens after 9/11? He could call people to do pretty much anything and all he could come up with was “buy more,” which fell flat on its face.

    I believe motivational speeches can work and there are number of proofs to confirm that. But on the same time I can hardly point any C-level exec who is able to deliver at least above-average motivational speech. Actually most of managers I know suck at speaking to their teams.

    Having said that I don’t consider myself as an expert here. I delivered speeches (including motivational ones) to people who were a couple of levels below and I believe they weren’t left discouraged. And even though I’m not sure how many of them (if anyone) was ignited I still believe it is worth trying.

    If nothing else, it is nice to hear you’re pretty charismatic person.

  • Podly Ryszard April 29, 2010, 5:41 am

    Well, I may have found the answer to my own question. Suddenly I remembered a story my friend told me a while ago. He’s a local (below country level) region manager working for a very famous energy drink maker and he mentioned a trip to their headquarters to meet their charismatic CEO. According to my friend, during a short (30 min) meeting the CEO talked to them in a very direct way and demonstrated a very detailed knowledge about their local affairs. He proved that despite being the top manager for over 4000 employees, he knew exactly what was going on in every small corner of the company. I’m not sure if I’d call it motivation, but according to my friend they were amazed by their leader and left the meeting thinking “what a great guy” instead of thinking “what a jerk” :-)

    If I was to draw a conclusion from that story is the importance of _authority_ in motivation. There are many kinds of authority, but the ones I have in mind are charismatic authority and expert authority opposed to legal or referent authority.

  • Podly Ryszard April 29, 2010, 6:17 am

    I agree that a great speech is more than words, but still if they are just that, speeches. Their purpose is to deliver a message. The real question is, what is the message behind the speech. It’s like in my favorite Red Bead Experiment. If we have bad processes or bad tools and nobody wants to change them, we won’t achieve much no matter how charismatic the leader is, no matter how inspiring the speeches will be.

    You’re examples are good but please note that they are outside the business environment. MLK motivated people referring to their believes and high aspirations. It’s hard to achieve that kind of dedication in the business context because for many employees “it’s just a job”…

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 29, 2010, 7:01 am

    I love your definition of a good motivational speech: when you leave the room thinking “great guy” instead of “what a jerk.” It works exactly this way.

    Tell you friend that he/she has an exceptional CEO, but I guess he/she already knows that.

    Examples I brought were extreme and not business-based, I know. But you can scale them down to the size of business organization and significant difference will still be there.

    By the way: pretty good business example just came to my mind – Bill Gates as motivator versus Steve Ballmer as motivator. The same organization and completely different opini0ns (and I’m not trying to judge or justify Bill’s methods here).

  • Laurent Parenteau April 29, 2010, 7:04 am

    I agree with both of you; it’s rare to hear a company motivation speech that reach its goal. From memories, the good motivation speech that I’ve heard were good mainly because they contained good news.

    I think that the biggest motivation come from small things. I mean small from the perspective of the manager or the company. Things simple as recognizing good personal or team works in front of the whole team can often motivate a lot. If you feel that people appreciate what you are doing, you will be motivated to do more great works.

    Related article : http://blog.startupprofessionals.com/2010/04/eight-ways-to-demotivate-startup-team.html

    At the same time, there probably are people that would not be motivated by this but would be motivated by the manager’s speech about the future of the company.

    It’s probably a good idea to do both, and add bonuses, and add promotions, and add empowerment, and …

    Isn’t the more ways to motivate in place, the more chances you have that everybody will be motivated by something?

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 29, 2010, 7:37 am


    Yes, the more different things you try the bigger are chances you will get through to people and raise their motivation. But it’s not about trying a lot of random approaches and hoping you’d eventually succeed. It’s more about learning what works on specific people you want to motivate and use methods which should just work.

    The problem is most managers don’t even try to think, let alone do anything, about things which are important for their teams.

  • Podly Ryszard April 29, 2010, 8:37 am

    I couldn’t agree more with Pawel. It’s all about personal approach (opposed to a universal one).
    Here’s a thought inspired by Deming’s 5 deadly deseases: business schools put so much emphasis on statistics and measurable results that managers rearely bother to think in other ways than putting everything measurable in a spreadsheet, apply some formula like the average and make decision based on it.
    It’s seems resonable and scientific but what is often forgotten is that (1) organizations are made of people, not empleee numbers (2) relying on the average you implement solutions that fit statistics, not real situations or problems.

    I remember a great story from my ergonomics course in college. Our professor gave a great example of why the average ofthen fails. When designing functional utility facilities for the public domain people are temted to desing for a statistical user. Imagine a phone booth designed to the average height of the population. Seems reasonable, but results in a solution that is completely unusable for half of the population that is higher than the average :-)
    I know it’s an extreme example, but it shows why you should think twice before making a statiscal decision.

  • coldfusion May 5, 2010, 1:51 am

    There is another point on personal approach.
    You can have charismatic manager that gives energising speeches. He can tell your team how great you are. And he will convince you you are important member of the team… At first.

    When you finally figure out that this manager doesn’t believe those words, that you really doesn’t do anything that matters as much as the manager is telling in his speech, your motivation can really hit the bottom.
    So to stress the important part – as a manager you have to believe what you are saying, you need to feel it. And also your action cannot be only giving ‘the speech’. If you don’t do anything more than that, the best employees can tell about you is that you had good intentions.

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 5, 2010, 6:04 am

    If charisma wears out in a few months it means there was no charisma in the first place – only impression (and usually first impression).

    Personally I tend to experience this often since I’m pretty naive person and when I meet new people I always take them as honest and straightforward. Unfortunately pretty often their virtues “wears out” and it appears it was just some kind of game and the reality is sad.

    This is the situation you describe – it appears it wasn’t charisma, it was just a good speech.

    There is another problem here: how much open, honest and straightforward should a manager be with her team. She can’t tell everything, yet usually telling more works better. If she tricks someone to do something is that automatically bad or one shouldn’t be so sure?

    But I guess I can’t give you satisfactory answer here because there is no single good way to deal with the problem. It would have to be another conclusion such as “do what works for your people and for you” or “there’s no silver bullet.”

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