When things are going well, a lot of things are easy. It's much easier for us to offer perks, and live by our values. It's also much easier to get up every morning with smiles on our faces, looking forward to the challenge ahead.
We can really drive at things, seeing them through to 'done' as quickly as possible. Even when we fail, we celebrate it as a learning opportunity. These are good times, although they still have their challenges.
Motivation generally lags behind environment. When things turn sour, our motivation doesn't instantly drop. We say "we can do better; we must strive to get back to our winning ways of yesterday". Most of us can sustain this sentiment for a while even during tough times.
But what happens when day-in, day-out, our efforts reap neither the results nor recognition that they deserve? That can be tough. Really, really tough. The longer this environment surrounds us, the less motivated we feel, and yet motivation is the key force that we need to break out of the spiral.
In an industry like software there are but a few genuine chances to 'reset'. The problems that we left behind on Monday evening are still there waiting for us on Tuesday morning. There's no 'second shift' to help us out or give us respite when we're feeling overwhelmed. A team struggling with a tough problem in an unfamiliar domain could struggle for months on end, with few chances to 'come up for air'.
Like trying to beat the final boss in a video game, it may begin as a fun challenge that tests our skills as engineers, as product owners, or as project managers, but after a while — even if we are getting better and improving our approach — we often just want to throw the controllers at the TV.
So what can we do?
Like in the video game, we need to recognise when it starts to become painful, and take a step back. There's a couple of ways of going about this:
At a personal level, it might mean cutting back on extra hours, and just backing off slightly to let yourself cool off. I'd recommend that you share this approach with your colleagues and manager/lead(s); it gives them an opportunity to help if they can, and also makes them aware that you need a little more breathing space.
At a team level, it may mean that the team needs to spend a little bit of time tackling a different problem, even if just for a Sprint or two. This could be a chance to tackle some technical debt, resolve some bugs, or otherwise just do something a bit different. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest, after all.
What we mustn't do is ignore it and try to 'solider on'.
What managers must do
I saw a video on Reddit recently about a dog that loved to swim. It loved to swim so much that it would swim until it was so physically exhausted that it couldn't swim back to the shore. To protect the dog from drowning, his master fitted it with a flotation aid before it went into any water.
Our strongest employees in a business are often like the dog in this story; they are highly driven and tenacious, stopping only when a problem is solved and mission achieved.
When the dog started to struggle to swim, would its owner have been successful if they simply shouted at the dog, told it to try harder, and to really push itself to keep going? How about if they set the dog milestones, or [ambitious] targets to achieve?
A disappointingly common management failing is thinking that the issue is that people simply have to 'try harder', or 'do more'. With some people in some cases, that's true, but think about our dog; will it work there? When your most-driven employees suddenly have to 'try harder', it would seem like something else is amiss…
As line managers, team leads, agile coaches, scrum masters, CXOs, we all need to actively work to support our colleagues and ensure that we protect people from themselves in times like this, both in trying to protect them from swimming too much in the first place (thankfully humans are slightly easier to explain this sort of thing to than dogs) and then genuinely help them when they do.
But managers are not immune
If a team is feeling exhausted and unmotivated, chances are the person leading them is struggling the most of all. They are putting on a brave face and trying to remain positive, but they are also the one bearing the pressures from the team below them and their managers above. My advice to those in this position is to make sure that those who can help appreciate the struggle that they face. In most cases, that means the person’s line manager, but potentially their team lead as well (if it’s a different person).