Menu Icon

Getting Apps Done

Motivating a Development Team: The Fear!

February 07, 2019

Audio Player 15 Seconds Back Button Audio Player Play/Pause Button Audio Player 15 Seconds Forward Button



Part 3 of 4 of our series on motivation!. Joshua and Kellen talk about how fear plays into motivation. Specifically, how fear is a poor motivator and can trigger behaviour that doesn’t promote building great apps.

Tune-in using
Listen on iTunes Listen on Spotify Listen on Google Play Listen on Overcast Listen on Tune In Link to our RSS Feed
  • 00:02 Joshua

    Welcome to getting apps done, a mostly nontechnical podcast with the goal of helping you deliver software. Because, if you didn't ship it, it didn't happen.

  • 00:16 Joshua

    ... I saw a really nice sunset. I posted a picture on Twitter and people like it. I don't know why anybody gives a damn what I'm doing on my commute into work... but yeah, I even, took a picture this morning of me on the train and everybody likes it. Why? Who cares if I'm sitting on a train?

  • 00:31 Kellen

    Yeah, you do look really excited on your Twitter though. Like that was uhh... yeah.

  • 00:35 Joshua

    I thought I should look happy instead of angry, like usual.

  • 00:41 Kellen

    Yeah, you look really enthused. Which is kind of a strange look for you. So that might be why people liked it. Like, "how unusual."

  • 00:47 Joshua

    Well, I... None of them have any clue. And that's, that's what I realized is nobody has any damn clue what goes on in anybody's life. They post this one little picture of them on the train smiling like, "yeah, I'm really excited and I'm this great coworker, and I go into a coworking centre." And everyone's like, "oh, that guy's really cool. He goes to coworking centers and he was really excited." They don't really know the real me. Most of the time I'm sitting at home grimacing or growling or something at the computer because somebody's done something stupid and yeah. But it's that whole concept of that one snapshot in time and everybody just assuming that's this guy's whole life all the time. He's like that. ...No.

  • 01:24 Kellen

    Yeah, and there's also.. I mean there's also the other half of that too, I think people like to see just in the lives of other people especially. I mean like you're in the UK, how many of your followers are that kind of thing. There's always that, you know, Ooh, this is new and different from my life, whatever this person's life is.

  • 01:39 Joshua

    Which, you know, I didn't always get that, but I started watching things like youtube videos and things like that and I started to understand why people would have some kind of an interest. I follow photographers because I'm a hobbyist photographer and being able to see what their process is, how they get into things and what they're doing was actually really interesting to me... And it just never clicked that anybody would actually give a damn what I'm doing because I'm not going up on a mountain side taking pictures of some awesome sunset or something. I just, well, sometimes I do, but that's not what I do for a living. It certainly, it has nothing to do with what's in my daily life. That's what I go do what I'm trying to get away from my daily life, but I can see, to some people, particularly inspiring developers who are interested in I. I've started doing this mentor program and the woman I was talking with, she said, so what is a day like for you? And it just hadn't dawned on me for years that somebody wouldn't know what my day was like because for me it's my day that's.... I know what my day is like, why wouldn't everybody know my day is like...

  • 07:34 Joshua

    So what we wanted to discuss last time we were talking about people becoming invested in their work and being better employees because they're invested in what they do because they care and they have reason to care and that's one really great way to get them motivated. And this whole series is about motivation and making your employees better employees when it comes down to it in non-evil ways. That is important. And in fact, that's probably the main topic today.

  • 08:05 Joshua

    We want to talk about fear in the workplace. And I'm not talking about fear of, you know, somebody beating you with a baseball bat or something like that. Thouigh, it's good to not have that kind of fear either, but actually what we're talking about is fear of failure more than anything here.. As I'm doing quite often on twitter because I'm old.

  • 08:25 Kellen

    Yeah. And it's not just, it's the difference between kind of like describing the difference between the rockstar employee who isn't necessarily actually a rockstar and just kind of the people who are having troubles like getting up to speed and the difference usually is fear. That's the... Generally the primary difference between the people who are taking care of work and just plowing through their job and getting it all done and the people who are having like.. Struggling and worried about everything and almost always comes down to fear and like a lack of confidence.

  • 08:55 Joshua

    Absolutely, it is lack of confidence even with those rock stars, sometimes they're rock stars because of that lack of confidence. I know I'm guilty of this myself. Sometimes I just push the pedal to the metal because I'm afraid if I don't just go all that, I'm just going to huddle in a corner and cry or something like that because it's scary and there's a lot of tech out there and that's been the case in my entire career and it's only getting worse realistically.

  • 09:22 Kellen

    Yeah, the fake it until you make it as basically the, uh, the fake version of that, right. That's the not really confident but going to pretend and just pretend that I'm not actually afraid of, of screwing this up and just plowing forward and hoping for the best, which is a lot of people as a lot of people will tell you actually does work more often than being afraid of the, of being afraid of those failures.

  • 09:43 Joshua

    And it works for a reason because the best way to learn anything is to do it wrong, to keep doing it wrong until you get it right.

  • 09:52 Kellen

    Eactly, and I feel like that's something that a lot of people don't really think about in the context of work. They really think about failure as like a really problematic thing. Like if I screw this up, it's gonna cost the company money and it's going to, it's going to get me in trouble and all these problems, but if you think in terms of like how you actually learn real skills, like if you wanted to learn a sport, of course you're going to screw up, you don't like somehow magically learn how to shoot baskets or whatever sport you want to talk about. You know, you don't know that just immediately when you walk in or by reading a manual, you learn that by doing and practicing and failing over and over and over and over again until you get it right.

  • 10:26 Kellen

    So I think that's kind of something that needs to be. You don't hear a lot about in the workplace like that. That is important. You screw up, you're supposed to screw up. That's part of how you learn.

  • 10:35 Joshua

    And that's actually a really good point. Sports is kind of unique in that they kind of get away with that because they understand everybody understands what it's like to pick up a baseball bat or a football or whatever it may be, and trying to do a new sport. You're going to be horrible at it and that's just expected. Everybody expects that.

  • 10:51 Kellen


  • 10:52 Joshua

    But when you're in school, you're told, you know, if you don't get an A on this test, you're bad. You should be getting A's on every single test and you should do whatever it takes inside school, outside school hours or whatever to get to that point that you're getting A's on every test and it's the same when you get into the workplace.

  • 11:08 Joshua

    It's just assumed that you're going to go out of your way in your own time or you have already done so so that you don't fail at work. And I can understand that from a business perspective. Obviously we don't want failures. Failures can be bad, but you have to allow for that because otherwise people aren't growing. They're not learning. They aren't willing to take risks because they're terrified of it and it's bad for your business.

  • 11:34 Kellen

    And that kind of leads me, to me, that's kind of the main point on a lot of this, this topic is, and you know, coming from the business side of, uh, looking at this as the employer, you've got to create a sit... You've got to create an environment where failure can happen without tanking your business is kind of the main goal there. Like they have to be able to screw up, you have to allow it and you have to allow them to be able to screw up in ways that obviously won't cost you millions and millions of dollars.

  • 11:59 Joshua

    But in weird and wonderful ways because screwing up is fun sometimes.

  • 12:04 Kellen

    Absolutely. And like you do learn a lot through screw ups and yeah, I could go on.

  • 12:11 Joshua

    Is it X-rays that were found by a pure screw up? And NASA is constantly inventing random stuff. It's all from screw ups, Hey, let's do this to do A, Oh my, what the heck? Oh, that's pretty cool. And...

  • 12:28 Kellen


  • 12:28 Joshua

    It's a learning process and sometimes really great things come out of that learning and failing process.

  • 12:35 Kellen

    Absolutely. And you'll learn like, um, like hack days are kind of an example of this, of where they are. They can do whatever they want and they're not afraid of screwing it up because if they screw up, it doesn't matter. It was just a hack day it's a throw away. And so out of those things like Gmail and like, you know, if that was, that was the big thing from Google is half their apps are from people just screwing around and wanting to play with something and it turns out they created something great.

  • 12:56 Kellen

    I'm sure there were also hundreds and hundreds of failures mixed in there. Um, but the, the, the kind of core there was that, there was no real repercussions for failure beyond the things, you know, the, the, there was no, like extra reprecussions of failure if they screwed up, all they lost was their own time. They, you know, they only had to take responsibility for the thing they screwed up. They didn't have to, you know, they weren't going to get docked their pay or something like that.

  • 13:18 Joshua

    You mean other than Google plus, which just has tons and tons of security holes in it. Now..

  • 13:24 Kellen

    I'm pretty sure they're closing that...

  • 13:26 Joshua

    They are which... yeah.. That tanked, but.

  • 13:30 Kellen

    Oh, that's right. They did that after the security hole problem, not prior.

  • 13:33 Joshua

    They did... they decided it wasn't worth fixing it, which is absolutely fair enough and I was going to mention hackathons and things like that because it is really great way to do that and allowing for that, but there's one key thing there is... I know I have seen, in fact, I've had interviews where companies wanted me to do things like this out of working hours, you know?

  • 13:53 Kellen


  • 13:54 Joshua

    That's not okay. That adds more fear again, because then it certainly is turned into a job thing. If you put it in working hours and you say, this is whatever you want to do, or you can even set constraints, but it's part of their working day where they know they can fail. They know they can go pick something to learn and they're gonna bring new things to the table for you safely for you and for them because they're not afraid of you being really upset with them and firing them and you aren't relying on that piece to run your business.

  • 14:22 Kellen

    Yeah, Kinda tangental did I hear you mentioned that you can define constraints for these things and that's actually a really good way to, to, to motivate people is instead of having, you know, kind of trying to motivate them from the bottom, what'll happen if they screw up instead give them the problem and add constraints to the problem.

  • 14:39 Kellen

    Like you can do this and this, but it can't do that. Like you can, you can upgrade this, but you absolutely can't have more than two hours of downtime. If you do, you're going to have to, you know, you're going to have to take responsibility for that and somehow make it up. But like by, by defining those things upfront in terms of not a punishment for failure, but as in terms of this is the problem set you have to solve that can, that can help a lot like that. It really helps draw the perspective because that's the manager's perspective. Of course, that's their, the way they're looking at this problem is, okay, this would be great, but I can't have x, you know, I can't have it down for more than two hours. I can't do it. It can't cost more than this. I can't, you know, that's, that's the constraint of managers working for it.

  • 15:19 Kellen

    So it just kind of push it down, you know, here's your, here's your constraint. It has to fit within this box.

  • 15:24 Joshua

    As long as it's not a threat. I've seen both sides. I've seen cases where I didn't know what the constraints were. I was walking into something completely blind and then at the end we thought we were delivering something successful. And the manager's coming and saying, "why did you guys do this?" We didn't know we weren't supposed to. You told us to go do this. We did it, yeah, but we weren't supposed to do it this way. Did you tell us that? Well, no, but. Well then how do we know?

  • 15:52 Kellen

    And over the years I've really started to look at managers as clients and in a lot of ways there's a really large overlap in terms of responses. Kind of the same thing.

  • 16:05 Joshua

    Uh, yeah, absolutely. on the other side, I've seen them come in and tell us what the constraints were, but it felt like like it was a threat. If you do this then there's going to be repercussions to that. Particularly with things like change management and change control. There's so much rubbish around that and I can see the point, but it always turns into this veiled threat. We have all this stuff. So if anything goes wrong then you guys are really in trouble because you didn't follow the process right. And that's not gonna help either because then people are going to play it so safe that they're not going to do anything.

  • 16:38 Kellen

    And this is actually kind of interesting because this is an example of a skill that management has to practice and fail at because it takes practice to be able to define constraints that are like actually the problem constraints and not these kind of extra things.

  • 16:55 Kellen

    It's not, I have to fill out this change control, therefore you have to do it. We have to be able to, we have to have a plan for failure and if it goes wrong you have to be prepared to fix it. Like that's just part of the thing. Like it's not, there's no shame involved if it fails, it's just you have to have a plan for when it fails. And so like that's kinda the core concept of a change control for example. But like it's a practice for a manager to explain that to people, to, to learn how to like pass on the constraints without either micromanaging or totally failing or threatening. It's a skill that has to be practiced. And just like employees, you're going to screw up occasionally and you're going to have to try again. So try often.

  • 17:34 Joshua

    Absolutely allow for failure for yourself as well, in anything you do as a person you should allow for failure because you're going to screw things up, but if you've got a plan, then that helps a lot and certainly in environments where I... and this is probably good advice for employees who are in a position where you can't change company policy. You can't leave the job because sometimes that's just not an option.

  • 17:50 Joshua

    One way I've dealt with this in the past is to allow myself to fail by building in time, building in plans and backups so that if things do go wrong, I have a corrective action that I can take so that... Before someone else realises has gone wrong. I've taken care of it. And that's a good thing to do anyway because no matter what, whether your manager is allowing for you to build that sort of plan or not. By doing it, you're covering all your bases. It's good for you. It's good for the company is good for your manager and people are going to trust you more because you are the sort of person who does that.

  • 18:37 Kellen

    Absolutely. I've talked to, I've talked to people before about like trying to like lower the amount of fear in the workplace and they're the only. The main thing I always hear back is of course the well then they're never, they're not motivated to do anything. They're not going to be. They're not afraid, so why would they work and that's kind of... How to explain that. I kind of lost my train of thought there. The other half of that though is the responsibility side of things, so like there has to be a repercussion for failure, but it can't be something they're like afraid of. You can't be ashamed for failing. It's got to be. You just have to know that it's, if you screw up, it's your responsibility to fix it, but that's not a bad thing. Like that... that's kind of how managers work, right?

  • 19:19 Kellen

    Like you, you plow things forward. If things grew up, you're like, okay, well we can fix this, we'll work together and we'll get it done and we'll fix it and go onto the next step. And that's kind of the, that, that core like piece that meets these two things together.

  • 19:32 Joshua

    I think it also goes back to what we talked about in the last episode. If people are invested in the right role for them, you don't need to threaten with the stick. They want the carrot anyway. They're going to go after it.

  • 19:45 Kellen

    Exactly. And if there's not a, there's not a huge fear and that they realise that they can, that it is possible for them to fix anything they screw up without being punished or anything along those lines. So yeah, they're totally going to, they're going to push harder to get to that motivation.

  • 19:58 Kellen

    And that's kind of comes back to the constraint problem have you do need to put some limits on that because some people will probably push further than they could possibly ever cover and will you push past their own limits, push past their own ability to, you know, recover from their failures. So you did, that's kind of part of the manager balance to make sure that they did to make sure they stay safe. It's like a little kid in a at a gym. You don't want them going too far away from the padding.

  • 20:25 Joshua

    Agreed. One thing related to all of this that I've found is the way people work changes depending on their motivation for doing the work. If they're actually invested in the project or your business and they want to do these things, they're going to put a lot of effort into doing it right, to doing it well and to doing things that are good for you and for your clients and for the business and everything else. But if they're doing it because they're motivated by fear, they're going to do the absolute minimum, first off, because anything extra puts them at risk of something going wrong again... And they're going to do the minimum that gets them to a position where they don't get in trouble. Basically. Not that's going to help your clients, not that's going to help the business, and that's where a lot of businesses actually go stagnant because everybody's so busy just trying to do what they need to do to tick some boxes and not get in trouble and absolutely nobody is willing to take a risk to try to do something that actually improves the business or improves things for your clients. That's a really like, that's the wrong motivation. Like your statement.

  • 21:34 Kellen

    I really liked that statement of they do less to minimize risks. I think that's a very, very accurate statement of what's actually going on. Like why are they not generating as much work? Why are they not doing as much? Well, they're literally minimizing their risk of failure, of, of because they're terrified of it. They're afraid of screwing something up or getting yelled at or whatever, but that's a very, very accurate statement. I think.

  • 21:52 Joshua

    Absolutely. I have seen concrete evidence of this in businesses, fairly sizable businesses and new it project manager came in and he was ready to really dig in and he said all these constraints put in change management and everything else, and everybody was so absolutely terrified of getting things wrong because they saw the way things were going with this that everybody got really, really good at seeming really busy and doing absolutely nothing. Every time we went into the meetings, yes, we're busy, busy, busy, busy, busy. We're doing this, this, this and this, and absolutely nobody ever over the course that I was with that company said, and we completed this. Because the longer they could stretch it out, the safer it was. Nothing was happening. The business wasn't getting any value out of anything that was being done, but nobody was getting in trouble because nobody was finishing something and then realizing that that was the wrong thing. There was no way they could fail because they were never finishing.

  • 22:50 Kellen

    Yeah, that's. Yeah, that's always problematic as well,

  • 22:55 Joshua

    And It's the sad truth of managing by fear because logically, as a person who's afraid of losing your job and you know there's one easy way out is just not to deliver anything and there's no real expectation to deliver anything. That's what you're going to do, and he was very, very good at putting the fear on, but not very, very good at making sure that we were actually progressing with anything and that's just, that's the natural way it panned out and I couldn't blame anybody for not doing it because the moment one guy did try to finish something, he was getting to the edge of it and he started getting kick back and suddenly he was terrified again in that project kind of went dead for a while as well because he was terrified if he went any further than that was his job, so why would he try?

  • 23:46 Kellen

    I've seen management meetings that were exactly that. Somebody'd finished something that was like they. They finished this thing. They worked within the constraints they had. They created a module for an app or whatever and they go into the meeting, they show it off and then get yelled at for not working on whatever, you know, whatever else that the management thought was more important, which was of course not communicated in any way or even that important on top of that, but and that, you know, obviously that kind of puts a damper on anybody's creativity when being able to create something and be making a huge improvement within the constraints of your job and accomplishing all the things that are on your list and they don't want to yell at you for doing it like, well, that was silly.

  • 24:29 Joshua

    Yeah, and it's all down to the same things over and over again. It's miscommunication and it's mismanagement. Because they're not properly motivating people and that's why we thought this series was so important because it's almost every business I've ever worked with, some of them do better than others, but almost every single one is getting it wrong.

  • 24:52 Kellen

    I, I wouldn't even say by business, it's usually by manager, by department, by team, by group, but ...

  • 25:00 Joshua

    Yes, and It's sad, but it's true and that's why it's such a big deal because it is so prevalent, particularly in the tech industry, but I'm sure it's not unique to us at all, but we see it so much and so many people are terrified and they're not motivated and that's why businesses are struggling. Particularly big businesses where you do have a lot of management in there that are screwing up. Basically.

  • 25:26 Kellen

    There was one thing I wanted to add to that before we finish up here, but the. The concept of motivation. One thing I've seen a lot of, especially in development is people try to hire for motivation. That's one of the key things they look for. They want somebody who's passionate about code and so they tend to find hobbyists, which is kind of like us we were hobbyist as, you know, we were kids. That was one of the reasons why we're a good tech and one of the reasons why we succeeded in technology. It was because we were interested in the problem set without any motivation from the company, but that's definitely not the only way to get a motivated employee. You know, we, we talked about that last time about, you know, just being able to give them autonomy, giving them a reason to be.. Like invest themselves into their work is just as good and it creates the exact same thing. So it's you don't really want to hire for motivation. You want to be able to create motivation, hiring for motivation is going to give you a very small subset of people when you're trying to find hobbyist programmers like that's, that's a very specific hobby. Then you're kind of ruling out a lot of other great hobbies.

  • 26:25 Joshua

    Not only that, but being passionate about code or frameworks or whatever it may be. Doesn't make you motivated to work for this company or to do a good job for this company.

  • 26:36 Kellen

    Exactly. It just motivates you to "oo I want to play with that today."

  • 26:39 Joshua

    I have seen exactly that. I've seen companies hire people because, oh yeah, this guy's really motivated and does all these open source things and they look really great and he's got all this stuff going on and they get the guy in and most of the time he just ends up wining that. He can't go do his other stuff or they just go do the other stuff and don't get any work done or they completely change things without fitting within the scope of the business and it's not good for the business either way.

  • 27:06 Kellen

    That's the one I see the most. It's usually, Eh, let's do it their own way. And I mean, I, to be honest, I was kind of. The way I became a dove was just going out. I'll try to do both. I'll try to fit the things I want to do in the constraints of what they need and you end up, you know, over engineered projects or things that are using code that you don't really need or you know, it kind of stretches scope, but it kept me motivated, but it was kind of a self motivation and that wasn't really. It wasn't really optimal.

  • 27:31 Joshua

    And even then sometimes that can work out. There are certainly times that I've seen that what was happening wasn't what I thought was right to get to the company's goals and I did my own thing within their constraints to make it happen and made something better, but that takes a certain type of motivation. That's not just somebody who's passionate about code or passionate about Python or Javascript or whatever it may be. That takes somebody who is actually passionate about your business and achieving the business goals and uses their knowledge and their experience to help you get there.

  • 28:07 Kellen


  • 28:09 Joshua

    Alright. I think we've probably rambled on enough about that now.

  • 28:13 Kellen

    I was going to say I feel like we have more to talk about that, but I probably split them into the next episode.

  • 28:19 Joshua

    Alright. I will put some transcripts up at Please do check out my website as well. Be sure to check out Kellen's website at I'll have links to those in the transcripts just to make it easier to find them. Uh, don't forget to subscribe to the podcast if you are listening to us because we are a highly interesting and intelligent and wonderful and giving you all sorts of great advice and do check out our website as well.