Technical employees are very much like the open source community; they're great contributors but require an environment where they can do their best creative work for the benefit of all. That environment works best when it's headed by a leader.
The difference between a leader and a manager is more than the title on a business card; it's how well your actions, attitudes, and approach motivate the people who report to you. Over the 20+ years I've worked in the technology industry, I've experienced a fair share of motivational leaders and demotivational managers. Technology employees are especially good at detecting the difference between leaders and managers, but here's what I’ve found to be the most effective strategies to motivate technical employees to do their best work.
1. Understand the difference between a leader and a manager
Management and leadership are not the same. Managers are people in an organizational structure who manage the execution of activities, while leaders are people who demonstrate leadership and motivation through their actions and contributions. Although managers are in theory put in a leadership position, not all managers lead.
Managers without leadership skills demotivate technical employees. As Tom DeMarco said, "People under pressure don’t work better; they just work faster." Much like in professional sports, technology is filled with highly skilled and talented individuals. These individuals are most effective and happy when they are not micromanaged and instead are allowed to do whatever inspired them to take their jobs. Great leaders understand that their role is to get the best out of individuals to achieve a shared goal. In sports, this could be winning a championship, but in the technical arena, it could be bringing a project in on time and on-budget or taking a product concept from idea to launch.
A final note here is that leaders do not necessarily have management titles. There are many articles and books on this subject, but if you are interested in a very simple but effective boot camp, pick up a copy of The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spenser Johnson.
2. Provide a clear vision
As a wise friend once told me, we are given one set of eyes and two ears so that we can first see clearly and then listen twice to process what we see. You can't motivate technical employees on sound only; conveying a clear vision of your goal is vital to get the attention and buy-in of those you are trying to lead and motivate. "Do it because it has been decided in a meeting above your pay grade" is a fantastic demotivator and a great way to get the worst out of a technical employee. Knowing what must be done and why it’s being done opens the door to creative and effective contributions from the people responsible for the technical and tactical execution of the organization's goal.
I draw inspiration and examples of this from two books by Simon Sinek, Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last. Most successful organizations have a clear mission and vision to support why they exist; make sure your technical employees know them.
3. Provide direction, then let people do what they do
"Micromanagement" is usually used to describe the control freak manager who kills innovation, and as I wrote above, it’s a great way to demotivate smart and talented people. But there's another type of micromanagement that is required in the technical arena: the method of effectively executing tasks in a field with constant change. Micromanaging tasks is most effective when it is self-managed by the technical employee.
In this respect, a great leader acts very much like a satellite navigation system. The journey starts with a known destination, the navigation system provides strategic information on where to go, but the driving (and in some cases the overruling of how to get there) is clearly in the hands of the experienced driver. Yes, roads and road conditions change, but the driver (or in the context of the technical field, the employee) is best equipped and experienced to navigate obstacles or changes in conditions. Not giving the driver the necessary autonomy is the equivalent of telling the driver to drive blindfolded and simply listen to the navigation system.
4. Let smart people be smart
"It is not bragging if you can back it up." I have been in the technical industry long enough to know that this is a field filled with some fantastic egos. These egos are just side effects of extremely smart individuals. Organizations spend vast sums on recruiting the best talent and then try to manage them without understanding the implications of getting in the way of all this smartness. I often think about this phrase in relation to technical employees: "Tell me what you want done or tell me how to do it." You can't have both if you are trying to motivate the smart individuals you are organizationally responsible for getting to execute the vision. As a leader, it is best to check your own ego at the door and focus on why you hired these smart people in the first place.
5. Positive, public feedback has much greater value than a bonus
Many people who quit jobs would still be doing magnificent work for their old organizations if someone had just said: "Thank you." Rewards are part of the feedback loop required to motivate and maintain the interests of your smart and valuable employees. So, first pay what the market advises (and paying better than your competitors is always a strategic advantage).
But a bigger, invaluable reward system is giving clear and effective feedback.
As Zig Ziglar said: "People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing—that’s why we recommend it daily." Give feedback generously, but make sure it is appropriate and in the right arena. A public acknowledgment is often a very low-cost/high-value way of positively motivating your employees. Feedback does not pay the bills, so this is not a substitute for paying the right wages. Just remember to say thank you.
Finally, I love books, especially non-technical books that focus on becoming a great leader. In addition to the books mentioned above, here are some of my favorites to recommend:
- The Deadline—Tom DeMarco
- Who Moved My Cheese—Spenser Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard
- The Phoenix Project—Gene Kim and Kevin Behr
I hope you’ve found these views helpful and are ready to upgrade, recompile, translate, and hopefully go to production with a stable version of them applicable to your specific situation.
If you’d like to learn more about motivating technical employees, Steve Buchanan, MVP, and Sam Erskine will be presenting a session on the topic at OSCON 2017 in Austin, Texas. If you’re interested in attending the conference, use this discount code when you register: PCOS.