Motivating Agile Teams

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Motivation to write a blog post about motivation

“What would you choose: money or favourable work environment?”

Several weeks ago a friend asked this provocative question on LinkedIn.

Looking at the open discussion, I recognized the good, old, well-known topic for Motivation. Because of my experience and strong opinion in this area, I “motivated” myself to write a blog post about Motivation. So, here we are…

I have discussed lots of times the Motivation topic with colleagues and friends. Usually, these discussions start with elaboration about the stick and the carrot. Maybe because we are in 2018 the “Stick” motivator is not so controversial and we all agree it’s not working and if someone threatens us, we would quit immediately and will not even move a finger…


It’s not the same case with “The Carrot”. People usually think money is a good motivator. Despite the scientific researches proving that promising money for performance is a bad idea, still people are hardly convinced money will not motivate them. And how would they be? Everyone thinks: “Promise me a huge pile of money and I won’t sleep till it’s done!”

Even more, most of my co-workers shared stories  with me how they have worked like “crazy” knowing that really big bonuses are on the table. So how can they believe in this “theoretical mumbo-jumbo”, they have real experience here?!

And because I was reading a lot about the topic I was arguing and arguing, claiming and proving that money is actually demotivating, but I was pretty much talking to myself. The folks’ real experience was different and they would not believe me no matter how much evidences I would have given them. And how could they, as they just simply ask themselves:
“Would I work harder if the goal is a big pile of money? – Of course, I would, I would not sleep and eat till I get it!”.
And they are right, I would do the same in this situation!

And finally, I realized… 

We have different understanding about what “motivation” is. 

Both sides were right based on the definition. On one hand, we have “Motivation” (the big pile of money) as something that makes us work like crazy, try harder and even sacrifice personal health. 

One small fact I realized hereafter rethinking this discussions: 

No one was talking about the final results! 

Maybe my friends had taken the bonuses, but none of them was elaborating with me if the final delivery was as expected, were there missing pieces and dirty workarounds, what was the quality, were they happy and proud with their achievements, were they coming with a smile in the mornings, were they trying to be creative and achieve more than needed, to achieve greatness or they were just super focused and stressed to get the job done, no matter how…

What is Motivation?

So, here comes “mine” definition on Motivation, it’s the Magic, which makes you love what you do, that makes you smile and go to work thinking in the bus traveling to work about the cool idea you can’t wait to try. According to “my” definition, motivation is something that awakes the artist and creator in us and makes us come with astonishing ideas and results much better and higher than initially expected. It’s something that will make us stay late at work just because we can’t remove our fingers from the keyboard (or another working tool), just because we are in the zone and we don’t want to miss the momentum. Have you been there? Have you been in the zone? 

I hope you have been there! Тhe feeling is super enthusiastic and the results are usually something you are proud of and something you want to share and to continue to develop in the future. And most importantly, you feel great even physically exhausted and you are not mad at anyone, just pure happiness. Is it pure happiness to see the money in your bank account? Maybe it could be close for a little moment, but actually, I don’t think so. 

So, we cleared it! The motivators I talk about are these, that will make us happy, enthusiastic, creative and deliver much beyond the initial request. These are called Intrinsic Motivators.

And opposite, Extrinsic Motivators are external in nature. If we do something to earn a reward or avoid punishment, we do it not because we enjoy it, but in order to get something in return or avoid something unpleasant. This extrinsic motivation makes us unhappy and stressed, less creative, and demotivated.

Absence of Money is a Demotivator,
the existence of Money is not a Motivator

Lack of enough financial income makes us feel unhealthy and demotivated. If we are paid less than deserved or under the amount, which we need to feel comfortable in our day-to-day life, thеn we will be unhappy and will look for another job. We would not try too hard at work if we feel we are not well paid and we worry about the money.
“Pay your people enough, so they can put the money off the table!”

Maslow’s pyramid explains there are 5 levels categorized into 2 types of needs. 

The first part is the Basic and Psychological Needs.   About them we know, that person is “motivated” to have them, but the motivation decreases after achieving them. So, the big pile of money  will focus on getting the prize and not on how to do it best. After getting the money our motivation will decrease. Creativity and extraordinary results will simply slow us down. On the other hand, lack of these basic needs will demotivate us and we will start looking for a job change.


The second part (5th Level, Self-actualization) are the Growth Needs, which achievement increases the Motivation after the need is met. This is everything which will make us better, more skillful and fluent. Achieving better results, creating better solutions, and innovating will motivate us.

Additionally, according the “Overjustification” phenomenon, an external “push” like promising big pile of money will actually make us be less creative and less happy.

Overjustification effect

The overjustification effect is a phenomenon: Being rewarded for doing something you really love to do, actually transforms it into something you don’t like. It stops bringing you pleasure and joy and even becomes frustrating and painful for you.

Psychologists Mark R. Lepper and David Greene from Stanford and the University of Michigan ran the following experiment:

Fifty-one preschoolers aged between 3 and 4 were selected for the study. They all liked, even loved drawing.  Lepper and Greene wanted to see what effect rewards would have.

The children were then randomly grouped into 3 groups:

  1. Expected reward. Children would get a prize if they finish a big drawing task.
  2. Surprise reward. Children would receive the same reward as above but, weren’t told about it.
  3. No reward. The children expected no reward, and didn’t receive one.



In the next few days, the children were watched if they would spontaneously draw.  The result was that the children which expected rewards were much less interested in doing their favorite activity.


Unequality is a very strong demotivator, it’s one of the biggest reasons for the problems most IT companies have, in order to keep their employees.

Let’s explain it with an example:

A Java programmer with two years of experience in working on a web project for an IT company. This lady has friends, who also have two years of experience, working on Web projects for other IT company and her friends are receiving 20-30% higher salary. 

This is one big demotivator, which will make this programmer even angry to her employer. It doesn’t matter if her salary is enough for her or not.
People are not logical or rational, people are emotional! People always compare themselves with others. 

Capuchin monkeys reject unequal pay


Companies can not ignore this and always should try to compete with the competition in the salary rates.
Of course, there will be always companies that can not afford what the others can. If they are not that far they still can compensate with other “internal motivators”. But you can not expect that if you give much less than the average salary rates in the domain you can keep your people.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

There are tons of scientific proves that these three can make people love what they are doing. Focusing on them is the pure must for every company, which wants to take the maximum of its knowledge workers.

Autonomy is making someone empowered to take initiative. You have to give your people the authority to make decisions, to experiment, even to fail. Inside of the  company constraints  everyone needs autonomy and authority to be creative. Hire specialists and professionals and give them the floor to make decisions, to create and drive their own solutions.

RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

Mastery: The feeling of getting better and stronger in what you do. This can be a very strong opiate that can make people proud of themselves. On the opposite, it is very common to see people being demotivated or willing to quit just because they don’t see progress and their work is mainly routine. Sometimes these people get used to the status quo and can spend lots of years just doing the same boring job.

Purpose: Understanding why and what is the big goal. Knowing how the work we do affects the big picture is a key to making people really buy-in. If one realizes she works for a higher purpose, like saving people’s lives or sending people in space, you can expect high motivation and enthusiasm.

Intrinsic Motivators

Intrinsic motivators are those that make us go and play football on the weekend, those that make our children draw and play musical instruments just for fun, those that make us play a computer game all night sacrificing sleep, friends and work.

Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are Intrinsic Motivators, but there are much more out there. Jurgen Appelo has a great set of intrinsic motivators that can affect in a different manner different personality types: “Curiosity, Mastery, Honor, Acceptance, Power, Freedom, Relatedness, Order, Goal and Status”
It is very important to take into account everyone’s uniqueness and to understand that people are different and motivating them needs a unique approach for everyone. It is totally fine to have people valuing higher Order and Power and others valuing more Freedom and Curiosity.

Gratitude is True Intrinsic Motivation, Send a Kudo Today!


Of course, it’s not possible for the top management to understand everyone’s unique set of intrinsic motivators and it is not necessary. Showing empathy and building people-centric culture is enough to create an environment, where everyone can bring their whole selves to work and will feel safe they will not be judged for being themselves.

Christmas Bonuses

The Christmas or End-of-Year Bonuses are a big topic and pain for many companies and their employees. Are they something good or bad? Should we have them and how do we feel if don’t have them? What is enough as amount?

Christmas bonuses or End-of-year bonuses for performance are extrinsic motivators, which means they actually demotivate us. It is proven – performance-based bonuses are not motivating anyone! Even worse if they are explicitly related to the personal performance they cause competition and bring the personal interest above the common one.

On the other hand, if most other companies around give Christmas bonuses and your company doesn’t, we will get the Inequality problem. Our employees and co-workers will feel like they are treated unfairly. So it means it’s better to have bonuses…

So, how to solve this puzzle?
The only sure thing is bonuses should not be based on people’s performance. It’s better if they are unexpected and do not evolve into the useless competition. They should be based on collaboration, creativity, and peer feedback.
OKR’s are a good option for bonuses to be calculated by a clear formula formed by the group’s key results.
Merit money is one option to distribute the bonus among the teammates.  (https://management30.com/practice/merit-money/)

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