I've been thinking a lot about motivation lately. Anyone who has ever managed teams has probably spent some time being alternately perplexed and frustrated with the difficulty of motivating people, especially engineers. We go through contortions to engage, inspire, and most importantly, hire and retain our valuable engineering teams, and yet we still often fail to provide workplaces where people feel truly motivated.
When Daniel Pink's Drive came out, it was the talk of the tech community. Finally a concept that makes sense, especially to engineers! It is still heavily quoted in engineering management conversations, and the TED talk refers to two tech companies (Atlassian and Google) as part of his examples of doing this right. A quick refresher:
Autonomy: Our desire to direct our own lives, to feel that we have choices, and what we are doing is of our own volition.
Mastery: Our urge to get better, to master our craft.
Purpose: The feeling and intention that we can make a difference in the world.
These concepts are said to be intrinsic motivators, meaning they are something that the person does because they want to do it, without expecting a reward from an external party. They stand in contrast to external motivators like money, status, power, or praise, which tend to be more of a baseline that is insufficient to motivate consistently. Note that without some degree of pay, praise, or reward for their work most people will also lack motivation because they need to have their basic needs met. You can also refer to a baseline of pay, safe working conditions, etc as hygiene.
So, back to our big three intrinsic motivators. Engineers resonate with these. Even junior engineers want to have some control in what code they are writing; everyone is constantly driven to learn the next new thing and get better at the craft of software engineering; and any manager will tell you that good employees want to know WHY they are doing the tasks they are doing and who/what is benefitting by their work on these tasks.
I like these motivators, but they have always seemed lacking to me. The natural extreme translation of them in my mind is the job of self-directed researcher. You're choosing what to do, learning new things, and making the world better by exploring the unknown! Except that I tried to do that job, or at least went to grad school where we simulated it, and I absolutely hated it. I had no idea where to go, no idea what to do, and felt like my work had no point and moreover I had no one to help me.
So, I've been very happy to read more lately on the wider topic of motivation, specifically The Three Signs of a Miserable Job and Why Motivating People Doesn't Work, both of which talk about the elements that keep people engaged at work. Including Drive, these three books define, not three, but four distinct motivators:
Measurement/Competence/Mastery: Having a goal, reaching it, getting better, being objectively "good" at what you do
Autonomy: The ability to choose your measures, have some say in what you focus on
Purpose: Knowing who you are making a difference for, whether it is your customers, or your coworkers, or the world at large
Relatedness: Being known at work, feeling a relationship to your coworkers
Relatedness is the fourth element that is absent from Drive. It does not surprise me that engineers would cling to the first three motivators without thinking of the fourth. Relatedness is very touchy-feely. It's hard to quantify. It requires interpersonal engagement. And for many of us, it's probably a distant fourth motivator behind the other three.
And yet. As a leader, you will lead people who want Relatedness in their job. They want you to know about their family, their hobbies. They want to chat with you about their weekend, their trips away. They want to get lunch sometimes.
The nice thing about Relatedness is that it is the easiest thing to provide. You don't have to have management buy-in to ask people about their weekends. You don't have to go through contortions to find business cases for sharing an occasional meal or coffee. And you may find that once you start caring about people, you feel a bit happier yourself at work.
So my advice to new leaders and managers is to be mindful of the fourth element, and don't forget about it. Treat your peers as interesting fellow humans, and you may be surprised what it does for their motivation, dedication, and engagement.
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