Motivating Engineering Teams

Motivating Engineering Teams

It’s hard to overemphasize just how important it is to have committed, enthusiastic team willing to put it all on the line, day in and day out. A highly-motivated work force can overcome obstacles and spark growth and creative solutions that can set you apart from the competition (especially in your company’s early stages).
But with most engineers simply “punching a ticket” every day, employers and organizations are looking for ways to engage and motivate their employees in ways that align the goals of both the team member and the organization.
Shockingly, according to a 2013 Gallup study covering the United States job market, “Over 70 percent of employees are not engaged in their jobs.”
With this startling statistic weighing heavily on minds of employers, many organizations are seeking a better understanding of what triggers employee motivation what they can to do translate this understanding into a positive correlation between motivation and performance.

It's Only Human Nature Right?

But motivation is a tricky thing. Motivation isn’t as simple as a formed habit, translating into a daily urgency to get the job done. And certainly not a learned behavior that once mastered can be easily leveraged to produce non-stop, machine-like performance out of your employees.
Quite the contrary. As humans, “motivation” and “inspiration” wax and wane with our emotions, stress levels, tasks, and other aspects of our lives that bleed into our work (whether we want them to or not).
Leaving personal issues at the door is a mantra of “old school” bosses, but that type of mentality isn’t going to fly in today’s workplace. Employees demand and deserve more from us as employers. And we need to give it to them.
If staying personally motivated is a daily challenge best tackled after your first cup (or three) of coffee, how on earth can we hope to keep the entire engineering team motivated and ready to tackle the challenges of today, tomorrow and the next?
Luckily for you (and us), today’s data-saturated age affords us the opportunity to deeply examine work habits, personality traits and learning behaviors that drive performance both on an individual and team level.
As Marshall Van Alstyne, a Boston University professor so succinctly put it, “We’re living through a golden age of understanding personal productivity.” Yet, despite best efforts, many organizations fall flat on their face when it comes to engineer performance optimization.
Luckily for you, we’re here to help. This API Canary article will walk you through the basics of motivating your engineering team and set you up on pace to perform at levels typically only achieved by the “big boys” in tech.

Employee Motivation – The Surprising Truth

The software engineers of today’s complex and fast-paced development teams demand more than a solid benefit package and a high paying salary.
With the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting demand for software engineers expected to increase at a rate of 24%, top talent will have a number of options when seeking employment.
And while standard perks and competitive wages are a great place to start, if you want to attract, retain and motivate the very best, you’ll need to kick it up a notch.
In his book, “The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, author Daniel H. Pink claims that the key to long-term retention and motivation of high-quality employees is to develop and cultivate a culture that combines both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
Pink’s work, which leverages data from studies conducted at MIT and other top universities, found that higher wages, bonuses and other “tangible” perks impacted performance in a positive way only for those tasks which were considered mechanical or “basic” in nature.
Those skill sets and activities that required creativity, higher-order, or complex problem-solving cognition were largely unaltered by higher wages (and in some cases actually had a negative impact on performance outcomes).

Why Motivating Your Engineering Team is So Important

Motivation isn’t just about hitting that next benchmark or tight deadline. It’s about delivering great experiences, services and products that keep your customers coming back for more. It’s also about creating an environment in which your engineering employees can grow and develop into thought leaders and professionals driven to achieve greatness, no matter what their role.

Motivated Teams and Employees:

  • Communicate better
  • Exhibit advanced problem and trouble shooting skills
  • Learn faster
  • Produce higher quality work
  • Contribute to a positive culture within your organization
  • Participate in self-improvement and development
  • Grow with your organization
  • And more…

But if Money & Perks aren’t the Answer, what is?

That's the million dollar question…literally. Uncovering, exploring, implementing, testing and evaluating innovative ways to keep your engineering team excited, enthusiastic and driven can yield immeasurable benefits for your company (both tangible and otherwise).
Let’s explore a number of battle-tested, researched backed ways to get the job done. Put on a fresh pot of coffee and settle into that office chair…we’re about to dive headfirst into the deep end.

Core Motivating Principles

Each of our recommended motivational tactics have been heavily researched and identified as foundational ways to motivate both individuals and teams.

Core Driving Factors Behind Engagement and Motivation Include:

  • Autonomy – stemming from an internal desire to be self-directed and in charge of our own self. This has been shown in practice to increase engagement, while the opposite (micro-management and oversight) has led to the opposite.
  • Mastery – the desire to be and do better. While the “drive” to be the best falls on a spectrum for each individual, not a single individual gets up in the morning and says to themselves “I want to fail” or I want to be lackluster in my discipline.
  • Purpose – as humans we seek out meaning and purpose in our lives, passions and professions. Organizations that can meld business objectives with a vision that creates deep meaning and purpose for its engineers will reap the rewards.

Science-Backed Ways to Drive Motivation

1. Emphasize Creativity and Ingenuity at Work

Creative workplaces are a beautiful thing. You can almost feel the buzz in the air, fueled by open offices, playful or unorthodox hierarchies, relaxed dress codes and energetic and engaged engineers.
Creativity thrives in an environment of bridled chaos, leading to more:
  • Engagement
  • Participation
  • Ideas
  • Solutions
  • Improved processes
  • Enhanced teamwork
  • Better communication
Engineering leadership often chases “productivity” as the primary objective for their engineering teams, focused on wringing out every last drop of production from activities. But this systemization of work processes often comes at a cost: loss of creativity.
Creativity is inherently disruptive, but can and does improve engineer engagement, happiness, motivation…and in the end, this in turn also translates to improved productivity and a higher caliber of output.

2. Gamification in the Workplace

Gamification isn’t just for pimply faced teenagers sitting in front of an XBOX console. Gamification is leveraged by some of the top software engineering companies out there to drive engagement, foster a friendly but competitive environment that produces.
What is gamification?
Gamification is the process of utilizing game-thinking and game-mechanics to solve problems and engage software engineers. This process can be impactful across all your software engineering departments, motivating employees and bringing excitement back to your workspace.
Why does it work?
Recurring stimuli such as a paycheck cause reward center burnout in your brain. Think of it like this, the first time you had a piece of cake it was probably pretty great. But imagine eating that same piece of cake every day for years. Kind of loses its luster right?
The same goes with workplace rewards. The first paycheck you received was probably an exciting time in your life…but as the years go by that paycheck isn’t nearly as exciting.
To overcome habituation and stimuli burnout, gamification utilizes varying rewards in types and intensity over time, and across a number of activities and promotions.
According to Rajat Paharia, founder of Bunchball and author of “Loyalty 3.0: How to Revolutionize Employee and Customer Engagement with Big Data and Gamification”, there are 10 elements that make gamification successful:
  • Fast and steady feedback (think leaderboards)
  • Transparency (full disclosure of participant details and progress)
  • Clear, concise and definable goals
  • Badges or other certifications for levels
  • The ability to “level up”
  • On-boarding
  • Competition
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Community
  • Point systems

3. Encourage Employees to Discover their Strengths

Today’s software engineers have a “need” to feel like they are part of a working environment that both inspires and challenges them on a personal and professional level.
Care should be taken to help your software engineers grow, learn, and find a sense of purpose and mission within your organization.
How important is this? Research conducted by The Marcus Buckingham Company claims that the most powerful need we have as humans in the workplace is to discover and utilize our strengths on a regular basis.

4. Purpose and Mission

When building a software engineering team, your goal should be to align the mission of the department with that of the organization and on ways to leverage that “mission” to inspire others to work for you.
You need to sell them on how the product or tasks they are working on today translates into accomplishing the mission or “bigger picture” tomorrow and for years to come.

5. Listen and be Open-Minded

Every single one of your software engineers is unique in their own right. Treat them as such.
Standardizing your approach to motivation, discipline, learning and training is a stone-age approach that simply isn’t going to work in today’s workplace.
What motivates and inspires one employee will not do the same for the next. Regular one-on-one sessions can help foster the development of a more personal connection and relationship with employees that affords you insight into how to help foster and develop them as individuals.
During these conversations your goal is to listen and ask engaging and developmental questions, not to scold or offer “your way of doing things.” This exercise is as much a learning experience as for you as it will be for them.
Later on you can tailor all aspects of your interactions, evaluations and training for that individual based upon what works best for them.

6. Training and Tools to be Successful

Growth, both personal and professional, is a key component of motivating your software engineering team. Let’s face it, no one is interested in working at a “dead end” job with no prospect for advancement.
This is why providing high quality and training with the proper tools is so important. What motivates each individual might be personal, but one universal truth is that the urge to advance and experience continual improvement of their position and/or wages is something almost anyone can relate to.
Create a culture of growth and support with regular opportunities for continual learning, certifications, continuing education and access to the latest and greatest tools to help them in their roles and reach their full potential.

7. Encourage Teamwork

Feeling like part of the “greater whole” is an important aspect of motivation. In fact, research conducted by Ben Ariely found that in many cases employees (software engineers included) would rather take a cut in pay across their entire staff rather than having a specific employee fired. If that’s not comradery then we don’t know what is.
The adage more heads are better than one couldn’t be truer when it comes to motivating software engineer teams to tackle and solve the types of complex problems we face in today’s fast-paced environment.

8. Flexibility and Freedom

Amazing things can happen when you give your employees the freedom and flexibility to complete work in their own ways at their own pace and on their own time.
To support this claim, research conducted by Sir Michael Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College in London showed that over a period of 40 years, the highest mortality rates and poorest well-being scores were found amongst those employees that had the smallest degree of control over their roles at work.
This type of stress can lead to poor performance as well as chronic health issues that can cost your company BIG. And that is why Google employees are allowed:
  • Discretion over work hours
  • Ability to take break for fun or relaxation (ping pong, gym massage, food, etc.)
  • Relaxed dress codes (can even show up in pajamas)
  • 20% of their total work time (up to one day a week) for anything they like ranging from taking a nap to assisting another employee with a project in a different department
The result? A relaxed, fun and creative environment that psychologically benefits employees while providing Google the benefit of a highly motivated, dedicated and productive workforce.

9. Lead by Example

We’ve heard this old but wise wisdom a lot. And that’s because it works. One of the most effective ways to keep your engineering team motivated day in and day out is by leading by example.
As managers, department heads or even business owners, we often get bogged down in the day to day of our roles, forgetting that we are leading real human beings. Great leadership collaborates and works in the trenches with their team rather than delegating tasks.
Remember, the boat either sinks or sails with everyone on board…not just a few select members. And it’s your responsibility as a leader to drive morale and inspire motivation by showing them what is expected and necessary to achieve success. Roll up your sleeves and show them how it’s done.

10. Establish a Welcoming Environment

What do you “feel” when you walk in the office doors or punch in on the clock? What kind of vibe does your workspace give off?
Let’s be frank, a dull office is no way to inspire you software engineers. Find a way to make the environment energetic, fun, and welcoming for everyone. Physical space is important, and can improve collaboration, communication and the overall energy of the team.
Aspects to consider include:
  • Layout
  • Open / closed offices
  • Amenities
  • Color
  • Audio / visuals / media allowed

Closing Thoughts

Motivation is both highly personal and yet universal to each of us. Managers and leadership within your organization need to understand what drives each engineer on their team, as well as the overall culture of the team itself.
By understanding what motivates your employees you can create and implement motivational initiatives that inspire, engage and drive performance, giving your employees a sense of purpose and direction that is both professionally and personally fulfilling.

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