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So your job looks good on paper: good salary, benefits, a fancy title, but you feel like there’s something missing. It's well worth addressing that- yes, there's a pandemic going on, but there's something else nagging at you. I recently learned about a psychology framework and applying it helped me identify specific issues I experienced at work. It also relates to a lot of the common gripes that software developers have nowadays with their job.
In this article, I’ll be introducing the concept of self-determination theory, how it relates to the current work environment, and offering some solutions to improve your work situation.
What is Self-Determination Theory?
It’s important to go over the big picture explanation of self-determination theory before diving into the different parts the theory includes (we’ll skip the fancy psychology speech.)
There’s two major beliefs in self-determination theory:
Growth drives behavior. The first belief states people actively look to grow and gain mastery of different skills. New experiences are valued.
Internal sources of motivation also drive behavior. The second belief states intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivation. Speaking simply, cash rules everything around me (C.R.E.A.M!), but it shouldn’t rule my behavior.
One last thing before we dive into the good stuff. There’s three components to self-determination theory, or rather, three potential ways to troubleshoot your job issues. These topics should feel like they “connect or relate” 😉 to the major beliefs.
You should feel in control of your behaviors and goals. Feeling like you’re being micromanaged? Constantly operating on deadlines? Company forcing you to “return to office”? Do you feel like you’re doing performative work to look busy all the time?
Getting tangible rewards (think: raises, benefits, and bonuses) to do something you naturally enjoy can reduce how happy that activity makes you feel.
It’s common to associate micro-management with this Bill Lumbergh-esque manager breathing down your neck and checking in on you every hour, but it’s manifested in two other ways for me.
The first is the daily stand-up. I understand its original intent, but productivity for me doesn’t look linear. I have bad productivity days and good productivity days. Daily stand-ups serve as an avenue for me to feel guilty on the bad days and ok on the good days.
A common gripe I’ve seen and experienced relating to autonomy is the wretched Jira board. It feels like an endless slog of finishing one task and being immediately replaced with another. It’s like there is an unlimited slew of tickets and you can never feel accomplished finishing a task. Constant two week sprints and artificial deadlines are recurring nightmares you don't wake up from. Jira feels like the modern-day equivalent of an assembly line. The only choice you have is what’s assigned to you. And your deadlines? Well, that’s up to Product Management.
This is the confidence that you have the right tools to do your job. Are you a junior who doesn’t feel secure reaching out to your senior? Or a senior who feels like your manager just doesn’t listen to you? Dealing with impossible tasks or receiving negative feedback constantly? This could be your issue!
A lack of competence has shown up for me in the workplace, but different from some reasons I listed above. I’ve had the fortune of having great coworkers and mentors in my day-to-day job, so my issues stem more from tooling.
As a developer, I like to feel like I am productive. When some of your tickets are tied to external team dependencies, or when it takes almost an hour to deploy anything, it can feel like your productivity is out of your control, rendering you powerless.
Connection or Relatedness
Connection deals with not feeling like you belong to a group. Are you the only POC in your team or org? Do you feel like there are cliques in your workplace? Are you the only employee without kids?
I’ve dealt with two of the reasons above, and neither is fun.
I understand it isn’t rare for Asian males to be in tech, but the makeup of the team you’re on factors a lot more than the demographics of the tech industry. I come from a rural city in Georgia, so I’m used to being the token Asian but am still surprised that the situation hasn't changed while working. It can feel isolating being the only POC on a team because it feels a lot harder to connect to others. Naturally, people look for similarities when making friends (sports team fanatics can relate), so it's not a stretch that hiring managers find it easier to hire someone that thinks and looks exactly like them, but it can come at the cost of creating an echo chamber.
My intention isn't to make a giant push to hire more Asian males or to influence you to find a team who looks just like you, but to promote embracing diverse opinions, which are necessary for preventing isolated POVs. The demographic of the team I might join has become a greater factor when looking for a new job because having diverse opinions makes for a more enjoyable and inclusive workplace.
Solutions to Fix
Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier for your manager to fix these issues, but there are some things you can do, too. I’ll list ways managers can get you to stop looking at job postings on my website. I'll then list other ways you can try to help your own situation in the workplace, or to consider when applying to job postings on my website. 😉
Ways Managers Can Help
- Use extrinsic rewards occasionally. There’s a sweet spot between using money as the only motivation for outstanding performance and not showing any appreciation or recognition.
- Trust your developers more. Developers should be able to feel some sense of autonomy in their day to day work.
- Encourage your developers to set goals that line up with their own interests. It’s a lot easier for developers to go above and beyond in accomplishing goals when they feel a part of the conversation in creating those goals.
- Judge developers by the quality of their output, not how many hours they’re clocking in. You can’t expect a developer to be productive 8+ hours a day for months on end. Productivity may operate more like a burst of output followed by a lull.
Ways to Help Yourself
The solutions for fixing issues related to self-determination theory when you don’t have the power to fix core issues in your team are band-aid fixes, at best. But they’re still helpful overall. That being said, let’s dive in.
Find social support. Foster strong social relationships with others who can support and empathize with you and your situation.
Focus on self-motivation. Believe in yourself to accomplish goals and tasks. Take credit for your success, but also accept blame for your failures. This starts delving into internal vs external locus of control (and getting a little too spiritual if you ask me!), so I’ll save this for another blog post.
Gain mastery. Learn as much as you can about a skill in order to feel more competent. Tell your manager if the tasks you're working on are too hard or too simple! There's a sweet spot between impossible and easy that you should aim for.
Don’t look for happiness or fulfillment from your job. For some, the role of jobs has grown from just a salary to an identity or even a personality trait.
In the past, I remember always feeling frustrated and burnt out when thinking about my job. I tried very hard to associate my happiness with my job output, and that’s a toxic mindset to have. I’d obsess over things going wrong with my job, in my team, and in the company. That may or may not still be the case, but working on this website has been helpful in dealing with some of that excess energy.
My suggestion? Round yourself out as a human being. Getting hobbies, involving yourself with your community, taking part in mentoring - anything that gives you connection with others. Less obsessing over how the market did that day, more obsessing over making the most use of your money and living a life you enjoy.
Sometimes it's difficult to determine the source of why you’re unhappy. Jobs can be a common reason for unhappiness, but you shouldn’t assume they’re the only reason for your unhappiness. If none of these issues seem to apply to you, it would be a good idea to speak to a mental health counselor to rule out more serious issues in your life.
At the end of the day, we’re in a hot market for developers. Job not doing it for you? Find a new job with a company that doesn't use LeetCode in their interview process at nowhiteboard.org.
More seriously, though, if you’re already looking for a new job, make sure you’re asking the right questions when interviewing. It’s a good idea to make sure a new job fits all three of the above factors (Autonomy, Competence, & Connection), and asking those questions before you’ve quit an “OK” job is essential.
Do you have strategies that work well with learning to enjoy your job? Any companies you’d like to highlight that care about the issues revealed by self-determination theory? Reach out to me on Twitter @NoWhiteboardOrg and let’s talk.
As always, good luck with whatever may be going on in your life.
Note: Thank you Isabelle for your editing assistance!