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  • Writer's pictureAbraham Marin-Perez

Humans-first approach

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

This blog is part of a series that I’m doing in collaboration with Plamen Balkanski on leadership in software development. Make sure to check our other posts for more.

In 2017 Uber, hitherto an admirable company that had escalated meteorically and transformed the transportation business, came under fire globally when Sussan Fowler published the accounts of her experience working at the company. Suddenly everyone was talking about Uber’s toxic culture, calls for his CEO Travis Kalanick to step down started to pile up (until he finally had to go), and an investigation was opened that started with the dismissal of two dozen employees and ended up with a settlement with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission where Uber agreed to pay $4.4 million in compensation and to be monitored by an external agent during three years.

What happened at Uber was the perfect example of good work excusing bad behaviour. Management had decided that the only metric that mattered was growth, and everything was valid provided growth was achieved. This follows a long-established business mantra that says that “if you cannot measure it, it’s not important”: measuring growth is easy, whereas measuring culture toxicity is hard. By focusing exclusively on pure numbers Uber thought they were being good, analytical managers. They were wrong.

The management failures at Uber were caused by two misguided ideas. Firstly, management misunderstood the difference between leadership and authority, which often leads to misunderstanding the difference between leadership and bullying. Authority is imposed from the top, and people have no choice about it: this is your boss, this is your manager. Employees need to follow the instructions of authority whether they like it or not. Leadership, on the other hand, emanates from the bottom: people choose the leaders that they want to follow, and they do so because they trust them. Good management identifies leaders and turns them into authority so as to make their leadership actions official, bad management identifies high performers and turns them into authority thinking that they will “force” others into being higher performers too.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, management tradition has tried to extricate the human from the worker for decades, if not centuries. Personal matters are to be left at the door, time at the workplace is to be spent entirely for work-related matters. It is no coincidence that HR stands for Human Resources: humans are considered a “resource”, just like machines or stationery. Similarly, it is no coincidence that we’re used to measure the level of commitment of an employee according to the number of hours they put onto a task regardless of how productive those hours are. And when does work-time finish anyway? In an old factory setting it’s clear when a person stops working (when they leave the factory), but in a creative task like software development the difference is not so clear. Research has shown time and again that the brain continues to work “in the background” even if we’ve moved on to another task, that’s why we have so many a-ha moments when we least expect them. If I’m out for a run and suddenly I have an epiphany that solves a technical challenge that I’ve been fighting with for two days, does that mean my run is part of my work time?

Embrace the facts, don’t fight them

During the 19th century the prevailing theory was that, if you move away from a light source, light would appear to travel more slowly for it has to catch up with you; similarly, if you move towards a light source, light would appear to travel faster. In 1881, Albert A. Michelson tried to observe this effect in a carefully prepared experiment involving interferometric measurements using a stone slab that floats on top of a pool of mercury. He failed. It was thought that the experiment simply wasn’t accurate enough, so he prepared a more sophisticated version of his experiment with Edward W. Morley in 1887. They failed again. The scientific community was baffled by the result of the Michelson-Morley experiment and tried to debate what had gone wrong with it.

Then Albert Einstein came along with a stroke of genius that, in hindsight, was almost obvious: if the facts are contradicting your theory, then develop a better theory. If all experiments showed that the speed of light was constant regardless of how you looked at it, then take that for a fact and build on top of it. This simple idea, the assumption that the speed of light will always be perceived to be the same regardless of motion of source or observer, gave birth to Special Relativity in 1905 and triggered a revolution in physics that is still unfolding today.

Similarly, we need to accept and embrace the fact that people are humans. Once we do this, we will stop seeing the human aspect as a weakness and we will begin to find ways to leverage it. Let’s start by thinking about motivation, why do people even work? The easy answer would be that they do it for money, and that is true up to a degree (everyone needs to pay their bills), but once basic needs are covered the picture becomes more complex. While people might need money, people aren’t necessarily motivated by money.

The traditional management view is that people don’t want to work, they only do it because they have to. That’s why we refer to salary as “compensation”, because we’re compensating workers for what we are making them do. However, the reality is a lot more nuanced. In 1943 Abraham Maslow published his theory of the hierarchy of needs: humans will initially worry about basic stuff like food, sleep, heat, safety, etc. (this is where the need for money as a conduit for satisfying those needs comes in). As those basic needs are ticked off, humans will then focus on higher needs like aesthetics and self-actualisation. The theory has been revised over the years but the principle stands: for people to focus on their higher, intellectual needs, their basic, physiological needs have to be covered.

Another piece of evidence comes from Daniel Pink’s Drive. Pink differentiates between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is what we are naturally inclined to do, something that fulfils us, something that makes us feel good about ourselves; intrinsic motivation aligns with the higher-order needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. Hobbies are fueled by intrinsic motivation, we may spend a great deal of resources and time on a hobby, but we don’t mind doing this because we enjoy it, we feel good about ourselves. Then there is extrinsic motivation, which is what we are encouraged (or sometimes coerced) to do by external factors. Extrinsic motivation is usually a personal trade-off, when extrinsic motivation kicks in we’re doing things that we don’t really want to do or enjoy doing, but we do them because we’ll get something in exchange that we want or need.

Leveraging intrinsic motivation

Traditional management mostly focuses on extrinsic motivation. In the best of cases, they do it by promising rewards (a bonus, a higher salary, a promotion), in the worst of cases, by threatening with punishments (bullying, organisational ridicule, a dismissal that would put the basic needs of the person in jeopardy). But what the science tells us is that the best way to motivate a human and maximise their potential is following these two simple steps:

  • Make sure their basic needs are satisfied.

  • Let them explore their intrinsic motivations.

This is the point where old-school managers screech about lack of control. And they are right, to a degree. You can’t run an effective organisation when employees simply do whatever they feel like, but you can build and shape a team where the individual’s goals are aligned to the organisation’s goals. It takes more effort and dedication than simply giving orders, but it also delivers hugely better results. The modern manager is more like a sports coach, providing guidance and direction, but leaving room for players to improvise, adapt, and be themselves.

Building a team taking into consideration the motivational aspect starts at hiring. Recruitment processes in software development typically focus on skills: coding exercises, mathematical problems, brain teasers… the industry is rife with books and websites about how to design these interviews (and how to pass them). But, while skills are definitely important, recruitment in software rarely pays attention to what motivates candidates. What makes them tick? What will they naturally do when no one is looking? A common mistake by many companies is looking for “keen problem-solvers”, not realising that problem-solvers love complex problems to solve: more often than not your company’s problems won’t be that complex, so your keen problem-solver is likely to be demotivated by them, or over complicate them to make them more interesting, or ignore them altogether.

In summary, while being objective and analytical is important in an organisation, the appeal of cold numbers does not take away the fact that people are human. Accounting for emotion, motivation, and self-fulfilment isn’t the weakness that people once thought it is, but the key factor that will allow you to build effective, autonomous, and highly-performant teams.

This is the humans-first approach.

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