Recently, a couple of intended compliments threw me for a loop. Two people called me in the same week and wanted me to present keynote speeches at their conferences. Of course, that was the flattering part, but what got to me was that they both referred to me as a "motivational speaker".
Since I'm a typical geek, the phrase motivational speaker immediately sets off alarm bells in my mind. It conjures up an image of some tall, tanned, large-toothed, smiling charisma machine expertly manipulating the emotions of a crowd, whipping up a frenzy at one moment and bringing forth tears of sadness and joy the next.
The invitations got me thinking about all the things managers do to try to motivate their staffs: giving inspirational speeches, handing out bonuses, making up awards, inviting everyone out for drinks, hosting family picnics or sending staffers to training on cool new technology that they may never get to use.
I admire the sentiment of those active managers, trying to motivate their teams. But when I reflect on the most engaged groups I have worked with, it's not clear that managers who explicitly try to light a fire under their teams are any more successful than those who are less attentive.
True motivation in technical teams tends to grow organically. Individuals find their own motivation in many sources. For some, it's the opportunity for learning and advancement. For others, the broad and perhaps even global results of their work are very engaging. Some are just excited to work with the group of peers they are currently engaged with.
But the one thing that most of the managers with motivated groups do have in common is that they all avoid demotivating their teams.
Although the motivation of teams grows organically, often out of the control of managers, demotivation and dejection usually start at the top. Internally generated motivation tends to be a relatively fragile state. While a manager may not be able to create a motivated team, he often has the power to kill whatever motivation grows.
So, what sorts of things do managers do that demotivate their teams?
Excluding technicians from decision-making. Technical people's distress at being left out of major decisions is about more than just feeling out of the loop.
They often sense that their talents have been disregarded. They have been insulted. And, since many decisions are influenced by technical considerations, they also feel that the decisions themselves could be suspect, since managers' technical knowledge is rarely respected. Any of these interpretations would qualify as demotivating.
Inconsistency. People who are drawn to careers in technology typically have a strong need for consistency and predictability. Early interactions with computers are quite comforting for them. As youngsters, they draw conclusions about computers, their parents and themselves. "If I type in this command, the computer always does the same thing. That's cool. I wish my mum was that predictable."
Next thing you know, they're programmers. When managers are inconsistent, at best they create distractions, and at worst they encourage their people to feel insecure. Neither result is particularly motivating.
Excessive monitoring. Among technical groups, there are few bigger insults than to call someone a micromanager. The feeling of being micromanaged is profoundly demotivating. Monitoring someone excessively, intentionally or not, communicates distrust for the person being overseen. And in many kinds of technical work, it can also serve as an impediment to progress. In intellectually demanding, creative work, interruptions can disrupt thinking for long periods of time. A manager's one-minute drop-by can result in hours of lost productivity regaining the concentration lost.
So if you want a truly motivated team, one of the best things you can do is to make sure that you're not a demotivational leader. As it turns out, not having a negative effect on your team can be a huge positive.
Paul Glen is an IT management consultant and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 2003