Working hard for the money... or hardly working

What motivates developers? (Hint: probably not money)

JAXenter Editorial Team
Money chasing image via Shutterstock

Has your boss ever tried to entice you with a bonus for finishing a project by a certain date? Does this tactic even work for developers? Read on to find out.

Those who believe in the notion that money motivates all will be surprised to learn that increased performance is less likely to be linked to financial gain in the developer world, with things working a little differently developer-wise.

Motivating factors

Various studies have shown that jobs categorised as monotonous and mechanical will be performed better when the prospect of more money becomes involved – basically, the boring stuff gets done and the bonus works as expected. However, as soon as you chuck in some cognitive elements – you know, brain work – then money as a motivator can almost turn into a redundant element.

Daniel Pink has reported on this phenomenon and RSA Animate have made a super interesting video that is worth the ten minutes you will spend watching (see below).

When a task gets more complicated, when it requires more conceptual, creative thinking, those kinds of motivators demonstrably don’t work.

Pink talks about the three factors that not only lead to better performance, but also pave the way for personal satisfaction:

  • Autonomy – self-determined work is seen as far more sustainable (and awesome)
  • Mastery – as Pink eloquently puts it, people just want to get better at stuff
  • Purpose – if the work you’re doing has a meaningful goal, then you’re more likely to join the party (and stay late)

Autonomy: Pink states that if what you’re looking for is engagement in the workplace, then self-directed work is better. We can even take note of the Open Kanban principles, which can help to keep a team learning and improving continuously.

Mastery: Doing things you enjoy and practising them naturally means that you’ll become better – we like to see ourselves getting better and this drive has often led to bigger projects that inevitably have a global impact. Take Wikipedia or Linux for example, who count on contributions from well-paid, employed individuals to sustain their systems and functions.

Purpose: A “transcendent purpose” makes coming in to work better for you and also helps to maintain the talent at said workplace. If your job contributes to an idea that you think is pretty kick-ass, then your motivation levels will probably be sky-high. While it might be difficult to find these meaningful purposes in the IT world, if you look closer at something like open source, then that warm-and-fuzzy feeling becomes more apparent.

You can check out the RSA Animate video with Daniel Pink’s presentation below:

Creative workers or coding monkeys – are you inspired at work?

The key point to take from all of this is that motivation and involvement can achieve great things, and a financial reward isn’t always the path to get you there. There are a number of other factors we can list that have no monetary link that also help to motivate in the workplace:

  • Good team communication
  • Working on the latest technologies
  • Being in an international environment
  • Speaking/appearing at conferences
  • Opportunities to contribute via blogs and social media, etc

Rather than paying bonuses for good ideas, there are companies out there who give their developers the time and space to work on any project they like, which in the case of Australian software developer Atlassian, has led to software fixes and improvements that would have otherwise never come to light.

There is also the psychological perspective to consider, which interested readers can investigate via Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where self-realisation sits perched right at the top. Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory might also be worth reading up on if you’re wanting to explore the psychological side further. For team leaders, a great blog post by Martin Anderson called ‘Psychology for Technical Leaders‘ will be enlightening.

To sum up Pink’s message, it’s worth remembering that bonuses can only work for the mechanical, monotonous, prescribed work out there – in short, the unfulfilling, boring jobs. Receiving a good salary is important, because once you “take the money off the table”, then genuine motivation for the work can be realised. Thus, Pink’s three motivating factors of autonomy, mastery and purpose could be seen as the ultimate of climates for the workplace.

The question now is whether your job is defined as monotonous or cognitively creative. What can you do to motivate yourself?

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