“My boss doesn’t get it.” The puzzle of motivation.

Management roles have traditionally focused on issuing assignments and offering rewards.  For much of the industrial age, this worked well.  In the vast majority of situations, people do work harder if they know they’ll get a financial bonus or more recognition.  Primed with 100 years of business advice, managers feel they have the tools they need to get things done, retain their staff and hit their targets.


But when they find themselves at the helm of a team of developers, or a mixed team of designers and developers, managers get confused.  The promise of rewards only goes so far.   Sometimes, incentives fail to generate any interest and may even lead to resistance.  Developers who never voice any dissatisfaction put in their notice and move on without any explanation, leaving you scratching your head.  It’s really confusing, and there are no easy answers. 

The truth is, very few managers know what’s really motivating to developers and creatives. 

Psychologist Daniel Pink discusses the idea of complex cognitive work, and how it defies conventional models of management:

 ‘If-then rewards work really well…where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to. Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind; that's why they work in so many cases. 

But for (cognitive) problems, you don't want to be looking like this. The solution is on the periphery. You want to be looking around. That reward actually narrows our focus and restricts our possibility.’

Teams involved in routine, rule-based work have it easier.  Creative, conceptual work that requires peripheral thinking and has no single solution is much trickier to manage.  It’s a type of work that didn’t really exist – at least not in its current form - until recently. 

The key to this work, Pink says, is intrinsic motivation.   Tried and true management practices – rewards, positive reinforcement, warnings, threats – turn out to have no effect on cognitive outcomes.  In fact, research conducted by the London School of Economics has suggested that ‘positive’ external factors such as pay raises and performance-based bonuses can have a detrimental effect on complex cognitive work.  ‘We find that financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance."

It’s counterintuitive, but extrinsic motivators such as free snacks, beer fridges and target-pay have no effect on quality of creative work or genuine loyalty to the company. What keeps digital producers engaged, even when things get tough?  The answer is surprising.  It’s doing the work.  But doing it in a way that involves the three primary elements of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Pink defines these with elegant brevity:

‘Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.’

It’s hard to do this in a business environment.  Even if you understand how deeply motivating these factors are to your team, building them into the day-to-day work is a daunting challenge.

Ernesto Sirolli gave a powerful Ted talk in 2012 about how to help people achieve their goals.  The key to enabling people to face challenges, Sirolli says, is to not to come to them with solutions, motivations, performance plans and extrinsic rewards meant to point them in the right direction.  These efforts, despite all the best intentions, do not result in genuine motivation.  As a result, the outcomes aren’t anything near what they could be.  The answer?  As Sirolli says, ‘shut up and listen’.  If you’re a line manager, pay attention to what brings out their energy.  Watch out for the problems that seem to draw out their intelligence and creativity.  Then serve their goals by giving them the tools they need to make it happen.

Servant leadership, it turns out, is the management approach most associated with motivated employees.  You can apply the basic tactics of servant leadership in any organisation, and you don’t need to go on a training course in Scrum or Kanban to get started.  Give your team the daily experience of getting on with self-selected work (pulled work), and the practice of build, release and iteration – this is the practice that feeds motivation.

Modern project management has its roots in the construction industry, which doesn’t allow much room for variation.  The cognitive and creative work of digital development, however, thrives on self-direction.  Building the opportunity for self-directed work into operations is one of the unique advantages of our industry.  Better products, stronger skills and more motivated teams often result from moving away from a management style better suited to a different industry.

Basically: your team doesn’t like making ugly things.  And in the real world, it’s rare that they get to make things that look nice, work well and fulfil their intrinsic need to bring their vision to life.  To keep them genuinely motivated, offer them the chance to make nice things as often as you can.  Easy in theory, very difficult in practice.  But well worth the effort.

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Sarah Berman is Digital Manager at The Drum.

Sarah spent several years as a web developer before moving into managing creative teams and digital projects. A frequent speaker on digital management, Sarah is a certified Scrum Master and holds an MBA from Strathclyde Business School.

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