The subtle difference between pushing developers to start their engine and pushing them off a cliff

Michal Ganzarcik

How do you determine whether to motivate your colleague towards progress or to respect their autonomy?

You see a car parked by the side of the road. Passengers are gesticulating wildly, and you hear the engine failing to start repeatedly. “Damn, their car battery is dead! I better run and help!” you think to yourself, being the good Samaritan your mother taught you to be.

Reflecting back, my career began with a slightly anarchistic approach as a software developer. I did not think much of hierarchy. I was not a fan of “corporate culture”. The idea of someone telling me what to do was alien to me.  

Despite this attitude, I quickly moved from software development to management. One of the first things I told myself and held on to was the simple rule of “I will not tell people what to do.” 

It took me many years of experience to realize this slightly dogmatic approach is not always a way to go. There are valid reasons to push people to do something.  

However, like with most things in management, knowing who to push, when, and into what, is crucial for success. Misjudge the situation and the price you pay for failure can be steep indeed. 

To push or not to push?

Without a second thought, you break into a run. You grab the car trunk and start pushing. The people in the car look back at you in surprise, and the driver opens her mouth in a big O. “Another good deed done!” you think to yourself with satisfaction as you feel the vehicle starting to move on its own. Moments later the car and its occupants disappear as the terrain suddenly drops away. You hear a loud bang.  

So what does it mean to push someone as a manager?

In simple terms, it means directly asking someone to do something that they would not sign up to do by themselves. You are forcing them to get outside of their comfort zone! If you do this correctly, the benefits for the person pushed are numerous: 

  • They can acquire a new skill, 
  • They can gain confidence and be more willing to engage in similar activities in the future, 
  • They can get recognition, 
  • They can eliminate internal mental barriers or dogmas, 
  • They can gain a new perspective or widen their horizon, 
  • Even if they ultimately fail, they can learn from the failure. 

Your best bet for pushing someone is to identify strong points that the person has but is not aware of or is not utilizing fully. That way, you set them up for success from the get-go. But this is easier said than done. 

If you make a wrong decision at the wrong time, disaster can strike.  

People you push can become frustrated, even to the point of quitting their jobs. They can fail at the task you pushed them to do, sometimes with serious consequences for the project or the company. This can also lower their self-confidence and cause them to avoid this type of work in the future.  

Ultimately, they can blame you for the whole thing without learning anything. And they would not be wrong. 

Get to know your colleagues

Luckily for you, this is a time-traveling story. You rewind the clock 10 minutes back and you find yourself facing the car again. This time you do not run. You do not push. You take a few breaths and approach the car slowly. “Hey, you folks are having some problems?” you ask. 

You need to know someone’s circumstances before you can push. Every person is different, so you do what good managers do. Get to know your colleagues! Build a relationship and trust via the time-tested framework of one-on-ones, working together, being present, and following up. This takes time. As you go, make sure you understand what makes the other person tick. Ask yourself (and ask them!): 

  • What motivates them at work and in their lives? 
  • Where do they feel their current limits are? 
  • What are their strong and weak areas? Which ones can be improved? 
  • Are there areas where the person might benefit from a new experience or perspective?

A relatively common occurrence during my career was working with folks who tend to avoid communication but do a good job communicating once they did do it. Another would be a colleague with strong technical skills and a natural talent for software architecture, who was for a long time unable to step outside of the shadow of a more senior team member.  

These are great examples of people who might need a bit of encouragement or push to move to the next level of their careers. As a manager, you need to learn how to spot opportunities and take advantage of them. 

As you ask your question, you feel the multiverse split off into several branches. In one, the driver looks at you in surprise. 

“What problems? We’ve just arrived and plan to have a picnic right here. There is a cool cliff up ahead, and we want to enjoy the view!”  

“But didn’t your car just fail to start? Do you need a push?” 

“I hit the ignition with my knee by mistake. I am way too tall for this car.” 

You nod and slowly back away. These people have it under control. 

Sometimes, people are just OK. They are in a good place at their job and grow at their own pace. All you need to do is give them space. And sometimes, people are just not OK. The last thing they need right now is a push. Maybe they have problems in their personal lives, or they are already struggling at a new position or in a new team. Perhaps they have solid reasons why they cannot do what you are asking them to do.  

Learn and respect. 

Build your case and then act 

In the other branch, the driver looks at you with relief. ”Oh, thanks for stopping by! You know, today is pretty cold, and I guess our old battery could not take it anymore. A little help would be nice. We need to be in the town by noon.” And so you roll up your sleeves and get behind the trunk. It’s time to push some folks to success! 

Once you determine you are ready to push, the next step is to build your case. You should not just out of the blue and without context shout orders at people.  

Use your 1-on-1 to explain what is going on and why their involvement might be beneficial. Explain what you see as their strengths and why you believe they have a good chance to succeed. Explain how the process will work and provide a safety net in case of failure. 

  • “This is as much about delivering the feature as it is about you learning the ropes. We can manage the client in case things don’t work out.” 
  • “You will not be alone in this. Claire has done this before and she will be your mentor throughout the process”. 
  • “Before you even start, there is a week-long workshop to give you all the basics you need.” 
  • “I will have regular 1on1s with you to help out and act in case you need it.” 

Often, as part of these conversations, the person will decide to sign up themselves and no push is needed at all! Those are the best times. But if that does not happen and you do need to give them a nudge, make sure you are direct and explain why you are picking them. 

  • “I believe you are the best person for this job. Not only is it the logical next step in your career, but you have all the right skills. You did a lot of work in native development and have already designed complex UI components that were well-reviewed. You will get a chance to work with seniors outside of your team and learn a lot about designing larger UI systems. The deadline is tight, but I’ve seen you work under pressure, and you always deliver.” 

And there you have it! As with most things when working with people, the key to success is taking your time, understanding the context, communicating regularly and clearly, and being direct when needed.  

Good luck! 

You watch as the car takes off and approaches the town in the distance. The sun is slowly setting behind the horizon, and you get lost in thoughts for a while until a lonely call of an eagle above drags you back to reality. Well, it’s time to get back to work. You rewind the clock a couple of millions of years back and push those early homo erectus folks to play with fire a bit more actively. After all, they have what it takes. 

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