Doctor's Note – Issue 29 – What's Your Motivation?
In this issue: What's your motivation? / Guff of the Week / Power of Ten / Courses & Training / Book Corner / The Linkhole
“You’re not grown up until they put you six feet under” – Keith Richards
What's your motivation?
I watched the 2015 Keith Richards documentary Under the Influence from which the quote above comes. Richards is obviously someone who has seen a lot of life, yet doesn't feel he knows it all as a grown up and remains playful and curious, never knowing "when the magic is going to happen". But it was his leisurely pace that struck me the most.
I continue to be fascinated by the way musicians carefully create cocoons for their creative seeds to germinate and evolve, protected from those who would immediately crush them. Good songwriters can sometimes write fast, but they also know great songs take time to emerge and be polished, in contrast to the wholly unnecessary productivity and velocity mania we see in tech.
70 years ago Alan Watts was eerily prescient in The Wisdom of Insecurity in pointing out that, despite (or, perhaps, because of), the promises of technology we have failed to reconfigure our relationship to work:
"[M]ost of us are willing to put up with lives that consist largely in doing jobs that are a bore, earning the means to seek relief from the tedium by intervals of hectic and expensive pleasure. These intervals are supposed to be the real living, the real purpose served by the necessary evil of work."
The cult of productivity and hustling became so normalised in contemporary work culture that it took a global pandemic to remind people that there is more to life than work. Suddenly, people remembered what it was like to spend more time at home and with their loved ones, to not work ridiculous hours, not commute and to work in an environment of their own shaping. They turned out to be more productive too. Now, able to emerge from enforced home offices, some folks are also remembering what they appreciated about work (hint: not their managers, but their colleagues).
It was a relief to see people recalibrate their relationship to work during the pandemic. I am not talking about quiet quitting here, though I believe there are times when that is a legitimate response to a dysfunctional work culture you are unable to leave for life reasons. I am talking about reframing the way we relate to work—and particularly our employer—as the central meaning-giver of our lives.
Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation
When we identify our sense of self too heavily with the internal validation and status from our employer—thanks its gamification via reviews, titles, levels, bonuses, badges, flares—we start to lose our intrinsic motivation for the work we are doing. Instead we become focused on our own microcosm and our motivation becomes extrinsic—to reach the next level, bonus, title, or to gain praise from our boss and peers.
Intrinsic motivation is when we do something because we find it rewarding for its own sake. It is something we would do regardless of the external praise or reward.Extrinsic motivation is doing something to either avoid punishment or garner external praise or reward. We would not be doing it otherwise.
A lot of companies—particularly in the creative industries and tech—rave about how valuable and amazing their culture is. Peter Drucker's famous quote, "culture eats strategy for breakfast" seems to have played a large role in this. I have certainly been one of those evangelists as well as a disciple at times. It can be true, but not at the level we usually think of it.
In their book, Nine Lies about Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall conducted extensive research about employees' relationships to work, employers, bosses and teams. They highlight the point of slippage we make when we conflate culture in the workplace with big C Culture in the world:
"Culture locates us in the world. It consists of stories we share with one another to breathe life into the empty vessel of “company.” But—and here’s the kicker—so powerful is our need for story, our need for communal sense making of the world, that we imagine that our company and its culture can explain our experience of work. And yet it can’t."
They use the phrase "cultural plumage" to describe company culture versus real-world culture and explain the mismatch:
"The biggest difference, of course, between cultural plumage and the real world is that the impact of plumage on how you and your team do your work every day is slight. That’s not what it’s for. It is a shared fiction, and it exists to attract a certain kind of person to join the company. And as with all shared fictions, the moment you all stop collectively believing in the plumage, it vanishes."
What Buckingham and Goodall discovered was evidence of the old adage, "employees don’t leave companies, they leave bad bosses". Team culture, not company culture, they argue, has the largest and lasting impact on how we do our work.
"When you’re next looking to join a company, don’t bother asking if it has a great culture—no one can tell you that in any real way. Instead, ask what it does to build great teams."
This is good news and bad news for emerging leaders.
The good news is that, even as a Team Lead, you have greater agency than you might think if what you do at the team level has more lasting impact than what the CEO preaches about culture.
The bad news is that failing to create a positive, purposeful culture at the team level has more negative lasting impact, too.
Anecdotally, I have found this to be the case time and again. I have several friends, colleagues and coacheeswho decided to leave their employer because of an unpleasant and difficult immediate boss. It is also common for people to follow a great boss to a new company, often through several companies.
There is further good news for senior design leaders. While you might have less lasting impact than those leading at the team level, your job is to help the company build and enable great teams and the ripple effect will be highly impactful. This also means hiring or promoting great people at that level who can lead teams well, but it is also quite different from trying to create culture top-down.
One of the biggest dangers with being someone who considers themselves "results driven" leader is that you can suck the intrinsic motivation out of people's work, thus robbing them of purpose. This typically happens when leaders become obsessive about hitting targets that have been set, even when they make no sense or have become abstracted from their purpose or intended outcomes.
A coachee of mine, who I will call Angela, was working for a tech platform in Silicon Valley found herself on the misnamed "growth team". The growth team was really all about increasing "engagement". My coachee's Product Manager was obsessed with her KPI of getting customers to interact with notifications more often. Angela suggested looking upstream in the customer experience. Perhaps they did not want to constantly be disturbed by notifications in general or perhaps they specifically did not find the platform useful?
Unfortunately, the PM was more concerned about the pressure from above to focus on her KPIs and meet expected goals. She could not understand why user research solely focused on how and why people were enabling push notifications (or not) was going to be largely useless without looking deeper into customer's motivations and behaviours.
Essentially, this relegated the product design team to designing junk mail, "Look at me!" messages with little value to customers. With no real intrinsic purpose to her work, Angela soon became entirely disillusioned with her work and the problematic PM.
The combination of intrinsic motivation being displaced by an artificial one and the lauding of productivity as an objective in and of itself can lead to very toxic work environments that bear all the hallmarks of gaslighting and abusive relationships (I don’t use this term lightly – the wellbeing effects can be severe).
The removal of intrinsic motivation and constant messaging that we are never doing enough can really hammer self-confidence. When that happens, it is difficult to imagine anyone else will hire us and so we stay in the toxic workplace, every day a little more afraid to stand up for ourselves.
It’s not me, it’s you
The second piece of synchronicity, was reading Sara Wachter-Boettcher's excellent article, Hey designers, they’re gaslighting you exactly at the time I was writing my chapter (sometimes distractions prove to be treasures). Sara also used the term gaslighting when describing how designers are blamed by organisations for not justifying their value or impact, as if leadership have no role to play.
"[Gaslighting is] a manipulative technique that makes designers question their own sanity and assume that they’re the problem — but that maybe, if they just try one more time, things will change. But they never do. Because the truth is, you cannot overwork your way into being valued. You cannot explain or fight your way into being valued.
You can’t prove your value to someone who isn’t interested in seeing it.
"When we chronically “save the day,” that extra effort becomes expected — and we can easily turn into martyrs, transmuting what should be the organizational pain of under-resourcing and poor planning into our own personal pain to bear."
I am guessing this resonates with a lot of people, whether you're an IC or a design leader. It certainly comes up all the time in my coaching sessions.
The fundamental problem, as Sara points out, is a structural one. "That's the trick of late-stage capitalism: it convinces individuals that structural problems are personal failings." As she argues, it is one that you cannot fix from underneath, from managing upwards.
What you can do is take your finger out of the dam and let the organisation and their leaders be accountable for their own actions. If you are working flat out and get yet one more task thrown at you, you have a choice. You can work evenings and weekends, missing out on time with your loved ones or enjoying your own life, or you can let that task not get done.
If you martyr yourself and your time, those above you will never receive the feedback that their demands are unreasonable or unrealistic. When I hear coachees' stories of working like this and ask why they do it, the response is frequently "there is just too much work to get done in the time available." But this is an attribution bias failure at work.
Assuming their nine-to-five work days (the hours they are actually paid for) are genuinely full, the problem is not that there is too much work to be done.
The problem is that the organisation's leadership have ambitions greater than the resources they are willing to expend on those ambitions.
As the management consultant cliché goes, they have champagne tastes and mineral water budgets.
If you, as an individual, take on the shortfall with your own time, leadership never receive the feedback that their ambitions and resources are mismatched. From their perspective they demanded something got done and it got done. They may even dress up the over ask with phrases such as, "taking one for the team" or "it's great opportunity for you/your visibility." All you have done is work for them for free and sent them the message that this is fine.
It is only when things do not get done or the requests get rejected do they get the message that they might need to hire that extra designer you have been asking about for months.
Yes, sometimes there really is a crunch and we have to put in some extra time to get something finished, especially when we have fouled up the planning ourselves, want to go the extra mile for our own pleasure in the craft, or an actual disaster happens. But that should be the exception, not the norm. If there is a crisis every day, they are no longer crises, but symptoms of a chaotic, poorly-planned work environment spewing out unreasonable asks.
The next time you consider working late or at the weekend for an unreasonable ask, question yourself why you are really doing it instead. Most of us are not working in critical jobs that save lives or the planet (hats off to those of you who are—you should all be paid far more than you are).
If you are working for a VC-funded start-up, scale-up or even a large enterprise that is publicly traded, remember that the exploitation of your unpaid free time is being used to make already wealthy people even more wealthy. The pressure for velocity is usually invented and underpinned by greed. It is not you who will be sitting back on your yacht in the Mediterranean enjoying the rewards.
If the above resonates and you are feeling the need for some support, you can read about my coaching services here. And if you are interested in reading more early drafts of my book, you can join the community here.
Power of Ten
I've been slower in my release schedule this year, but have some great guests coming up. Here are the latest episodes of Power of Ten:
Dr Pierce Otlhogile-Gordon an innovation catalyst, researcher, facilitator, and evaluator, based in Botswana. We explored the space between transformation and liberation, the issues of power dynamics of politics in design, and why Human-Centred Design can often exacerbate problems.
The most recent episode is with Kate Tarling, talking about her book The Service Organization, a super practical guide to achieving the organisational change that has to happen if services are to be redesign and implemented.
Courses & Training
My friend Douglas Ferguson, President of Voltage Control asked me if I'd like to put my Workshop Facilitation Course on their Learn platform. So of course I said yes, since they're the masters of facilitation.
You can still access all my courses here, but I think the USD price of the Workshop Facilitation is probably a better deal at the moment.
This is a good time to remind people I also train groups and teams either in-person or online. I often combine these engagements with a block of coaching/mentoring hours that you can draw down upon. Get in touch if this sounds like something I could help your teams with.
Guff of the Week
For years I've been collecting vacuous statements from people in business and consulting when they really don't know what they're talking about but want to sound like they do. It's called The Big Book of Guff. If you come across any, send them my way. This one was from <cough> a large technology management consultancy MD, without irony:
“We need to really kick on and give our people autonomy to do great things so if someone is showing bad behaviour tell them to fuck off.”
The aforementioned Hey designers, they’re gaslighting you piece by Sara Wachter-Boettcher.
I wrote my PhD about play and interactivity and play continues to fascinate me. As I struggle to avoid being a helicopter parent to my teenager, this piece from Aeon about The play deficit struck home. It's about how "children today are cossetted and pressured in equal measure. Without the freedom to play they will never grow up." Gen Zs, take note.
Another recent piece from Aeon, Finance as alchemy, argues that "Finance fraud is not a deviation from an essentially rational system but a window onto the reality-distortion of markets." If you've ever thought that finance was entirely made-up, you'd be right.
Lenny Rachitsky has steadily built an excellent newsletter and community. His recent interview with CEO Karri Saarinen about How Linear Builds Product (spoiler: No product managers, just a head of product) was an interesting read, especially for anyone who remembers working in digital more that 15 years ago. The responses to Lenny's post on Twitter were equally fascinating, especially rather angsty one from Ray Jang: "If no PM, who does requirements gathering and oversees project management?" Answer: the project team. Wasn't that the whole point of Agile?
In doubt about working from home’s benefits? This report from The Hill should put argument to rest: Does working from home damage productivity? Just look at the data. Spoiler: it's better for productivity (as if productivity is all that counts).
My bedside bookshelf still suffers from what the Japanese call Tsundoku. Nevertheless, I've been reading up on the dark side of humanity and great ways to create a workshop culture. And giants.
Romancing the Shadow: A Guide to Soul Work for a Vital, Authentic Life by Steven Wolf & Connie Zweig
Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves by the always insightful James Hollis.
I'm currently reading Alison Coward's Workshop Culture: A Guide to Building Teams That Thrive for an upcoming Power of Ten episode. Proof that every meeting should be a workshop and the power of leading teams well.
Bigby Presents: Glory of the Giants is a D&D supplement about giants, which is handy because my players are about to enter a city of Fire Giants. The book itself is not giant. It's rather thin for a book that costs more than all the others, but it's just about worth it. I promise a series on the relationship between TTRPGs, leadership and teams soon.
That’s it for this issue. Thanks for reading, sharing and listening.
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