Motivation, Demotivation, and Constructive Conflict

If you hire people who actually care about what they do and structure things so that people actually get to do what they are good at, you’ll find that people have motivation that goes beyond getting a paycheck.

Motivating people is hard, but de-motivation i s easy, and that’s the subject of Esther Derby’s article on CIO.com. I’m sure we’ve all experienced some of the core de-motivational techniques she describes:

  • Surprises at your annual employee review
  • Constant Micromanagement
  • Public criticism
  • Being asked do do one thing, and evaluated on not doing another
  • Being given unachievable deadlines
  • Being asked for input and then having your input ignored
  • Having coworkers receive preferential treatment
  • Being treated as untrustworthy, or as an outright criminal

I’ve had managers who called employees names in public, who gave job requirements with no warning, who played favorites with particular employees, and who lied (or at least fuzed the truth) about important company metrics to make himself look good. Heck, that was all one manager! (And if you think you know who this is, you’re probably wrong, unless you’ve known me for a long, long, long time.)

I had another manager who ran a morning company wide “motivational” meeting every day, and who used that opportunity to threaten to fire each and every one of us, if we didn’t do all of a dozen sometimes contradictory things.

The best thing you can do in those kinds of pathological cases is to move on. But in other less extreme cases, you may be able to help your manager understand why her motivational strategies might be backfiring on her. I’ve had success with saying:

Hey, do you have a min. to talk about something that will help the whole team work better?

I’ve noticed that my ability to stay focused and motivated is being impacted by something that happened at our last team meeting. And I’m afraid others may have had the same reaction. I know we really want this project to succeed, and I don’t want to let this get in the way.

You’ll remember that Mary was out sick, and you joked that she would jut bring up bad news anyway… Well, that kind of thing makes me think you won’t handle bad news well, and makes me less likely to bring bad news to you right away. And I don’t want that, since I’m sure that limits your ability to help us to problem solve….

The key things to remember are:

  • Establish that you’re trying to help with something they care about, not to attack them
  • Raise one issue at first, don’t make this about a pattern of behavior — that’s harder to admit to.
  • Don’t use emotionally charged words, just present the facts as they happened
  • The let your boss know how you interpret those facts,

These kinds of social confrontations can be very hard for us programmers, but they really can make a difference in our working environment, and can improve our teams.

Learning to handle conflicts well is just as important as learning to catch exceptions in untrusted code. Failing to do either one, is likely to end up with things blowing up at random times in ways that we can’t control.

4 Responses to “Motivation, Demotivation, and Constructive Conflict”


  1. Hi Mark,
    your posting reminds me of several projects I was involved in. Later I found out that there are some publications on this phenomenon by Bob Sutton (http://bobsutton.typepad.com/, professor at Stanford by chance). He calls those ball-busters “assholes” and even has written a book about them: http://www.amazon.com/Asshole-Rule-Civilized-Workplace-Surviving/dp/0446526568/
    There are even some very entertaining resources at Stanford Educators Corner: http://edcorner.stanford.edu/authorMaterialInfo.html?author=55
    You see: we’re not alone ;)
    Best regards,
    Volker

  2. 2le viet ha

    Dear Dr.,
    I am a MA candidate at Hue university, Vietnam. I am very interested in motivation and demotivation in foreign language learning. I have an intention of carrying out a thesis on motivation among learners of English in Vietnam. Would you mind if you could give me some advice? I am very grateful to you for your support. Please contact me at my mail address: lvhhtk@yahoo.com.
    Sincerely yours.

  3. Dear le viet ha,

    Unfortunately I don’t know much about motivation and foreign language learning. I’m pretty much focused on helping software developers and their managers to improve their chances of project success.

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