The stick

comments 5

Work harder! Work faster!

Has anyone ever asked that of you and your team? How did it make you feel? Did it motivate or demotivate? Cause inspiration or decline?

Software engineering, like many other forms of technological and scientific work, can be opaque in technique to those that are not skilled in it. Unlike watching a stonemason carve a statue, it can be difficult to observe how work is progressing. 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?

Crunch periods are well-documented in the video game industry. They create tales of heroics, but more often, woe and burnout. Crunch is that time on a project when you are staring at the ever-decreasing gap between the current uncompleted work and the deadline, and the team realizes that the only way to get there is to stress out, sleep in the office, and neglect life outside of work and their health in order to get the damn thing done. Based on that description, you can probably tell that I don’t like crunch. It breeds the wrong kind of culture. However, a crunch situation is well-defined. The deadline is set and it cannot be moved, and you’ve gotta get there. You’ll know when you’re there because you can ship it and stop.

But what about when there is no particular deadline and there is a feeling from others that your team isn’t delivering fast enough?

The spotlight

Let’s imagine that the CEO pulls you aside and tells you that she thinks your team just aren’t working hard enough. She rarely sees any of them staying as late as everyone else, nor getting in before them. They spend a lot of time playing table tennis and visibly having fun together, but she feels they aren’t producing enough output to really move the needle for the business.

The spotlight is on you now, and it’s really uncomfortable. As their leader, you will inevitably be expected to employ the stick in order to save the team’s reputation and your own. If you are new to the game, then you may be wondering why this is being asked of you and what you’re going to do about it. If you can’t use the stick effectively with your team, then that same stick might just drag you off the stage.

Let’s explore.

The mismatch

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 are lacking?

Here are some of the things that I’ve heard throughout my career about why a team isn’t meeting expectations:

  • Lack of visible output: The team hasn’t delivered anything that the observer has seen as worthwhile for a given period of time. This could be because the team has had a poorly defined project, has been subject to unrealistic expectations, bad luck, actually not working hard enough, poor prioritization over other things that are actually more important, and so on. It could be because they are doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work with infrastructure. The mismatch here is that a level of perceived visible output has not been met.
  • Lack of hustle: There may be observations that your team is not getting in until after 9:30 and is going home way before 5:30. They might be supposedly spending a lot of time goofing off rather than working. They might just not look that busy. Either way, there is a mismatch on the expected hustle that a team is expected to be showing.
  • Lack of purpose: The team are observed as not showing enough passion for their work. They may have been observed as saying the project is stupid or pointless, and that if they could make the decision, they wouldn’t bother doing it. They might just be really quiet and look uninspired by what they’re doing. There is a mismatch between the importance of the work in the eyes of the team and the observer.

Looking at some of these perceived behaviors, you may decide that the best course of action is to get the team in a room and have a good shout at them for not being good enough, or fast enough, or passionate enough. But that version of applying the stick just doesn’t work. You’re a clever person and you should be smarter than that.

Bad stick

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

Firstly, the people that are on your team are working in an industry where demand for talent dramatically outstrips supply. If any of your engineers quit, they could easily have multiple job offers within days. Given that this is the case, you cannot scare someone into working harder through making them fear for their job: they could just get another one. On top of this, applying the stick too harshly will just make them leave. They could easily find a job elsewhere that is less stressful.

Engineers are also self-motivated. They are not doing this job because they have to. They are 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, 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 was not done through gritted teeth: it was done through a genuine curiosity and passion for the craft. Getting too aggressive with the stick will get in the way of them doing a good job, which is what they are motivated to do, so they will inevitably leave.

Viewed through the lens of the in-demand, self-motivated engineer, you can see how when the stick is applied badly, with poorly defined logic, it inevitably causes problems for you as a manager. Setting fake deadlines is a terrible idea: they’ll see through your deception. Telling them to work harder and faster with no clear reason or purpose will make you look stupid.

Good stick

True leadership to increase throughput comes through fostering purpose and passion in your team. When your engineers are clear on their purpose in the organization and how they can move the dial for the company, they will intrinsically perform better. When they are passionate about their work, they will work harder and faster and later because they enjoy doing it. Coaching a team towards this is much more difficult than just telling them to work harder and faster whilst being angry about it. It requires emotional intelligence, understanding of how they work and what motivates them, and the confidence and oratory skills to deliver that message so that it inspires.

Some techniques to motivate a team about the importance of their work include:

  • Making the benefit clear: Most engineers that I have worked with are self-motivated to do work that benefits others. As their leader, you have the duty to frame the benefit of what you are building and why. Which users will benefit? Is it all, or is it some? How much money do those users bring into the business? Are your customers actually other engineers because you are overhauling a part of the infrastructure that will make future work faster, easier and more efficient?
  • Creating clear feedback loops: Decide on KPIs to measure work against, whether that is driven purely by quantitative (i.e. clicks, load time, average throughput) or qualitative (i.e. NPS surveys, user interviews) data. The quicker that this feedback can get to the team, the quicker that they can see that their work is making a difference and be inspired to do more of it.
  • Collectively deciding on trade-offs: If you are in a position where a tricky, late project is putting pressure on a team to deliver, then be open and honest with them about it. You typically work with three main factors: scope, resources and time. These are your levers that you can tweak in order to get a project over the line more quickly. Instead of analyzing the situation and making a decision on your own, why not involve the team so that they fully understand the current situation and feel empowered to work with you to do something about it? It’s more effort, but it has a greater long-term benefit.

If your team is aligned and have clarity on how they can make a sizable impact, you probably won’t find yourself in the situation described earlier in the article where their output is being questioned. But if you are, you should be able to articulate the benefit of what the team are working on clearly to the observer, and then work with the team to motivate them to put in that bit of extra effort: reiterate the impact that their work is having and press how vital they are in making it so. Work with them on the means to measure this if necessary (e.g. by using HEART metrics or by rallying inspirational stakeholders around the team).

In summary

Figuratively beating engineers with the stick to tell them to go faster and harder without reason is going to compromise the respect that you have earned from those that are working for you. If it was possible to simply “go faster”, then your smart engineers would have already worked out how to do so. The skill in leadership is to run your team(s) so that they have a clear purpose and that they understand how to move the dial for the business. They will then be self-motivated to drive a project towards completion in the best way that they can.

You may need to involve yourself in discussions with them about how to effectively pull the levers of scope, resources and time in order to keep everything on the right track, but you should primarily concern yourself with how your team can have an intrinsic motivation to get the job done whilst giving them autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Anything less than that makes you no smarter than a program that you could write to send your team an email once a day telling them to hurry up.

You’re better than that, right?

Scrutiny and judgement

Leave a comment

The scrutiny of your public

You wonder why anybody would want to live their lives in the spotlight. Those that are in positions of authority such as politicians, and even those who don’t have any particular legislative power such as celebrities, are deeply scrutinized by the press and members of the public. Tabloids publish a vast array of content about the minutiae of these people’s lives: where they are currently on holiday, and of course, not forgetting the conversation about whether they should be on holiday at all; snide commentary on a gaff during a public appearance; the paradoxical positions they may find themselves in where there is misalignment between their policy or beliefs and the reality of their lives; the list is endless. It must be utterly exhausting.

But how many of these scrutinies are unique to public figures? Perhaps we could take the examples in the previous paragraph and reimagine them in the context of the workplace. Why is it that the CEO is currently hiking in the Alps with her family when the whole company knows that they didn’t hit their target this quarter and there are serious issues in the sales organization? How inept can our VP Product be if he can’t even get his facts right during the presentation of the roadmap at the company meeting? How can it be possible that our CFO won’t let any of her team work from home more than one day a week when she works from home two days a week herself? The scrutiny of those in positions of power can be just as prevalent in the office.

Visibility encourages scrutiny

As you progress along the management track, you will find that increasingly senior positions invite more scrutiny from your colleagues. Going up the org chart from an individual contributor to a lead, VP, SVP, or C-level position has a similar effect to those who take up seats in public office. Instead of just being a contributor to a team, you begin to represent the team conceptually as their leader. At more senior levels, whether you like it or not, your role can expect you to embody particular values that the company holds dear, as you act as a role model for others in your organization. During good times this can be fantastic: the company is thriving and you are the living embodiment of all that is wonderful and successful. During bad times, you get the fingers pointed at you, despite the net result of the current situation being generated by a whole organization, rather than just one person.

We all want role models. We want people to look up to who we can unite behind and put our faith in. These people set an example about how the rest of us should act. Think of the involvement of public figures during times of national grief or crisis. We have an expectation that they will be present at particular events, that they will say the right words, and that the correct symbolic gesture will be performed: the laying of a wreath, the cutting of a ribbon, the giving of a speech. This accountability naturally breeds scrutiny when the people in the position of role models inevitably demonstrate that they too are only human. They make mistakes, they get angry or they do something stupid, just like everyone else. Like those public figures, we can’t expect perfection from those above us in the organization. It will only lead to disappointment.

What can you do?

Well, you can only be yourself.

A coping strategy for those in positions of power is to compartmentalize their personality into their “work” self and their “home” self. This, with time, can become exhausting as you can feel that you are living a double existence. It gets harder to switch back and forth. I used to employ this tactic. I remember the times that I would come home after work and my partner would wonder why I was acting “like a robot” and why I was not the person that she saw at the weekend. The truth is that you can’t be a perfect embodiment of your role. You can only be you, warts and all.

You will encounter judgement from both directions: being on the receiving end of scrutiny from those that report to you, and also you will naturally feel this towards those you report into (and beyond). Where does it come from and how do we deal with it?

Scrutiny from those below

To err is human. You too will have bad days as a manager. You will have days where you will lose your sanity and get angry or stupid or both. You may do something that conflicts with a principle that you’ve preached before. These conflicts between conceptual position in the organization and being a human invite a variety of emotions from those that report to you. I’ve ordered them from good to bad.

  • Kindness and understanding: This is the best possible reaction to come from your direct reports. If you’re having a bad day or a bad week, they understand and they want to be on your side making things better. They may ask if there is anything you can delegate, or they may just take you out for a coffee and a chat to see if you’re OK.
  • Concern and worry: Those that look up to you for stability will feel your situation deeply and potentially catastrophize over the real meaning of it, even if that meaning is something that they have invented. You might have just had a terrible night’s sleep and are a bit grouchy, but they think that you dislike them and their job is at risk. You may need to work from home a lot due to a sick child, but they think you’re off doing job interviews elsewhere.
  • Resentment: They begin to turn away from you emotionally. “Why is it that I have to work for a leader who is not representing me better in the organization? How could they make that mistake so publicly? How can they be paid more than me? I do all of the work!”
  • Mutiny: They fully turn and can begin to sabotage you. They’re not on your side during meetings with senior leadership, and you feel that they are trying to throw you under the proverbial bus. Maybe they feel misrepresented and are rebelling, or maybe this is the coup for your job. This is the danger zone.

The further down this list that your staff may be, the more work that it is going to be to get them back on your side. As with most issues with interpersonal relationships, open and honest communication is the remedy. Be able to have the conversation that challenges them on how they currently feel towards you and dig into why that is. If they are worried about their own job, then you can reassure them. If they’re trying to throw you under the bus, then perhaps it is because they haven’t seen enough progression in their own role, and you can turn the conversation into how they can get more (although, perhaps it will take a while to forgive your proverbial Brutus).

Scrutiny towards those above you

Even if you have mastered the art of identifying and remedying how your direct reports react to your own wobbles, it is natural to feel any or all of the same emotions to those who are above your own position in the org chart. You work with them closely, you know their strengths and their weaknesses. You’ve seen them on good days and bad days. And get this: if you report into the executive of a public company, you may feel even more resentment if they’re having a tough time; you have access to their salary data! “How on earth can my boss be paid that much yet can’t stay any later than 6 PM when there is so much we have to work on?”

As hard as it can be, you need to align your misgivings with your own manager from a place of empathy. They are probably subject to even more unstructured debate and uncontrolled emotion than you are. They may have family and dependents that pull them in multiple directions. Approach them with kindness and understanding and ask whether there is anything that you can do to help them. There may even be the possibility for career progression if they begin to delegate more to you through your helpfulness. Don’t let resentment turn to mutiny: it never ends well for anyone involved.

In closing

Being a leader in an organization increases your visibility for both good and bad reasons. You can be the proud figurehead for recent success, but you can also be subject to scrutiny and judgement due to particular standards that others hold you to, whether they are realistic or not. Getting those that report to you to see that you are just like them, regardless of your lofty title, takes time and candor in your relationships because after all, you’re only human. Just remember to apply that same empathy and respect to those above you in the organization.


Leave a comment

Structure and emotion

The higher up the org chart you go, the more that you find that the day-to-day concerns that you are dealing with are more abstract, uncertain and just plain messy. If you’re new to the management game it can be pretty stressful. Whereas days spent as an individual contributor allowed constant focus around (mostly) well-defined pieces of work, your days spent as a manager open you up to issues and interactions that are much harder to define, contain and resolve. Another key difference in this sort of work is that as well as the structure being hard to define in what you’re working on, you’re also potentially dealing with high levels of emotion. This scenario gets amplified the closer that you get to the executive level of an organization, where the stakes are much higher and the full catastrophe* of work can be experienced.

If we imagine a development team using Scrum, then having them working at their best will involve them having clarity on their tasks and having protection from outside influence during their sprints. This allows them to focus on the tasks at hand, achieve flow and work effectively. When being promoted into a management position, you begin to realize that part of your job is to shield your team from input that is too unstructured and emotional when it would be detrimental to them operating efficiently.

This is even more necessary at the VP level or C-level in a larger organization. The kinds of unstructured and emotional input (arguments, disagreement, uncertainty) could have a severe impact on the morale and effectiveness of the entire organization. Learning how to embrace difficult situations, reshape them and communicate downwards effectively is crucial to ensure that your teams remain on course.


Imagine, if you will, a jelly, molded in a conical shape with the base much larger than the top. Although, for our American readers, I should probably call this Jell-O. This is your organization. Viewing the jelly from the side-on, visualize an image of your org chart superimposed over it, with your C-level executives at the top, and your individual contributors on their teams at the bottom. Do remember that your individual contributors are just as important as your management; it just so happens that the line management relationships form a tree shape.

If there is an unstructured emotional occurrence that blows up in one of your teams, such as a big argument over requirements or stress and panic around a deadline, then imagine your finger giving the jelly a prod at the bottom of the mold. It wobbles a bit down there but settles again quite quickly. Structurally it is fairly sound at that location. However, imagine the same thing happening at the VP or C-level. A big panic or argument occurs and it isn’t contained. Fallout ensues. Your finger gives the jelly a firm prod right at the top and the whole thing wobbles like crazy and takes a long time to settle. See where I’m going here?

The higher up the org chart, the bigger the potential organizational wobble. Not only do the people who perform the more senior roles potentially panic and explode over higher-stakes things (e.g. the health of the company, the future roadmap, how to do a big re-org that might cause upset and redundancies) but they are also role models to the rest of the organization. Those that observe the leaders in an organization losing their level-headedness will look up to them and also panic. They won’t know what issues they are panicking about, but they will inevitably catastrophize and assume the worst. Rumors spread and suddenly everyone is uneasy and distracted. It can take a long time to settle; maybe weeks or months, and all the while output suffers.

Preventing wobble

Part of your job as a manager is to prevent this wobble from occurring. You must try your best to protect the part of the organization that reports into you in times of adversity. This requires a good amount of emotional intelligence, judgment, and support. When a difficult or uncertain time requires a change in direction of your team(s), you want to be able to communicate this in a calm and reasoned way that results in those that report to you understanding the issue and being ready to work on change, rather than wanting to flip desks and set the whole place on fire.

Let’s assume you are a VP and are party to a pivot discussion (well, argument) for one of your products. You’re in a meeting with the C-level leadership and there is a heated debate.

Listening and observing

The first skill to practice is mindfully listening and observing without judgment. If a bad situation is unfolding, focus on your breathing, sit (or stand) straight and hear the other parties out. I’m aware this can be difficult if you have the board screaming at you, but do try. Take in the information. Take notes if that helps. Try to identify the parts of the situation that are fact and those that are emotion. Separate them. You’ll want to focus on the facts in further communication and try to ignore the emotion, although identifying why these facts have caused high emotion is useful to think about.


Since this situation involves one or more of your teams, then you’ll want to create some time to digest between receiving this information and communicating it to them. Even if you think that you are the coolest cucumber, being in emotional situations will change your character temporarily. If possible, try and wait until the next day before delivering any challenging news. Going home and having some distractions and time to relax allows the subconscious mind to comb through the issue. Sleep is also great at calming the emotional metronome. Often when waking up the next morning nothing is as bad as it really seems.


Now it’s time to deliver the news to your own people. You may want to reframe the message before passing it on. An example here would be one of your teams having their project canned because it isn’t making enough money for the business. Your CFO and CTO may have locked heads and had an impassioned debate (lets face it: an argument), but as the team’s VP you’ll need to try and take that message and turn it into something more positive: that the team have done a great job, that it was a challenging project for the business and sometimes these things don’t work out, that most start-ups fail. You could introduce them to the cool new thing that they’re going to be doing next. Be thankful for their hard work in this attempt to crack a new market. It just didn’t work out as well as was hoped. This time taken to digest allows the message to form and for you to communicate from a place of transparency and openness.

Peer support

You’re only human after all, and emotion and change will take its toll on you. In previous articles, there was a suggestion that forming a peer group within the business, especially with those outside of your department, can create a support network that can listen if you are dealing with difficult times and further soften the impact that you yourself may have on the proverbial jelly without realizing it. Having a close peer group becomes more difficult as you get higher up the org chart. You may not have many peers and they might not even be in the same geographical location. It can be easy to feel isolated and not have many people to talk to. Solving this problem is an exercise left to the reader, but you can’t operate solely on your own.

Contain the wobble

So that’s that: you need to contain the wobble by listening and observing to challenging news mindfully, digesting thoroughly, communicating transparently and openly and then often leaning on others for your own support.

Don’t expect that those above you in the organization are experts at this, so always take it seriously and set the example that you would want to see by being a role model.

Then go do something fun.

* Note that the word catastrophe doesn’t necessarily have negative connotations. It’s a term that I’ve borrowed from Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which is one of the seminal books written on mindfulness for a Western audience. The “full catastrophe” of life is that it is by definition messy, happy, sad, brilliant and tragic. The path to mindfulness is through letting go and embracing that it is meant to be exactly that way and just being present and consciously observing in the moment. A simple concept, yet very hard in practice.