The Whip and the Carrot

Learn if reward or penalty is the best way to increase team productivity.

“Work harder! Work faster!”

Has anyone ever asked this of you and your team? How did it make you feel? Did it motivate or demotivate you? Did it inspire or discourage you?

Software engineering, like many other forms of technological and scientific work, can be opaque to those that are not skilled in it. While you can watch a stonemason carve a statue, it can be difficult to see the progress of development work. “Just what exactly are all these people doing all day? They look pretty relaxed, right? Can’t they just work harder and get this over the line quicker?”

I’m sure you’ve been in this position. Let’s pretend you’re there again.

Be objective and consider the other side of the argument: Why were you and your team asked to work harder or work faster? What is it exactly that the outside observer feels that your team is lacking?

Why your team is asked to work harder

Here are a number of reasons that you may hear as to why your team isn’t “working hard enough.” Typically it stems from a mismatch in what the external observer expects to see from your team compared to what is actually happening.

  • Lack of visible output: Perhaps the team hasn’t delivered anything in a while that is visible to the observer. This could be because the team had a poorly defined project or has been subject to unrealistic expectations, bad luck, poor prioritization, and so on. Often it’s entirely not their fault. It can even be because they are doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work with infrastructure, technical debt, or refactoring.

  • Lack of “hustle”: The external observer may feel that there are particular behaviors that a team should exhibit, such as starting early, working late, being publicly present in communication channels, or some other manifestation of “working hard.”

  • Lack of passion: The external observer may feel that the team is doing incredibly important work, but that the team is not motivated by it. Perhaps they find the project unexciting, and it offers them little challenge or opportunities to learn.

Assuming that the person giving you the feedback about your team is important, like the CEO, you will need to think about how to handle this situation. Your next move depends on the truthfulness of their observations. You will either need to argue the case that it is not true, or if you feel that there is some truth to it, attempt to make some changes.

However, as we explored earlier in relation to wobble, you can’t just let this filter through without some reframing because it will be damaging to the team’s morale.

You could imagine that there are two stick-like tools that you could use to make the team perform better.

  • There is the whip, which is the metaphorical way of telling them to work harder and faster against their will.

  • Or there is the carrot dangled at the end of the stick, which makes them work harder because they feel motivated to do so.

You’ll find that people external to your team, typically those outside of software development, will expect you to deploy the whip. However, being a good manager is about turning that whip into a carrot.

Let’s explore this further.

The whip

We can make some observations about software engineering that are true of many creative and scientific professions.

Firstly, the people that are on your team are working in an industry where the demand for talent is greater than the supply. If any of your engineers quit, they could very easily have multiple job offers within days. Given that this is the case, you cannot scare someone into working harder by making them fear for their job because they can just get another job. Also, why would you want to be mean? You’re so much better and smarter than that.

Engineers are also self-motivated. It’s likely they’re not doing this particular job because they have to. They’re doing this job because they want to. What exactly motivates them can vary greatly from person to person. Some enjoy optimizations to make things faster, some enjoy building customer-facing features, and some just love problem-solving. But the reasoning is all the same: the many years of difficult education and training to become a good engineer wasn’t done through gritted teeth and poor conditions but instead with curiosity and passion. If you use the whip too much, they will lose motivation and not do a good job. Engineers want to do a good job and will therefore leave if they feel they’re not doing well.

The carrot

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