Working towards microservices with enterprise cultures, Part 1

Getting started on a microservice adoption isn’t trivial given the challenge of migrating existing data, merging with other data sets, keeping yourself in a ‘known good state’, and the new requirement of honoring contracts long after you’ve moved onto a new way of doing something. At least it’s just a technical problem that can easily be changed and monitored over the course of it’s implementation. I covered some options to start that half of the work in my prior microservice article and isn’t a goal here.

The real challenge comes in the other half of the work to lay the foundation for the microservices effort – the path to a DevOps supporting culture – which is our goal for this sub-section of the “working towards microservices” series. It’s the hardest half of the two parts given that it’s a business problem that can’t be easily changed or monitored – it requires changing the organization’s culture. Unlike computers which change their logic processing with a deployment, humans are pretty stubborn when confronted with new information, or conflicting ideas and thoughts.

You can’t directly change the culture just like you can’t directly change a person’s personality. You can change the culture indirectly by modifying behavior through the implementation of an intrinsic motivation and reward system, or working towards the implementation of a social-norm culture.

Motivations & Rewards

In what we would consider ‘enterprise’ or ‘legacy’ companies, there historically exists a problem where the culture unconsciously operates with behaviors to maintain the status quo and it’s established silos. It’s the result of behaviors that emphasized the importance of mostly extrinsic motivations and rewards in compensation mechanisms like pay increases, bonuses, and other financial benefits through the annual review process. None of which that feed into our natural tendency to be a part of a what psychologists and behavioral economists identify as a ‘social-norm’ in our society.

The ‘social-norm’ (natural behavior) is based upon what makes us more likely to perform an activity without expecting any compensation or at least not immediately. There are tons of examples based on this behavior, such as helping someone move, change a tire, or even holding open a door. It makes us feel as though we’re a part of something bigger, that our work has meaning to ourselves and that others would find of value. People operating in this world are much more likely to be engaged in these activities than if they were paid for them. Most of the motivations and rewards within this behavior model are majorly based upon intrinsic values, which originate within a person while extrinsic values originate beyond the individual.

The other world that is majorly based upon extrinsic values, called the ‘market-norm’ (artificial behavior), is very strict and sharp where activities both command and expect immediate compensation and weigh heavily in our decisions to even be involved at all. The exchanges in this model aren’t based on warm feelings, but the colder aspects of society which include exact and computed concerns like income, expenses, interest, and comparison of benefits. This is the world in where the phrase “You get what you pay for” and “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do that” originate.

The social/market-norm and intrinsic/extrinsic ideologies line up in a lot of ways and may seem identical, but not everything has direct correlation to each other . While intrinsic rewards and motivations can easily be expected in the social norm area of our behavior, certain extrinsic rewards could also be included in the social norm. A change in a person’s social stature is one such example which could be gained through an extrinsic reward such as an elevation in job title.

Everyone lives with both the social and market norm behaviors very much hard wired within themselves. In any given scenario or situation, only one of the given behaviors will prevail depending on the introduction to the activity. Having both behaviors exist within the same environment is a balancing act that requires some care, where any crossing of the two behaviors could have a disastrous outcome. In the collisions of these norms, the social norm aspect of the relationship where your trust resides can become damaged where it takes considerable time to recover, if it recovers at all.

Employers used to have a very strict market-norm relationship with their workers. They required you to work for 40 hours, from 9am to 5pm, with a rigid lunch break, in exchange for an agreed pay. Employees knew when the relationship started and ended, whether it was a factory whistle or the punch of a time card. There was no social-norm aspect to this contract.

In today’s world, the relationship has become much more mixed. Companies have learned over time that social-norm behaviors if invoked correctly can provide them with a workforce of flexible, loyal, hardworking, and dedicated employees. The introduction of these social-norm into the employment contract have arrived through various benefits such as annual, salaried pay rates instead of hourly, health care insurance, educational reimbursements, gym memberships, and free lunches. The start and end time in which people work is no longer rigid with the existence of company-provided cellphones and laptops. Even on vacations, people can be found tethered to some degree of work related activities, even if it’s just responding to emails. Companies could pay for the same type of employees without all of the benefits, but the market-norm prices of such a workforce would make it financially impractical.

Interestingly enough, while companies have over the years introduced more and more of these social-norm aspects into the relationship with their employees, they still somehow get stuck with using market-norm behaviors when it comes to utilizing motivations and rewards for continuing the employment through the review process.

While there isn’t anything wrong with having extrinsic rewards such as pay increases or bonuses, as it’s essential to maintaining or enhancing a person’s basic societal and economic needs, it becomes a problem when a business neglects to address the social-norm that it originally used to establish the employment. This is where the social-norm contract becomes further burdened, and begins to negate any of the advantages of such a contract.  Without answering to the intrinsic mechanisms of an individual in the ongoing contract means that you’re accomplishing business goals completely through extrinsic motivations which eventually grows a culture of employees working in a survival mode. Employees’ work in the absence of any personal satisfaction essentially starts changing over time to focus on gaining influence and power, invoking peer pressure, and becoming highly risk-adverse to mitigate or avoid any punishment.

There is also the problem where companies have already started trying to transition into an enhanced review system with a better motivation and reward system, but even then too much emphasis can be put onto the financial compensation.

“To summarize, using money to motivate people can be a double-edged sword. For tasks that require cognitive ability, low to moderate performance-based incentives can help. But when the incentive level is very high, it can command too much attention and thereby distract the person’s mind with thoughts about the reward. This can create stress and ultimately reduce the level of performance.”
Dan Ariely, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home

The solution for rectifying the social-norm strain is to retrain the business by placing incentives on the right behaviors and actions required to remove the barriers in communication and collaboration that have fractured the organization.

The utilization of intrinsic rewards is one of the best methods for retention and detecting retention issues. If an individual does not have a sense of fulfillment (which is derived solely from intrinsic rewards), a counter offer to someone attempting to leave the organization has the same chances of a coin toss to accept the offer, and would prove to be a temporary solution before they eventually left anyways.

Individuals who receive high levels of intrinsic rewards are much more engaged in their job, highly rated by their managers as being effective, assist the recruiting process via marketing their well being to friends, and proactively marketing potential customers on their own. It’s also a much more sustainable mechanism of retention as there are financial caps to what businesses can justify for keeping someone, and chances of burnout are much lower with this mechanism as well.

Most companies are usually strapped for time around the annual review period, but managers need to make time around the process where goal setting takes place for an important exercise to help their direct reports establish their ability of self-management in their work for the coming year. This also includes giving their direct reports more time to focus on the effort at their level as well. It may also be beneficial to adopt a continual feedback process throughout the year instead of dusting off your notes and email archives to remember what had been accomplished over the previous year.

A manager first needs to understand which of the characteristics are more important to each of their direct reports and then direct the individual towards the business goals using intrinsic motivations that work best for each individual. It’s important to leave the extrinsic motivations and rewards out of this part of the process as research has shown that offering such for an already intrinsically rewarding activity will make the activity less rewarding as a result of something called the overjustification effect. An individual’s enjoyment of the activity is already sufficient for them to become self-managing and and provides justification for their behavior.

Having the additional extrinsic reinforcement included in the process may make the individual perceive the activity as overjustified and question their understanding of the true source of motivation for the given activity. The quality of an individuals work is actually sourced from intrinsic factors, not extrinsic. Keeping the motivation around intrinsic values invokes an individual’s interest in the activity which allows for more creative and novel solutions to the problem in their solution.

“Unnecessary rewards sometimes carry hidden costs. Most people think that offering tangible rewards will boost anyone’s interest in an activity. Actually, promising children a reward for a task they already enjoy can backfire. In experiments, children promised a payoff for playing with an interesting puzzle or toy later play with the toy less than do children who are not paid to play. It is as if the children think, ‘If I have to be bribed into doing this, then it must not be worth doing for its own sake.'”
– David G. Myers, Psychology

“With the addition of extrinsic reinforcement, the person may perceive the task as over-justified and then attempt to understand their true motivation (extrinsic versus intrinsic) for engaging in the activity.”
– Richard A. Griggs, Psychology: A Concise Introduction

“The functional significance, or salience, of the event dictates whether intrinsic motivation is facilitated or diminished. For example, an athlete may perceive receiving an external reward (e.g., money, trophy) as a positive indicator of her sport competence (informational), whereas another athlete may perceive the same reward as coercion to keep her involved in the activity (controlling). Thus, the aspect of the event that is perceived as salient will determine level of autonomy and perceived competence experienced, and ultimately affect intrinsic motivation for that activity.”
– Thelma S. Horn, Advances in Sport Psychology

“Intrinsic motivation refers to the reason why we perform certain activities for inherent satisfaction or pleasure; you might say performing one of these activities in reinforcing in-and-of itself.”
– Lois V. Brown, Psychology of Motivation

“Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials.”
– Dennis Coon & John O. Mitterer, Psychology: A Journey

Your management development and coaching efforts require the incorporation of training methods to capitalize on intrinsic motivation for building a culture of engagement. While you may believe that managers can accomplish this process on their own without such a development, managers may tend to recognize intrinsic rewards in their own motivation instead managing them separately from their direct reports’ values. Managers who have been trained to their own values separately are more credible and effective in engagement.

If a company and it’s managers are able to implement a proper review system, or a continual improvement system that incorporates these social-norm focused changes into the relationship with employees, what should happen if those motivations and rewards didn’t work, or did work and the results weren’t what was envisioned? How should the failure and punishment be handled? We’ll take a look in the upcoming second part to this sub-series. 🙂