RECENTLY, a couple of intended compliments threw me for a loop. Two people called me in the same week and wanted me to present keynote speeches at their conferences. Of course, that was the flattering part, but what got to me was that they both referred to me as a "motivational speaker."
Since I'm a typical geek, the phrase motivational speaker immediately sets off alarm bells in my mind. It conjures up an image of some tall, tanned, large-toothed, smiling charisma machine expertly manipulating the emotions of a crowd, whipping up a frenzy at one moment and bringing forth tears of sadness and joy the next.
"Well, I suppose that many people find what I have to say motivating," I suggested, "but I don't try to make people cry or tell stories about overcoming cancer."
"Oh, that's fine," they both said.
But the invitations got me thinking about all the things managers do to try to motivate their staffs: giving inspirational speeches, handing out bonuses, making up awards, inviting everyone out for drinks, hosting family picnics or sending staffers to training on cool new technology that they may never get to use.
I admire the sentiment of those active managers, trying to motivate their teams. But when I reflect on the most engaged groups I have worked with, it's not clear that managers who explicitly try to light a fire under their teams are any more successful than those who are less attentive.
True motivation in technical teams tends to grow organically. Individuals find their own motivation in many sources. For some, it's the opportunity for learning and advancement. For others, the broad and perhaps even global results of their work are very engaging. Some are just excited to work with the group of peers they are currently...