Employee Motivation: What To Do When You Feel Passed Over

Employee Motivation is based on being recognized for our work
Employee Motivation is based on being recognized for our work

I recently had a chance to talk with a friend of mine who works as a developer in the information technology department for a major telecommunications firm. I was surprised to discover that he was very angry and was thinking about quitting his job. It turns out that he had just completed a major project. He and two others had put in those non-stop 60-70 hour days. He had been away from home for the better part of two months and he was very proud of what was finally produced.

However, what had gotten him angry was that two other individuals had joined the project late in the game, had not worked nearly as hard as the core group of three had, and in the end they not only got credit for the project’s success, but they also got promotions while the core group of three were not promoted. Is is any wonder that my friend was so angry?

We spend a lot of time recruiting the best information technology employees and then we spend at least as much time worrying about employee motivation all too often only to end up with angry, bitter staff. In the case of my friend, what had gone wrong was instantly clear to me because I’ve done it to myself countless time. I call this situation, the “engineering field of dreams” problem.

Jobs in Information Technology allow us to focus on building things using only our minds and hands (for typing). As engineers we have a bad habit of completely focusing on solving the technical problem that we’ve been assigned and not lifting our heads up until we have a finished product. The problem with this is that we then expect the rest of the world to look at what we’ve made and realize what a great worker we are. In my case, I blame my Mom because whenever I took something that I had made to her she always reacted with joy and surprise and told me that it was the best thing that she had ever seen. Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t work that way.

So what should my friend have done? While he was working on the project he should have realized that he had another job to do at the same time. In IT management speak we’d call this an “overlay job”. Every single day he needed to be managing his career — thinking about what he needed to be doing in order to get recognized for what he was doing and get considered for a promotion the next time an opening showed up. You know what he said when I told him this: “Hey Jim, I just don’t like to brag about myself!” Two quick replies to that: (1) if you don’t, then who do you think will? and (2) bragging would be bad, informing others would be good.

I ended up having a very long talk with my friend; however, here is the gist of what we talked about. He needs to identify who he needs to make aware of his contributions (his boss, his bosses boss, and the bosses of any department that his project interfaces with). He needs to communicate with these people regularly (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). Communicating does not mean sending them mindless status reports. He needs to send brief, concise emails that provide valuable information such as “We had a problem, but here is how we solved it…” When he sends an email to these important people, he needs to address it to only them — don’t CC them or send it to a distro list. One-to-one sends a powerful message. Finally, he needs to do more than just send emails: he needs face time with the decision makers. I suggested that he use the excuse of “checking to make sure that you agree with the decisions that we’ve made” line to set up a meeting.

So remember: you are in charge of your career and nobody else. As technical professionals we all suffer from a “love my work, love me” syndrome and we need to do a better job of communicating with those in charge in order to move our career along.