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March 09, 2011  |  Pressure vs stress in motivating employees  |  5632 hit(s)

Over the years, when I told people I worked at Microsoft, a common reaction[1] was "I hear they make you work long hours!" Depending on how useful it seemed to engage the conversation, one of the answers I had was "No one makes you work any number of hours." This was a slightly disingenuous response, but it is in essence true: most jobs at Microsoft, and in tech generally, are not punch-clock jobs, and I literally cannot recall a boss asking me whether I'd put in my 40 (or 50 or 60, haha) hours.

Long before my Microsoft gig, I wiled away my 20s working lots of 60-hour weeks, happily writing and coding late into the night. Even these days I still like the adrenaline and focus of crunch mode, although as I become, er, more mature, my recovery time from extended days of long hours has become longer.

I was thinking about this because of a piece in Forbes titled Job One for Leaders, in which the author, August Turak, discusses how to motivate employees. "As CEO I always told job applicants that my primary job was increasing pressure while decreasing stress." He goes on to explain the difference:
As leaders, it is our job to increase pressure by giving people reasons to care. We decrease stress by empowering people with all the tools necessary to successfully influence the outcome. [...] Maximum pressure combined with minimum stress produces passion, and passionate organizations full of passionate people will accomplish well-nigh anything. The most important leadership task is providing the ‘whys’ so that others can provide the ‘hows’. Managers get things done, but leaders must decide what is worth doing in the first place and get everyone else to buy in.

This is easy to understand if you reverse the conditions: ask people to do something they don't care about and give them no control over the outcome, and you've got a recipe for stress and its attendant manifestations, like depression and burnout.

How do you increase pressure? One way it to give people a stake in the outcome. Money is one way, but one of the tasks of management is to understand what motivates individual employees — money, peer recognition, whatever[2] — and make sure they're getting that from the job.

The goal has to be meaningful, of course. That's certainly a theme you hear from people who work at Microsoft is how much impact their work has (#, #) — it's by no means a stretch to think that something you do will be used or seen by millions of people.

Another motivator is deadlines. Deadlines are, of course, the classic motivator for anyone prone to procrastination, which is most of us[3]. I love this quote from Duke Ellington: I don't need time, I need a deadline." (Or this one from Sam Johnson: "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.")

But this only works if the goal to be achieved is attainable in the allotted time and the deadlines are real. Artificial deadlines, set only to motivate people, are weak, and deadlines that are impossible to achieve are counterproductive. Many of the projects I work on have deadlines that are keyed to things like annual tradeshows, which provides a framework and, as they call it, a hard stop.

Then you have to reduce stress. For starters, you have to make sure people have the means to achieve the goal that you've now motvated them to go after. What do those consist of? Skills, tools, and, as noted, time are all essential. (In Turak's case, because he led a sales organization, one of the essentials was sales leads[4].)

Then something important you can do is get the heck out of the way. A surprisingly effective productivity tool is autonomy. Some companies practice ROWE (results-oriented work environment):
In a ROWE workplace, people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time — or any time, for that matter. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it and where they do it is up to them.

Although Microsoft is not formally a ROWE-embracing corporation (at least, that I've heard), in practice it often seems that way. On the teams I've worked on, people generally manage their own schedules within the loose constraints imposed by the company. And given especially the latter-day mobility of email on small devices, it sometimes seems as if there's no time of the day when people are entirely off the clock.

The company lets us connect to work from our home computers and work that way, which is of course a brilliant tactic — if I were limited to working only when I was sitting at my desk in the work office, I'd probably work only 50% of the hours that I currently put in. As it is, I'm basically free to work any time, including evenings, on weekends, and even during bouts of insomnia. And I do.

I think the gist of the question that people would ask about Microsoft was implicitly about what Turak addresses. Many people, I suppose, equate long hours only with stress, with being forced to work at unpleasant tasks. But for the most part, I worked (work) long hours because of pressure, in the motivational sense that Turak explains.

To be clear, it's not as if everyone is always super-motivated and never feels stress. Even if you have leaders who hew closely to Turak's philosophy, various conditions can arise that reduce motivation and increase stress. (And of course, it's not as if there's never been a failure of leadership.) But Turak's general observations feel right to me, based on my (thankfully) overall positive experience in the software industry. It's difficult for me to imagine working for a company that didn't follow his principles.

[1] Not so much any more, for some reason.

[2] Certificates of Achievement, maybe not so much.

[3] Procrastination is an odd phenomenon in many ways, but one of the oddest is that it doesn't even really seem like it has short-term benefits: "This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn't make people happy." — James Surowiecki

[4] A classic scene (video) in motivating salespeople, <cough-cough>. (Absolutely, entirely, completely NSFW.)