With the slowdown in hiring (for some, a complete freeze), there is an increasing need to make do with what you’ve got. You can no longer cover up underperforming employees by staffing more. How do you make ICs’ motivation align with impact for the company? Here are suggestions to tailor your approach to different types of employees.
The Lost Cause
I’m starting with what should be the trivial case, though it often isn’t. Sometimes, you can see that an employee is plainly unmotivated and doesn’t care much about their role. There are those people who view their jobs as… jobs. They have a mercenary viewpoint and are just interested in doing the bare minimum and getting back to their interests.
When you sense that an employee is a disengaged mercenary and doesn’t fall into one of the other categories in this article, you have to assess their contribution. You cannot change them, which means that if they are not pulling their weight, they should probably be let go and replaced with someone that’s a better fit. I will say that over my years working with companies, I’ve seen a handful of disengaged employees yet highly productive. If that’s the case, you’re in luck and can probably just let them be.
There is another group that, at first pass, might seem similar to the previous one but is quite different. I’ve met many engineers who simply did not know what they wanted to do. When you ask them about what excites them or what they’d like to do, they usually shrug. These are those people that make one-on-one meetings awkward because they seem never to talk.
Don’t give up! Experience shows that some people find it hard to envision what might be possible or are myopic in their thinking. For example, they see that the company is not currently hiring and therefore deduce there won’t be any promotion opportunities. Thus, they conclude, there’s nothing to strive for.
My suggestion is to try and anchor the conversation way off into the future. Disconnect it from their current role and your current company even. Say, “let’s say we are 5-10 years in the future. What do you think you’d like to do then? Or what would you like to experiment with by that point?” Maybe they’d like to try different technologies, have more ownership, be closer to customers, manage people, etc. Whatever it is, use this to decide together about baby steps in that direction that also align with the team’s needs. Only by connecting them to their internal WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) is any change possible.
Yes, you will eventually come across employees who seem to only care about titles, promotions, and raises. Sometimes, that by itself induces competitiveness that pulls them forward. However, other times they might resort to politics and focus on appearances as opposed to real impact.
Don’t disregard them, but again think about how their wishes could be made to go hand in hand with the company’s needs. This is why Big Tech has clearly defined career ladders. They hopefully lay out a path for those who seek to move up that is beneficial to the organization around them. You don’t have to create these in a smaller company, but be clear about their options and which behaviors are not wanted.
I’ve written before about the product-tech continuum: some engineers care about the product and the impact it brings, while others seem to care solely about the tech and the craft itself. You know the type, the engineer that only wants to do Rust and doesn’t care if the code’s never used. For these types of people, I think a nice hot bowl of truth soup is needed. By that, I mean they must be clearly told that the company does not pay salaries for high-quality code. The only thing that matters is the business impact that code achieves.
Therefore, they can increase their freedom to experiment and try new things in one of two ways. First is if they are able to make a business case for changes that they would like to make. Speaking in return-on-investment terms can really make it easier to push for tech work (and keeps us honest). The other option is to over-deliver so clearly that execution becomes a non-issue. When a team has a track record of success, it is not likely to be micromanaged and usually gains more autonomy and agency.
It’s All About Alignment
Like the cliché about martial arts where you use your opponents’ force against them, good coaching here has a common principle: you find what people care about and try to align their self-interests with the team’s needs. Creating such win-win situations is not always straightforward, but that’s what leadership is often all about.
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