Are you sabotaging your software developers’ motivation?
Are you sabotaging your software developers’ motivation?

You get a wonderful idea for a software product. Or it may be anything high-tech.

You want the world to benefit from it.

You hire the best developers money can buy.

In your impetuosity, you don't consider that now you have to deal with a black hole called human motivation.

You know only one way to handle it.

It's the stick-and-carrot pedagogy.

Your teachers taught it to you when you were a child. They soaked it in fear to make it stick better.

You throw stones at the black hole of motivation, hoping to make it do what you want.

You buy a gun and threaten the black hole with it. Nothing happens.

You try nuclear missiles, zero. You try merit pay, profit or gain-sharing incentive plans, praise, one-time bonuses, retention bonuses, stock, micromanagement, rank and yank policy, career ladder, socialisation events, hackathons with prizes for the winner, achievement certificates, accomplishment announcements, celebrations, training for high performers, "Employee of the Month" programs, fear, discipline, pressure, rules, methodologies, fancy tools.

The black hole absorbs everything, unaffected.

It's scary, you feel powerless. It looks like you have to do things few people do in your environment, be a pioneer, explore uncharted territory, gamble on the impossible.

You need to learn how motivation works.

Why motivation matters

When we are performing activities that require problem solving and creativity, motivation is the nourishment that makes it possible.

But what if your business has large profit margins? In this case you don't need to worry about problem solving or creativity. The margins cover any waste.

Few businesses enjoy this luxury and, even if they do, not necessarily this means success. Most of them need some level of efficiency and a lot of creativity to be able to navigate the uncertainty that is always present when a company starts. These days most businesses need to be good at dealing with uncertainty, not just start-ups.

Motivation or the lack of it may mean that some problems never get solved even if there is a solution for them. It means that rich mental resources get untapped.

Low motivation may cause a project to slumber for months before it starts to make any progress. Or it may mean that developers make no effort to save it when it's about to fall apart.

Declining motivation may foster conflict and office politics, which, in turn, damage motivation further.

Low motivation means high turnover, which means higher recruitment costs.

How motivation works

You can't motivate people. You can only hire motivated people and then do your best not to demotivate them.

When I want to know how motivation works, I don't need to read books about it. I have only to rewind my memory to my teenage years.

I was passionate about computers. I was a pioneer because at that time few people were interested. Personal computers were almost non-existent. You needed a lot of passion because you had to wait 10-15 minutes to load a program you wanted to use. Now it would take less than a second.

I was so passionate that I wanted to use computers despite not being allowed to. I may have risked going to jail.

I knew, deep down, that nobody could have thrown money at me or threatened me and got more productivity out of me. The opposite was true. Any interference could only have contaminated my motivation.

Later I had to do software in commercial environments, and that's when things started to go downside.

Are you motivated?

You are not a robot. You need motivation as well as your developers do.

You are running a high tech company that makes a wonderful product. You won't be making it. You will be creating an environment, fine tuning it, protecting it from attacks, putting it back on rails when it goes off.

What does turn you on like a Johnson Family Dubstep Christmas Light Show?

Do you enjoy trusting people? Or do you believe that human beings do not deserve trust and must be controlled?

Control is one of the best motivation killers. You may want to consider starting a different business, one where trust is not required. One that doesn't need problem solving or creativity.

Otherwise you will have a hard time trying to make it work.

How to sabotage motivation

There are children in extraordinary schools who learn in one year what children in ordinary ones learn in five. Motivation makes the difference. Schools are very efficient at stifling motivation and we use their same methods to deal with people in offices.

Carrots and sticks come in many shapes and curb motivation in as many ways.

Performance evaluation

Software development, like many other complex activities, is done in teams.

Performance evaluation is a one-to-one business. It's based on ideas that are patently wrong.

A team's performance is not the sum of its members' individual performances. Performance evaluation won't improve employees' performance. The manager doing the evaluation is not going to be objective or use any impartial measurement of performances. The employee won't forget that his boss is going to dangle the carrot of salary raise in front of him making him feel like a jackass (how motivating is that?).

Performance evaluation will cause conflict and competition, sure motivation killers.


Just a way to conjugate the carrot verb.

I lost interest in keeping up to date about the most recent fads in the field of rewards. Every time a company deploys the most outstanding, promising, brilliant incentive systems, I can only think: "Here we are at it again, they never learn."

I'll get rid of the hundreds of them in one single swipe.

As a company starts to flood the working environment with rewards, people start paying attention to them instead of caring about the task at hand.

Large chunks of working time begin to go to waste in discussions that have nothing to do with writing code. People consume their neurons betting who is going to get the prize and if it will be fair (spoiler alert: it won't).

The joy of making code work and do what needs to be done escapes from the office faster than air escapes from a spaceship when a meteoroid hits it and breaks its hull apart.


Some companies get so perverted at crunching down motivation that have team members rate and rank each other. They also reward teams for competing with each other.

Officially they value teamwork, in practice they undermine it.

Dysfunctional companies threaten low performers with termination, creating an atmosphere of distrust and tension that deflates everyone's morale. Fear doesn't improve low performers' output and reduces everyone else's.


Motivated developers launch their careers ballooning on the warm power of their passion.

Very soon, aiming to have fun solving problems, they land on a piranha tank.

It's a company where a genius thought that making developers compete would produce stellar results.

Competition may make sense when results can really be tracked down to an individual. I think this stopped being the case in the Palaeolithic age.

Certainly, when activities are complex and interrelated, competition is a serious disrupter.


Let's debunk a myth. Deadlines don't make people more productive. They are actually counter-productive. If they seem to be useful, it's because people will sacrifice quality to meet them and the project will carry the consequences later, usually when it's too late.

Estimates are never accurate, they burn time that could be used otherwise, generate conflict, produce resentment, demotivate and don't achieve what they are meant to.

Deadlines make you feel in control, but it's only an illusion of control. After the deadline, people will pretend they are working when they will actually be slacking to recover from deadline stress. No gain in productivity in sight.

It's no coincidence that Agile set of values and principles ignore deadlines completely.

Deadlines make people worried. They burn people's energy leaving less of it for what matters. People would like to devote ideally 100% of their time to do what they love to do. Anything that distracts them and squanders their energy demotivates them.

Where to start?

Here it is a plan:

  1. Understand your own motivation
  2. Ask yourself if trusting people is compatible with your motivation
  3. Hire motivated people
  4. Identify the many ways you may ruin your people's motivation
  5. Create a motivation-friendly environment
  6. Protect it


Emanuele Santanche