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2 Approaches for Sparking Motivation in Your Dev Team

02 December 2020, by Jomiro Eming

If teams aren’t given the right environment to thrive, they will be unmotivated and won’t perform to their best. Arjen de Ruiter, VP of Engineering at Sendcloud, has found ways to let his team be creative and vulnerable, which has made them more motivated to excel. In this article, Arjen shares how he helps motivate his team, as well as the positive impact this has for his business.

Arjen has been a people-focused engineering lead for a while. He and his CTO focus on different areas so that they can lead their teams in the most effective way. So, while his CTO makes sure that all the technicalities are taken care of, Arjen makes sure that the people are taken care of by looking after people management and organisation development.

As a result, he spends a lot of his time creating the right environment for his developers to thrive. A good environment means development teams can perform at their best — and Arjen says that a big part of building that environment, and therefore delivering on that performance, is the leadership involved.

From his experience, it’s more often the case that an underperforming team is the result of a bad leader, not a bad dev. When things go wrong, he says that leaders should first ask what they didn’t do to set up the right environment for that person to thrive. To get this right, leaders need to know what motivates their team.

“You could compare it to a Formula 1 racing car: If you give exactly the same car to two drivers, one driver will get more out of it than the other — why is that? Why do certain people get more motivated with one manager over another?”

Below, Arjen shares two approaches he takes to encourage motivation and bring out the best in his team. He also discusses how allowing his team to think creatively and be vulnerable positively impacts his business.

#1 Give developers problems, rather than solutions

In Arjen’s experience, the best ideas are those that come from the entire team. The chances are exceptionally slim that one leader will always have the best solution to a problem:

“These days, software is creative work: There’s no ‘one solution’ – it’s all just assumptions we need to test. And the chances of you finding those great ideas are much higher if you discuss the problem that you are trying to solve together.”

So, instead of bringing solutions to his dev team, Arjen gives his developers the problem that needs to be solved, and lets them generate feature ideas and solutions themselves.

It might be tempting for an engineering manager to say, ‘here is what I think we should do — what do you think?’, but “it’s not very motivating for developers”, Arjen says. “They’re not involved in creating the solution, and they don’t learn from any mistakes they make because somebody else made the decision.”

Arjen says that the question leaders should be asking their dev teams is: ‘We need to achieve X — what do you think we should do to get there?’

“Give people a purpose, set goals, say ‘this is what we want to achieve’ or ‘here is a problem to solve’… If you lead with saying what you think the right solution is, without explaining the problem… a lot of people will just go with that idea, because they think ‘he has so much experience, so let’s listen to him.’”

By giving his developers a sense of ownership in the decisions they make, Arjen says dev teams are more motivated to learn from the mistakes they make, and make solutions win.

#2 Approach mistakes with curiosity and vulnerability

A mistake is a critical moment for a leader in terms of building team motivation. “If at that moment”, Arjen says, “you make a big deal out of the mistake, you lose [the team’s] trust and, next time, they will not feel confident enough to have that same freedom anymore.”

In his experience, mistakes are critical for a team developing greater motivation because — if handled correctly by the leader of that team — mistakes stimulate growth and provide a major learning opportunity: “Of course, I could have prevented them from making a mistake by telling them what to do, but then they wouldn’t learn as much because they’d just take it for granted.”

Instead, Arjen uses mistakes as opportunities to be curious and vulnerable as a leader. This builds trust, and plays a key role in helping teams feel more motivated:

“If people feel like they can be vulnerable, and trust you, they will perform better than ever. If they cannot be vulnerable, then they won’t discuss issues with you, and then you’re not learning nearly as much as you could be as a company.”

His approach to having these conversations is as follows:

  • First, he tells the story of a time when he made the same or a similar mistake. “If you just explain to someone, ‘Hey, I had that same situation 10 years ago, I totally screwed up, and that’s why I would have done it this way’”, Arjen says, “then you make yourself vulnerable.” Knowing that their team lead has made the same mistake themselves helps Arjen’s developers feel more comfortable to share their mistake with him, and learn from it. “I think a lot of leaders have a hard time admitting that they’ve made mistakes, but doing so makes people feel like they can be vulnerable, and trust you with their mistakes.”
  • Then, he asks his developer what they learned from the mistake. In the same way he gives his dev team a problem as opposed to a solution, Arjen lets his developer come up with their own lesson from the mistake first, before telling them what he thinks. This not only gives them ownership of their lesson, but also reduces the feeling of being ‘reprimanded’ or ‘told-off’ by a team lead

These two approaches have not only motivated Arjen’s team, but have positively impacted their customer happiness, and therefore their business as well.

Why motivation matters in a dev team

When teams feel motivated and safe to learn and develop their skills, they will also be able to contribute more meaningfully to building a successful business. And keeping customers happy is arguably the most important part of running a successful business.

As a tech leader, Arjen needs to hold customers at the heart of every decision he makes: “You can make a great place to work and run permanent hackathons, for example”, he explains, “but in the end, we are here to solve a problem for our customers. They are ‘paying’ us to do so.”

In his experience, the most effective way to keep customers happy is to keep his dev team happy. In short, Arjen’s formula for that is: Happy devs == happy customers.

“If you take care of the people in your team, they take care of the customer. I actually don’t even have to take care of the customer anymore because I primarily take care of the people.”

Building motivation into his team means that his developers take greater responsibility for the work they do, and feel a greater sense of investment in the success of what they develop. “And, if you build motivation into your team”, he says, “they will be more committed and more accountable, which means they will naturally strive to generate results that make your customers happier.”

When developers are more motivated, and take ownership of a customer’s happiness, it frees up Arjen’s mindshare from the smaller day-to-day things, and lets him focus on the bigger, long-term strategy: “As a leader, your job really becomes thinking about long term stuff, and you’re not very much thinking about short term things anymore.”

By creating a space for your developers to feel both safe and confident in what they do, you’ll help your team want to excel, and your clients will benefit from that drive and motivation.


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