Rockford Lhotka

VP, Open Source Creator, Author, Speaker

Motivating and Retaining People

05 Apr 2022

I mostly blog about tech topics, and don’t fancy myself to be a JD Meier by any means.

That said, I’ve been in various supervisor, manager, and executive leadership roles over the past couple decades, and there are two books I’ve found invaluable when it comes to understanding how to motivate and retain people.

First is an old one called The Hacker Ethic. This book posits that the term “hacker” is

  1. Not a bad thing
  2. Doesn’t just apply to computer people
  3. Is a state of mind and worldview
  4. Can be beneficial to understanding a certain type of person

My neighbor, for example, is a general contractor who used to be a framing contractor. And there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a hacker. He loves the challenging problems, is energized by thinking through possible solutions and ways to optimize a project.

Not a computer person at all, but so much fun to talk to because he’s so often working through interesting problems as he tries to help his customers create or update their homes.

If you are, or manage, a “hacker”, it is really worth reading this book to get a deeper understanding of what makes this sort of person get up and work hard - and what will cause this sort of person to lose interest and look for other work.

I have a fond spot in my heart for this book and overall concept, because I too am a “hacker”. I’ve been in situations where this was recognized, and I was very unhappy. I’ve also (at Magenic for example) been in situations where my employer took full advantage of what a “hacker” had to offer the org, and I was there for over 20 years.

The other book is a little newer, and is much broader: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

There’s also a really good ~10 minute video that summarizes the core of the book’s message: RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.

This book not only covers the idea that some people are intrinsically motivated by challenge like a “hacker”, but that others are motivated by altruistic goals, or many other aspects of their worldview, core values, and life expectations. And, of course, that many people have multiple motivations.

What both books have in common is recognition that (for most people) money isn’t the ultimate driver, especially in the tech industry. Yes, a lack of enough money is a driver. But at some point, if you have enough money to be comfortable, other motivations take precedence.

As a supervisor/manager/etc. if you don’t recognize when your employees have shifted from survival mode (getting enough money to be comfortable) into a mode where they are truly motivated by something else, you are missing out on a major opportunity.

First, you have an opportunity to find ways to align your organization’s goals, your goals, and your employee’s goals such that everyone wins.

Notice I said “employee’s”: singular. That is a key thing here, in that you can’t generalize. If you have seven direct reports, odds are good that you have seven different motivations at play, and so if you try to motivate everyone the same, you’ll only really motivate 1-2 of your people.

Second, if you understand what is motivating an employee, and you can align with that, you’ll almost certainly get more productivity from that person. They’ll look forward to coming to work, because they are doing something that moves them forward in life, which is far more compelling than just their paycheck.

Third, an employee who’s motivations directly tie into what they are doing and how they are doing it will likely stay with your organization. The “grass is greener” generally only applies if the “grass isn’t green” where they are today.

For example, I had potential offers of more money if I’d have left Magenic at a couple different points. But money wasn’t my primary motivation at those points, because I “had enough money” when combined with the fact that my goals and Magenic’s goals were aligned in ways that I found very motivational. To me, the grass was pretty green where I was, and it was hard to imagine it would be greener elsewhere.

In summary, I strongly recommend both of these books. As an employee I recommend them to help provide yourself with insight about what motivates you. And as a manager I recommend them to help you understand what actually motivates your people so you can work to align you, your org, and your people so everyone wins.

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