Secrets to Highly Motivated and Happy Software Teams

Who wouldn’t want to work as a part of a happy and motivated software team? Wouldn’t it be great if every team you ever worked with was like that? Based on Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek and Drive by Daniel Pink, I will tell you how to make this possible.

What motivates developers?

There are different ideas out there about how to motivate people. The two most common ones are- bonuses (or other financial rewards) and fun work (challenging, interesting etc.). While there is some truth to both, they do not give the full picture.

The book that really opened my eyes to the topic of motivation is Drive by Daniel Pink. The book tackles the topics of financial motivation and provides the three key components of motivation- autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

When a team is motivated – everything is possible!

Motivating teams with money

Everyone like money and we all wouldn’t mind being paid more. Can we use bonuses to motivate teams? Only short term!

”Drive” presents numerous studies and argues persuasively, that bonuses do not make people more motivated. They very quickly become expectations. If you paid a bonus one year, not paying it next year will really demotivate people. Paying the same level of bonuses- that will be taken for granted. What can you do then? Pay good base salary and don’t worry about bonuses (at least that’s what “Drive” and numerous researchers say).

What can you do then? What can you give your team if it’s not bonuses that will keep them motivated? Well, I’m glad you asked!

Team’s Autonomy

It comes as no surprise that the highest performing teams are often self-managed teams!

As individuals, we crave autonomy. We want to have direction, but we want to be free to choose the course we want to take in achieving something.

That individual yearning for autonomy also translates to teams. Give the team direction, feedback, support, but do not take away their autonomy!

Team’s Mastery

The second key piece to the puzzle of motivation is mastery. What is meant by that? An urge to improve, to get better at something that matters.

Beyond the individual improvements, the team needs to have a way to improve the overall process. This is also why measuring progress and receiving feedback is so important.

Another way to look at it is linked with autonomy. Perhaps giving the team and it’s members some time for improvement could help? Ideas such as 20% time spend on technical debt and 10% spent on team members own initiatives come to mind.

Team’s purpose

The last concept that is key to the team’s motivation- purpose. The work that is being done needs to have some purpose.

What can this purpose be? Of course you can think of a noble cause, helping those in need etc… in reality- most teams simply do not work on these kinds of initiatives. You can have a much more mundane scenario and still fill the team with a purpose.

There is a lot of insight and motivation from simply seeing users interact with the software that the team is building- yet, the development teams are often kept away from the end users. If this is not possible, then sharing metrics, feedback, providing context can help.

You want to show the team that the work they are doing is making a difference. You want them to know that what they work on has a purpose.

What about happiness?

Motivation is important and it is difficult to find a happy team that is not motivated. I see it as a sort of a prerequisite. In order to achieve happiness, the team has to work in harmony with human nature…

Ok, but how do we reason about this human nature? “Leaders eat last” answers this by looking at the different chemicals that govern human happiness. These are Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins, and Oxytocin… Don’t worry this won’t turn into a biology lesson!

Happiness often seems like an abstract concept – it is surprising how much the feeling of happiness is driven by chemicals.

Dopamine – hitting your (and team’s) goals

Dopamine is all about achieving goals. This is what makes us happy when we see yet another user sign up for the service, or a few extra story points completed in the sprint.

Dopamine is often thought of as a “selfish chemical”, as these are our own goals that cause it to be released. The trick here is to align our goals with the team goals.

Nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition and feeling of achievement in the team.

Oxytocin – building a community

Trust, friendship, community. These are the things that are linked to Oxytocin. We feel good when we help others, we feel good when others help us… we even feel good just witnessing an act of kindness!

Oxytocin is a biological reason why teams have superpowers and why you can’t create a real team overnight from strangers. It takes times for these bonds of community and friendship to develop.

The existence of a biological factor shows that team lunches, going to pubs and spending time together has a serious non-superficial impact on team’s performance.

Turns out that when we help each other, the whole team benefits!

Serotonin – each team member is important

This one is harder to explain with a catchy phrase. Serotonin is released when we feel pride, we feel that our work is valued and important. It is also related to having good leaders.

It is important to build community and help, but it is equally important to recognize individual contributions. We should treat all team members with the respect that they deserve.

Getting the whole team’s achievements recognized (especially when this is done publicly) is a sure way to increase everyone’s levels of serotonin (and happiness).

Endorphins – no pain no gain

The last of the happy chemicals is a chemical group called endorphins. These are released as a result of overcoming pain and stress. I certainly do not recommend stressing and hurting everyone as a way of making them happy!

The existence of endorphins shows that we have an inbuilt system for dealing with things such as physicals exhaustion (no surprise). Thanks to endorphins we feel ecstatic at the end of a challenge.

Have you ever stayed late with your friends working on a problem, emerging successful and celebrating at the end? Things like that can be sources of happiness as well- as long as they are not the norm!

Healthy balance

To sum it up, team’s happiness can be achieved by staying true to our human nature:

  • Working on shared goals (and hitting them)
  • Creating a community where we help each other
  • Recognizing everyone’s importance and having good leaders
  • Overcoming challenges

Simple- isn’t it?


Creating motivated and happy teams is not easy, but it is possible. Reflecting on what motivates us and what makes us happy, can guide you in doing the right things. I think if more people were aware of these things, we would have many more happy and motivated teams!

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