Management Area 4: People — Understanding Motivations

It’s all about having authentically honest 1:1s

Ian Nowland

(Part Four, subpart one, of The Seven Areas Of Software Management)

“If I want to say to the world ‘eating people is wrong’, and that’s what I have to say — I might as well not say it. I might as well go home and start manufacturing earth shoes, or something of this kind” — Donald Barthelme, interview with Judith Sherman and Charles Raus, 1975.

I start with the Donald Barthelme quote, partly because he is my favorite author and not enough people know of him, but mostly because it speaks to the difficulty of saying something new and interesting about people management in software development. A lot interesting has been said:

I even have my own lists, in the appendices.

These are not linked to ironically, they are all great reading. But they are linked to melancholically — all this great writing, but I think everyone would agree we don’t have enough good (let alone great) managers in software development. Which comes to my interesting point, which is I have had some really good managers over the years, and they did less than 10% of what is described above. But, what they did do was find the subset that worked to understand my motivation and for them to be interested in it.

Naming names. Camille Fournier, linked above, author of The Managers Path, a guide to software management, was my manager for 18 months, and is a great manager who I would happily report to again. And yet I keenly remember her first 1:1 with me, when she told me “as a senior manager I expect you to own your own development”, and it was hard not to smirk, because throughout my career, through being a junior engineer to being a senior manager, through great managers and poor, that was always the case. All that talk about coaching, and guiding, and whatever bullshit my manager was supposed to be doing, it never happened. Outside of once or twice a year feedback session (not to be neglected, but only twice a year), I owned my growth; my managers always had other problems to spend time and focus on.

The point is though, that I just categorized some managers (i.e., Camille) as great; even though they didn’t in the first order care much about focussing on my growth. And the reason for that comes to what I believe is good people management. Which is it’s not about growth, rather it’s about motivation. And what they did is: (1) use 1:1s to understand my motivation, (2) use 1:1s to make sure I was being motivated, and (3) spent time and capital to make adjustments when that was not the case.

That’s it; that’s sufficiently good people management.

By “sufficiently” I mean, I have worked with some extremely successful managers who did nothing more, instead they put the rest of their time and focus in other areas (usually product and/or engineering). But to the extent they were great at that, and built a team motivated similarly, their team loved it; loved their sense of learning and being engaged in delivering by someone so skilled and passionate go about their biggest passion. Needless to say, that style of management is very different than someone following a step by step of “coaching great 1:1s”.

And yet there is a struggle. Which is, how many people are motivated by the things you are, and/or how long is your personal motivation clearly the right thing for the business? I.e. these types of “single motivation” teams are unstable over time, particularly as they grow. And so, there is only one goal I care about, for myself personally, and any manager under me:

  • Goal: No people leave you team (either resigning or transferring) without you giving your manager a heads up of potential risk ahead of time.

This is the only goal that matters because if you understand all your team members motivations and whether they are being fulfilled, then you will know whether they are starting to look around at other possibilities. Now to get ahead of this, I have found it useful to have a supplemental goal:

  • Goal: 100% success in engagement survey of team that they are happy in their role and their manager, or those who are not have been escalated beforehand. The best survey I have found here is Google’s.

To succeed at these goals as your team diversifies, you need to get through an inflection point of management, which is realizing that most people don’t have the same motivations as you. I.e., There is a bunch of managers who succeed early on hiring people just like them, who they motivate to do great things, but then crash and burn badly at the next phase of leadership with a more diversely motivated team. Worse, often not only do they fail to understand others’ motivations, they blame them for being different, while being blind to the fact that the team is only successful because those other motivations compliment the people more like them.

So coming back to my list of what managers need to do: (1) use 1:1s to understand my motivation, (2) use 1:1s to make sure I was being motivated. So how to do that? The first thing is to have a framework of motivation. This is mine:

  • Challenge: people who are fulfilled by conquering a challenge.
  • Flow: people who are fulfilled by the state of flow that comes from thinking deeply about a problem.
  • Impact: people who are fulfilled to see that what they have done has shown value; they love the feedback loop of “did something this week”.
  • Autonomy: ties to the last three, but it’s people who are fulfilled to see that value has come from their choices, as opposed to just being a cog in a machine that would have happened whether they were their or not.
  • People/Team: people who are fulfilled by the first order helping of other team members, often people-pleasers whose motivation comes from seeing that people around them have been helped by their work.
  • Growth: people who are fulfilled only when they feel like they are being personally stressed to learn new things to succeed. This can be technical learning, but often is just any type of learning they can see the value of
  • Recognition: similar to People/Team, except its motivation that comes from having explicit recognition, sometimes within the workplace, but sometimes it’s a peer group outside as well.
  • Compensation: how much someone gets paid, which comes last as while sometimes the absolute dollar figure matters, usually what you find is it’s a relative value that matters to most people, which ties to the last area.

Next: how to use the list to understand what motivates your team? This is where 1:1s matter; they are your major opportunity to understand each team member’s motivations, and whether they are being hit. Now, the challenge is the way to do so is an art specific to yourself and to the person. My default technique is to bring a list of 3–4 relevant items to talk about (based on other 1:1s I have had, and events), with the important thing being the discussion is about coming to an understanding of the tradeoffs, rather than making a decision. Through this I can understand two situations: why they are unmotivated to do something I think is the right thing, or just as often when they are doing something right but seem unmotivated in doing it.

While this works for me, I wouldn’t prescribe it to all. I am good at tracking items across emails/meetings, and have a dry manner which works well to talk about challenges as problems. But others don’t have that, and need to find something else. My last manager at Amazon, more empathetic than I, would ask “how happy are you with your job right now on a scale of 1–10” as his opening statement for a deeper discussion. If I did so it would come across as hokey, but it worked for him.

While the best is hard, the worst managers I have had are easy to describe: they would show up to 1:1s with nothing to say, nothing to talk about. The absolute worst would occasionally bring one thing, an occasionally rebuke, which I am sure they considered “feedback”. However, even my best managers, as do myself, occasionally struggle to be present in 1:1s when other burning things clearly had that attention. That’s fine as a one off, but I was very much tallying when it was a recurring issue.

The thing about this, and reading all those guides above, is finding a subset that consistently and authentically works for you. By “authentic” I mean you need to find techniques that for you work to understand and empathize with others, but don’t leave you feeling like you are faking. Because even if they don’t work it out, it will drain you — there is too much stress in being a successful people manager to add “I need to be a fake version of myself to succeed” to the list. Becoming a successful and happy manager is about finding the right mechanisms that succeed for you while you can still be yourself.

Now, you have read all those links and are having great 1:1s that work for you, but that still leaves the third point: how to spend make adjustments to motivate people when what motivated them seems misaligned to business value. That is pretty long so I am going to leave it for the next post. In the meantime, below are my checklists of people management.

Appendix 1: My Checklist for Understanding People

For everyone who reports to you:

  • Are you having 1:1s with every week or at least every second week?
  • Do you know what motivates them?
  • Do you know what they think of all the members of their team? Do you understand who they think of as performing strongly or not? Do you understand what roles people are taking willingly, vs feeling like that are being forced to take?
  • Do you have a good understanding of performance of their performance recently, both absolute and in the eyes of their peers?
  • Do you know their strengths and weaknesses?
  • Do you know where they think they want to take their career long term?
  • Do you understand whether team dynamics, including possibly your role on the team (e.g. taking away a leadership opportunity doing something you enjoy too much), are holding someone’s motivations back?
  • On all the above, particularly for junior team members, can you do them while dealing with the fact that since they see management as an “authority” rather than a “peer who helps them”, many of them will not be honest on their initial answer.
  • For low performers, have you asked yourself honestly “should I be deliberately managing this person up or out”, or are you just stringing along doing the grind

Appendix 2: Checklist for When You Start in a New Role

Know your people through a first 1:1's:

  • What do they own?
  • What is their background?
  • How do they spend their time? (Useful categories may be manual ops/leadership/administrative features/re-engineering)
  • How do they want to spend their time?
  • 1:1 topics for senior engineers, or managers under you
  • Preferred Communication (email vs chat vs verbal, interrupt driven vs rollups)
  • Preferred 1:1 mechanism: frequency, what we like to cover?
  • How each likes to give and receive critical feedback and surprises?

Establish your processes:

  • How often should I have 1:1 with my directs?
  • If I have them, how often should I do skip 1:1s?
  • How often should we meet as a team? What do we want to talk about? What should we cover? Examples are: ops review, project reviews, team presentations.
  • How often should the team have offsites and social activities? Together? As separate teams?

Understand company’s processes for your people:

  • What is the job families for engineering?
  • What are the job levels for engineering?
  • Is there a feedback/review process?
  • How does calibration happen?
  • How do promotions happen?
  • How does this all feed into compensation review process?
  • Managing Out: how does it work (i.e. timing, documentation requirements)?
  • Timeoff: What do people get? How to report/review? What about FMLA?
  • Terminating: (resignation or surprise) What happens? Who do I engage?
  • How much conference attendance is acceptable at team level, and individual level?

Ian Nowland

Written by

VP Eng Metrics and Alerts @ Datadog. Formerly SVP Compute Platform Eng @ Two Sigma, and creator of Nitro @ AWS EC2.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade