Motivation — The Secrets Behind How to Create Drive in Yourself and Others
A walk through of the major components of motivation (autonomy, mastery, purpose), and the tools you can use to build an energizing workplace.
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I walked into the weekly team meeting for an engineering team which had reported to me through another manager. Unfortunately, that manager had only run the team for a couple of months before unforeseen family issues forced them to leave the country. It’s interesting how much a Senior Manager’s work life tends to be impacted by random family events.
This team was going to report to me directly until I could find a manager for the team. But considering the team continued to deliver on their projects, I had my fingers crossed that they’d continue doing well.
I sat down, and I was surprised at how the team members immediately started going through their agenda. I assumed with their manager out, they’d have a bit of a vacuum of direction. There was no evidence of a vacuum. Everyone was actively engaged and oddly enthusiastic.
Howard: “First on our list was the customer service queue. Annette, do you have it?”
Small side note. Howard, running the meeting, was likely the youngest engineer on the team. I thought that was neat. Good job being confident, Howard.
Annette nodded. “Yeah, number two and three issues are still there. Number two will be addressed by Lorenza’s changes this Friday. Number three still needs to be picked up. Number one has dropped from the list!”
A round of honest clapping around the table. I felt like I was in a 50’s sitcom. Everyone was oddly cheerful and positive.
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Lorenza spoke up. “Yeah, my changes are on track for Friday, QA said they look good.”
Howard: “Great! Ok, does anyone want to claim number three?”
Annette: “That one is the UX fix right?” - Multiple team members agreed. - “I’ve wanted to work on our UX. I’ll take it if that’s ok?”
Lorenza: “Sounds great. I can help you if you have issues, I made the changes to the UX packages last.”
Howard kept the meeting moving forward until they got to their last agenda item, which was apparently me. Now, if they were doing things perfectly, it might have been slightly more polite to welcome me at the beginning of the meeting. But I was shocked at how well this team was running without an official manager. No complaints here.
I spoke to them about my goals for finding a manager for their team, and I explained that I’d like their input in the process. They agreed that none of them had an interest in being the team’s manager, but they also wanted to make certain their current team dynamic wasn’t impacted due to their new manager. I agreed that things seemed to be working well.
As I spoke to them together, and individually, what did I learn about the team? Why did they seem so coordinated and effective?
The main thing was that they were individually and collectively motivated. I wouldn’t say that any individual had the best coding or organizational skills. But I’d never met a team more enthusiastic about doing excellent work.
What were the key components of this team’s success?
The team valued their collective autonomy. They said their last manager had been hands-off (likely was distracted with their family move). They collectively felt empowered to do whatever they felt was necessary to be successful.
They also felt individual autonomy. Each team member volunteered for their tasks. They weren’t assigned tasks by a manager. Instead, they would identify work which needed to be done, and they’d individually choose.
Each of them felt that they were growing their skills continually. They were building mastery. The team had a culture that the experts in a system shouldn’t do the work, but should support others learning how to do the work.
What this meant was that one engineer might master UX changes, and would then lean back, and assist their co-workers in learning how to modify the UX. Similarly, the junior engineer Howard was learning how to manage the meeting because everyone else had already had the role. Howard was new to the team, and was being supported in his mastery of a new skill.
They all felt a strong sense of purpose. Not that they were curing cancer, or educating children, or rescuing dolphins. But they felt that the work they did meant something. They loved their team’s identity as a team which cared deeply about customers. They regularly read through customer feedback, and had decided that top sources of complaints from customers would be a deep input into their roadmap.
What’s special about these categories I’ve bolded? One of my favorite business books is Drive — The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I love this book because it speaks to one of the most critical things for all leaders to think about.
Motivation. Motivation can get a 2-week project done in 4 days. Motivation can turn a B- engineer into an A+ engineer, with a couple of years of effort.
What is performance? It’s motivation + competence. If you have a generally competent team, motivation is your key driver for getting things done.
When thinking about what improves or hurts motivation, I’d like you to consider two different categories.
What does it take to create motivation in yourself? How can you build an environment where you feel energy and drive to achieve your best?
I’m convinced that we need to demonstrate agency over our lives. And the first place we can use that agency is to change the inputs in our lives to create motivation.
Your peers need to be motivated as well. And their personal motivation is heavily impacted by their co-workers (which includes you). What can you do to influence the motivation of your peers? What causes them to work hard to achieve your common goals? What can make working with you energizing?
As a leader, you can create an environment where others thrive and grow. This motivating leadership doesn’t necessitate being a manager. A senior engineer can create energy for an organization just as well as a manager can. Motivating a group is the job of everyone involved.
Why does all of this matter?
You personally can create, maintain, or destroy your motivation, and your co-worker’s motivation, through your actions. There’s an immense value in recognizing why certain actions or behaviors can destroy motivation. “It just feels less fun to work here these days” might be true, but being able to recognize, “our team’s lack of autonomy is impacting our motivation” is significantly more data driven and actionable.
Autonomy — Having control
The first element of motivation is autonomy. This means you feel agency (ability to influence and control) over elements of your career, your goals, and your work.
Autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean full autonomy. Unless you’re the CEO of your company, you have a manager. Your autonomy ends somewhere. But the key is where it ends.
If you’re a software engineer, autonomy might mean being able to choose the programming language for the next project. It might mean independently designing the next system, before reviewing it with your co-workers.
As a manager, autonomy might mean being able to choose how to organize your team’s work. It might mean creating your own one-on-one schedule and agenda.
Too little autonomy feels constricting. You can’t get into the flow of your work because you’re unable to do work the way you prefer. Often this happens because managers have a hard time drawing the line between, “I’d like this done.” and “I’d like it done my way.” A big key to autonomy is being clear on what outcomes are needed, and separating that from the method to achieve said outcomes.
The biggest underrated method to obtain personal autonomy is to ask for it. Literally ask if you can be a decision maker in situations where you would usually default to asking your manager.
In my experience, many employees are shockingly reluctant to push the boundaries of what they’re allowed to do independently. It is a rare employee who pushes the envelope, where I would be reluctant to let them move forward independently. For the most part, I’m thrilled when people are interested in taking stronger ownership. 90% of the time, employees take less autonomy than I’d like them to take.
Once, we had a critical project running late on one of my teams. A few last-minute requirements had come up, and we all knew our timing would be tight. We only had two days to wrap up several open items. I spoke to one of the senior engineers on my team about getting the project back on track. I was surprised with how the discussion panned out.
Me: “Hey Marta, we really need that project to launch on time. We had those last minute requirements, and we haven’t started QA yet. There’s a lot of loose ends to tie up. Can you take over, and get this back on track?”
Marta: “Yeah, I think I can get it back on track. But I’m going to need to negotiate with the product team to cut some corners, and with the QA team to shorten their schedule. And I think for testing hardware, I'll need to requisition extra devices temporarily. And for all of these, I’d expect them to want to talk to you about it. To move things more quickly, can I tell everyone that you approve of my decisions? Can I put your name on the requests?”
Me: “Well, interesting. But I see where you’re going with this. Yes, I’ll trust you. You can tell them I approve. If you do decide something questionable, please email me after so that I’m aware.”
In talking to Marta later about this (when we weren’t so busy), I discovered she had two clear things in mind.
First, she expected to have pushback from multiple stakeholders. By throwing around her Director’s name (me), she knew she’d get things moving significantly quicker. Unless I was available at all times to approve things (I was frequently in meetings), she’d end up delayed. Instead, she was able to say that I approved, and immediately get traction. She knew that would be a great tool to avoid delays.
Second, she admitted that she hated red tape. She hated the politics of getting pushback, and everyone dragging their feet. She felt a distinct lack of motivation when working across team boundaries. So she selfishly wanted to borrow my authority to avoid those blockers.
The first one made logical process sense. The second made emotional sense.
When it comes down to it, our personal motivation is always deeply impacted by our perceived autonomy. Borrowing your manager’s name to remove bureaucratic red tape might not be a tool you can always use. But it’s an interesting way to navigate work delays.
You can always approach the broader topic of autonomy with your manager in an organized fashion. Work together to define what you own (can decide on by yourself), and what you have input on (what you need to collaboratively decide with your manager). When I joined my last few organizations, I used a great technique to discuss ownership definitions with my future manager. By pre-agreeing on what decisions I independently owned (and which I didn’t), I didn’t need to wonder if I was allowed to take the next step. I’d already discussed where those lines were ahead of time.