Lowering the Barrier

Making programming (everything) more accessible

18 Mar 2021

Emotional Incentives Matter

A sign that you’ve reached capital-A adulthood is actively looking for ways to improve yourself and those around you. Or it’s a sign that you’ve been working long enough to not treat ‘feedback’ like a trip to the dentist.

That was not my mindset a decade ago. Certainly not two decades ago. I have few regrets in this life. Especially none of the kind where I stare blankly out windows muttering “if only I had” over and over. But it is tempting to ask “how would things have turned out if . . .”

In my first few jobs no one ever sat me down and told me how I should carry myself or even what they expected of me. I’m not sure how I’d have reacted if they had. Probably would have smiled and done whatever I felt like doing, which is my default mode. (If you did in fact sit me down at one of these jobs and tell me what you expected of me, I’m sorry. I appreciate the effort, even though my young brain did not absorb it!) I was left to pick things up by osmosis.

Now that I’m the one bringing new people onboard, I rely on osmosis much more than I’d care to admit. If things are going well, the new person must not need to hear from me. That’s most certainly not the case. Learning through osmosis is really learning by mimicking and trial and error. It’s a random walk. If you do something and receive praise for it, you’ll do more of that thing. If you do something and no one says anything about (the most likely outcome) or you get reprimanded, you’ll do less of that thing.

Well, of course! That’s human nature! This is tautological! All true. Yet it means that how you respond to people each day matters a lot. Way more than the company culture doc.

Which means you should tell people what you expect of them. You should tell them what they’re doing well and what could go better. Regularly, even if it seems obvious. It shows that you’re paying attention. And, by virtue of saying these things out loud, you will pay attention. The default is to praise what’s visible (shipping a big feature, helping with an outage) and not say a word about the invisible (helpful code reviews, steering people away from spending a lot of time on an unimportant project, staying calm when things aren’t going well). To break away from that default takes conscious effort. Expecting to give feedback to people each week will turn that conscious effort into a habit.

The trick is, you can do this even if you’re not a manager or a parent or even an adult. If you pay attention to people when they share new ideas, or hack up a proof of concept, they’ll share more with you. If you can stay calm, listen, and ask questions when people come to with their hair on fire, they’ll turn to you in their moments of need. If you shoot people down or make them feel dumb/anxious/foolish, they won’t come around so much.

None of these ideas are original. You can find them in various religions, self-help guides, and management books. You can hear them at your next company all-hands. But no one sat me down and talked to me about this stuff in concrete terms. Which makes me think that there are a few other grown people walking this earth who haven’t had those conversations either.