For an industry that prides itself on its analytical ability and abstract mental processing, we often don’t do a great job applying that mental skill to the most important element of the programmer’s tool chest—that is, ourselves.

A while back, I wrote a column entitled "On Passion." In it, I said:

This is part of the reason why I think companies are spending so much effort trying to hire people with "passion"—it means that they’re self-motivating. It means that they’ll be willing to work through whatever obstacles that arise. It means that they’ll learn whatever they need to learn, explore whatever they need to explore, master whatever they need to master to get the job done.

And, more importantly, it means that I, their manager, won’t have to figure out how to do the most difficult task in management: motivate them.

The Silent (Career) Killer

Ask any manager, recent or long-time, regardless of industry, what the most difficult task they face on a daily basis is, and it’s very likely (85%, anecdotally speaking) that the response will be "Motivating my team." Browse through the "Management" section of the bookstore, and you’ll find dozens of titles with "motivation" or "motivating" somewhere in the title or subtitle. Hundreds more will have it in the description on the back cover or inside flap. Thousands touch on the subject in a more indirect fashion.

It’s not too surprising that this is a subject of so much study, because in so many ways, it represents the difference between a high-performing team and a substandard one. A team that fails to measure up to expectations is often assumed to be the manager’s fault. Failing to motivate the team has killed many a manager’s career.

Or, paradoxically, made one. After all, motivation solves so many problems at once. Many, if not all, of the problems that management will face with a team that isn’t performing adequately go away when they are highly motivated (dare I say, "passionate"). They’ll train themselves, they’ll work overtime, they’ll go the extra mile, and they’ll hold themselves to the higher standard of quality that so many companies try to establish via metrics.

Yet, for all these words and pages sacrificed to the subject, motivation remains stubbornly nondeterministic—tactics that worked with one team fall flat with another, and ideas that seem to resonate in one organization never even get past a cursory glance in another. It’s the never-ending nightmare of management: "How do I motivate my people?"

Theory…

Not surprisingly, theories of how to motivate employees run a wide range across the psychological spectrum. Many people start from Abraham Maslow’s "Pyramid of Needs," which states that human beings act to fulfill their needs in a very specific order: physiological (air, water, food, sleep), safety (both from physical harm, such as protection from the weather, and sociological harm, such as protection from poverty), social (friends, a sense of connectedness or belonging, receiving love), esteem (feeling important and respected), and then self-actualization (the instinctive need to fulfill your full potential). Supposedly, as the theory goes, since a job helps fill several levels on the Maslow pyramid—safety (job brings money, protecting against poverty), social (job brings people around you, creating friends and connectedness), and esteem (a good job means you receive respect), early theories of motivation centered pretty strongly around Maslow’s pyramid.

Much of this Maslow-driven motivational thinking was driven by the 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise, by Douglas McGregor. He set out two competing and contrasting theories of motivation, which, in a fit of stunning originality, he referred to as "Theory X" and "Theory Y," which we can summarize somewhat colloquially as "Bad Cop" and "Good Cop."

Theory X. Under Theory X, people only work to satisfy their basic physiological needs. They dislike work and seek to avoid it. They want direction, not responsibility. They want to feel secure at work, but given their intrinsic desire to avoid it, they need to be controlled and sometimes threatened with punishment to be coerced to work hard.

Under this theory of work, it becomes apparent that the manager’s job now basically whipsaws between "carrot" and "stick." The manager offers incentives to get the employees to work hard—cash bonuses, benefits, pay increases, and so forth—and sometimes puts their job on the line, by threatening to terminate them, either directly or indirectly ("If we don’t ship this project on time, I don’t know if our department can stick around for much longer").

It’s a simple theory, but as McGregor pointed out, it has a built-in expiration date. As soon as employees feel their physiological and safety needs being met (they make enough money), there’s no tool left to manage them. And in the face of repeated threats to that safety, most employees will learn very quickly to build their own cushion, in the form of savings, or start looking for other safe places to hide, in the form of a new job somewhere else.

Theory Y. This model is a more nuanced model. It assumes that employees actually want to work, and can be self-directing along lines that align with the company’s own interests. They’ll commit if their higher needs (social and esteem) are met, and actively embrace responsibility. In other words, employees can be expected to bring imagination and creativity to the job because they are somehow motivated to do so.

Trying to create this environment became the goal of a large number of companies, but it was a devilishly difficult goal to achieve; after all, it’s not easy to look around the team room and say, "OK, I need all of you to socially accept and respect one another…or you’re all fired!" In some ways, the only thing management felt it could do was step away from the more authoritarian Theory X model, offer up some greater independence (calling it "empowerment" or "horizontal team structure"), cross their fingers, and pray.

(When the Japanese industrial resurgence of the 1980s showed up, they demonstrated a new model of employee/employer relations that threw both Theory X and Theory Y out the window. Sometimes called Theory Z, it was the subject of much study before many management gurus concluded that the cultural differences between Japan and the US simply made their model impractical. Right or wrong, by 2000, much of the fascination with the Japanese model had disappeared.)

Theory X offered a very basic (and emotionally infantile) view of motivating employees, but Theory Y didn’t offer much in the way of guidance. "Cross your fingers and pray" was not well-received. As a new manager with a growing number of employees looking to me for guidance and direction, it was a little disappointing to find so little in the way of actionable points.

What’s worse, psychology then began to discover that some of the traditional tools of motivation were, in fact, demotivating.

The Candle in the Box

As Daniel Pink describes in the book Drive, psychologists conducted a simple experiment: Given a box of matches, a box of thumbtacks, and a candle, participants were asked to figure out a way to attach the candle to the wall. The original problem was a "cognitive performance test," to see how well participants could figure out how to make use of all of the resources given to them, but successive studies made an interesting discovery. When participants were offered no incentive, they would spend about twice as long working on the problem as when they were offered a cash incentive. That’s not a typo: Offering cash reduced the amount of time participants were willing to work on the problem before giving up.

Many managers have long understood that offering cash bonuses that translated to a ridiculously low cash figure relative to an employee’s effort ("Thanks for putting in that two months of overtime; as a gesture of our appreciation, here’s a $25 gift card") is considered more insult than reward. What we didn’t realize is that offering any sort of cash incentive, regardless of size, actually demotivates people to work on a problem.

Suddenly, one of the classic tools of motivation, offering cash bonuses, promotions, and other cash-like benefits, wasn’t nearly as effective as believed. What was the newly-minted manager to do?

Motivation: Not an Amount

In 2014, Susan Fowler published Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work—And What Does, in which she addresses this question much more holistically, starting with the basic question of: "What does motivation even mean?"

Thinking of motivation as having the energy or impetus to act fails to convey the essential nature of human motivation. It does nothing to help you understand the reasons behind the action.

Back to my opening question. Are you motivated to read this book? This is simply the wrong question….Instead of asking if you are motivated, I need to ask a different question to reveal your reasons for acting.

An important truth emerges when we explore the nature of motivation. People are always motivated. The question is not if, but why they are motivated.

In other words, people will always have some kind of motivation to do the things they do, either positive or negative. The employee who’s cranking out thousands of lines of code every day? They’re obviously motivated, sure, but why? What drives them? More importantly, the employee who doesn’t seem to be getting any code checked in for days on end? They’re motivated too, but they’re obviously motivated to be doing something other than what you’re expecting them to be doing. Why? Susan Fowler says:

One of the primary reasons motivating people doesn’t work is our naïve assumption that motivation is something a person has or doesn’t have. This leads to the erroneous conclusion that the more motivation a person has, the more likely she will achieve her goals and be successful….As with friends, it isn’t how many friends you have; it is the quality and type of friendships that matter.

A whole new world around motivation is suddenly opening up here. It’s not about trying to force some kind of emotional state into your employees; instead, it’s about understanding what their motivation is, and how to tap into it.

Summary

There’s more to explore here—it’s a 200 page book, after all—but even just the core above helps begin a long-overdue correction around how we manage software developers. I’ll use the next column to talk about the six different forms of motivation (three optimal, three sub-optimal), but for the moment, if you’re struggling with the basic question of "How do I motivate my team to do better?" you’re asking the wrong question.

Instead, ask: "Why are they motivated to perform as they do?" and be prepared to listen to the answer.