5 ways to motivate technical employees

These five leadership tips can help anyone motivate employees to do their best work.
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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.

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Samuel Erskine is a Systems Management Sr Technical specialist and trainer , focused on System Center and Cloud technologies. Sam is the content designer and lead author of three Microsoft System Center Cookbooks and co-author of two System Center Unleashed books. He’s also a Microsoft MCT and MVP.


In some environments, there are leaders who aren't formally designated as such, yet everyone realizes that they have taken it upon themselves to first of all show a good example of a comprehensive approach to their work, and also go out of their way to find out who might need some help or guidance. They also offer spontaneous feedback and new ideas on how things might be done. If you have enough of these people, you have a rich environment that everyone benefits from and you develop a reputation for sustainable quality.
I would also recommend the Harvard Business Review as a source for reading about all aspects of personal development and leadership.

Great article and great insights. The same could apply to K12 education. Met a few great leaders but most of the ideas they generated were killed by the managers.

Thanks for a such great article it will definitely help to existing Managers and upcoming Managers.

Great article, glad you paid some attention to DE-motivation -- most of these sorts of articles are about either 'how to motivate', or 'how to hire self motivated people', but rarely do they address Rule 0 - 'Don't de-motivate your self motivated people.'

An example of what NOT to do:
- Turn your sharpest, self-motivated go-to guys who were responsible for most of the successful innovations (and were never just narrow technicians, already deeply collaborating directly with 'the business' and even customers), into, officially, mere ticket pullers under the guise of a bastardized Scrum implementation, where they are outranked by fake Product Owners and Scrum Master from POV of larger organization and outside orgs. I say fake in that they are taking glorified clerks and giving them those titles to get bodies to fill the spots, even though the people who could do those jobs for real don't really exist in the org (we weren't waterfall to begin with, more cowboy which just needed a bit more of the right structure). Even on engineer driven internal projects.
The POs and SMs have no accountability for anything. All the pressure from mgt, either coming up most of the 'stories', or turning into something actually actionable, docs, QA test cases etc falls on the guy who always did it. BUT - now he has no official visibility/recognition to support any kind of advancement, and worse, is explicitly DENIED any status or authority however limited, commensurate with what he is expected to do, even when rest of the team has been parachuted in. Life is even more hell if you have a PO with delusions of being your manager instead of a figurehead, and is allowed to get away with it by the manager (whom yo both report to!!!!) because she giggles like a particularly dumb cheerleader around the varsity quarterback and he likes the glorified secretarial work she does for him (all based on the engineers info of course).
Better yet, these key players become designated as 'single points of failure' by virtue of being the biggest expert on, even inventor of something, and/or been single-handedly carrying a whole project for years due to cheapness of the company. So your balls are cut off more and what you've invested so strongly in to make your mark in the company is taken away from you, and others given it to learn with the sink or swim method. So much for employee engagemetn and sense of ownership. Smart thing would be to finally give these people some official recognition and some limited authority over a team, and be rewarded for a) having the expertise, and b) sharing it, and c) path to move on to even bigger things.
But, no, purpose of your managers - themselves jumped up engineers who are in over their heads and insist on seeing other smart people as possble rivals even though they have zero mgt ambitions- is to turn those people back into just more interchangeable, replaceable cogs in the machine, put uppity engineers in their place. No win-win for the company, instead zero sum thinking. Even the Scrum consultant who committed professional malpractice here told them they needed to define a higher level technical career track, but 4 years later zilch.

I'd also note re Phoenix Project, what I told my CTO who was so big on it, after I read it.... Sounds great, but I notice they never talk to Bret, the key engineer, about what *he* might want.

"Feedback does not pay the bills, so this is not a substitute for paying the right wages."

Indeed. Appreciation is nice, and I agree that it can be a strong motivation force (I contribute to Open Source projects for this reason). However, since a "thank you" is very cheap, there is the risk that your employee thinks that "thank you" is just an inexpensive replacement for a larger paycheck. If the employee has this feeling, the "thank you" can backfire quite badly. See many Dilbert comics about motivational gifts...

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