I visited an organization making an Agile transformation. It looked like the teams were making great progress. But the managers asked, “How can we tell they are working hard?”

Team members seemed happy with their cross-functional teams. They solved problems and worked things independently. Customers loved seeing working software on a regular cadence.

But the managers voiced their concerns:

How will we know

that senior developers are doing senior level work?  

they aren’t slacking off?

they are working hard?

I hear variations on these question in many organizations I work with.

Let’s look at the assumptions and beliefs behind these questions.

Emphasis on Individual Achievement

We have a legacy of emphasizing individual achievement. Formative experiences in school and HR policies (e.g., individual reviews and ranking) reinforce this. Finely grained job levels bolster the idea and contribute to “not my job” thinking. Narrow functional job descriptions (automation tester, exploratory tester, front end tester) have the same effect.

These managers don’t have experience–or organizational support–to think about group performance.

Beliefs about Motivation

Some people believe (other) people will slack off or make minimum effort unless pressured. Pressure comes in the from of deadlines, close supervision, “stretch goals,” ranking schemes, reward programs.

Research shows that these methods don’t work, and actually extinguish intrinsic motivation. Though, they may result in the appearance of working hard (or doing senior level work).

Organizational policies and management practices often work against motivation.

Concerns about Utilization

I’ve heard managers say, “They’re being paid 8 hours a day. I want them working 8 hours a day.” They want people fully utilized, and busy at all times.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave much time for thinking. Or coaching newer folks, or learning. Full utilization and busy-ness may create the appearance of working to capacity, but it is an illusion. In the long run, it works against increasing future capacity.

Worry about Social Loafing

During the 1880s, a French agricultural engineer measured the effort expended by people pulling on a rope. His experiments demonstrated that individuals exerted less effort when many people were pulling on the rope than when they pulled alone. And thus social loafing was born.

Social loafing has worried managers ever since. Other social scientists studied the phenomena, which eventually found its way into popular management lore. Failing to give full effort at all times (even when not required) takes on the tinge of moral failing.

Remember the old saying, Many hands make light work?  Maximum individual effort isn’t the point. Coordinated, creative, effective effort in service of a shared goal is. Software developers are not pulling on a rope.

In fact, a well-functioning team makes hard work look easy. But many people have never seen (or been part of) a truly high-performing team.

A Thought Experiment

In these situations, I offer a thought experiment:

Suppose we formed four teams. After the new teams get their legs under them, they’re producing good results. Bugs are trending down, code quality is going up. Team members are happy. Customers are happy.

But you don’t know what each team member is contributing.

Then I ask, “Could you live with that?”

Most people say they could live without knowing each individuals contribution. A few say they need to know who to blame.

But that’s a different problem.

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