5 Duties of a Technical Leader: Increase Motivation

July 14, 2014

In order to succeed, we must first believe that we can.
— Nikos Kazantzakis

How does a technical leader act in a company with empowered teams? This blog post is part of a series that tries to answer that question. I believe all leaders must attend to five fundamental duties: demonstrate character, clarify direction, solve problems, increase motivation and develop people. Read on to learn how a leader increases determination among her peers.

Take a minute and look around the office. Out of ten colleagues, how many of them are excited to be there and how many look at the clock every ten minutes, itching to go home? We’ve developed this image of the office building as a cold, heartless place. The people we work with? Some strangers that we merely tolerate because the boss forced us to work together. A good leader believes that her colleagues have vast amounts of untapped potential, waiting to be harvested. She creates individual relationships with all team members, finds a common purpose, moderates discussions so that everyone’s voice can be heard and never forgets to appreciate good behavior.

Care about others

In my first management job, aged 25, I was your typical programmer-becomes-manager stereotype: I concentrated solely on the job to be done and paid no attention to the people around me. After about one year, it struck me that I didn’t know the name of any of my team member’s girlfriends/wives. Needless to say, there was a lot of arguing in the office and half of the time we even failed to deliver on our commitments. I later discovered that great teams communicate well. Communication requires trust, which in turn needs a good personal relationship. Unsurprisingly, once I took the time to have a little chat with my colleagues every now and then, and even enjoyed a beer together, the overall tension in the office was reduced and our results improved.

We should start paying more attention to people’s needs. In a recent study published by the Harvard Business Review the researchers discovered that by attending to the people’s needs, you can more than double their engagement. And “employers with the most engaged employees were 22% more profitable than those with the least engaged employees”. Each team should have an honest discussion where its members can share their own needs: quiet time, good performance, fairness etc. Leaders should encourage the teams to design their work so as to satisfy those needs. Here are some examples (need in parentheses):

  • Hold all Scrum meetings in one day (focus)
  • Team estimates content of a release (fairness)
  • Start measuring customer satisfaction (performance)
  • Stop working overtime (safety)

Answer “What’s in it for me?”

Whenever you ask someone to do something they wouldn’t normally do, make sure they also get a benefit from doing it. I remember one ScrumMaster coming to me in tears, because her manager forced the team to do a time-consuming report every day “because I said so!”. She tried to negotiate with the manager to use the data they were already gathering, but he wanted to hear nothing of it. He told her that he was the boss and she had to do as he commanded. You can probably imagine my anger three weeks later, when the same manager expressed his shock after the ScrumMaster had left the company.

You can obtain a lot more when you work with the people rather than against them. It’s a lot easier to get people to do something when they already want to do it. To increase their desire, a good leader will tap into their intrinsic motivation. For instance, to make the Sprint Review more interesting at Mozaic Works, we decided that every one of us will share a few stories from the Sprint that just ended. I don’t particularly enjoy meetings, but I like our Sprint Review because it gives me the chance to learn more about the cool things my colleagues are doing.

Amplify or dampen voices

A couple of years back I discovered that for a long while I had a wrong assumption about the role of an orchestra conductor. I had thought they were “telling” people what/how to sing with their baton. It turns out, the main role of a conductor is to amplify or dampen the sound of individual instruments so that they are fully integrated in the orchestra. Being invited to speak your mind engages and motivates.

Much like an ensemble needs a conductor to make sure they play in harmony, some teams need a leader to amplify or dampen the individual voices. There’s nothing more annoying than having a loud-mouth colleague that monopolizes every discussion and decision. Smart leaders know when it’s the time to say “Thanks Rob, I think you’ve made your point clear. What about you Kathy, how would you approach this issue?”.

Recognize contributions

Self-esteem is the fourth step in Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. We need to feel appreciated and validated by our peers. To feed this need, make sure individual moments of greatness are brought into the spotlight. Encourage people to give each other positive feedback whenever they recognize a special achievement. Some companies have public displays where you can pin a card that recognizes a colleague’s contribution. Here’s an example from gutefrage.net.

When discussing results with superiors we might find it even harder to recognize contributions. We’re inclined to take credit when things go well and blame failures on our colleagues. Instead, true leaders do just the opposite. When the team delivers on the expectations, it gets the credit. When things go wrong, leaders should step up and take responsibility, instead of trying to place the blame. This creates personal safety for everyone, which leads to increased productivity. When we feel somebody has “got our back” it becomes easier to concentrate on doing a good job.


The easiest way to get more productivity from a development team is to increase everyone’s motivation. People have vast amounts of talent and energy, but too often they don’t have a chance to prove that at the office. Great leaders believe in everyone’s internal fire. They know that people are intrinsically motivated to do a good job, but most of the time the environment causes them to lose their passion. To fight this, leaders start by creating meaningful relationships by showing that they care. They design activities so that everybody wins something, make sure every voice is being heard and take time to encourage the heart by recognizing contributions.

Read the other blog posts in the series:

Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/a8nDAx

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