Frankenstein at Work

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.018 February 2003

There have been times my career as an IT manager when I felt my primary role was to motivate people. I wanted to bring out the best in them because people are the fundamental resource in IT. Their imagination and energy make everything work. Sometimes my attempts at motivating people seemed to work well, and sometimes it was a disaster.

My advice to managers, including me, is to take care when trying to motivate people. First, we may be playing God as the all-powerful manager capable of steering the lives of people. Sometimes when I tried to be the great motivator others saw me as a manipulator. They turned off and either left or did the bare minimum at work.

Second, when trying to motivate people, we should remember what Dr. Frankenstein learned; we have to live with our creation.

For example, I once worked in a signal processing laboratory. The lab's job was to receive data, process it, and pass the results to our customer. The lab had agreed to pass results within 24 hours of receiving data. This 24-hour rule drove everything in the lab.

The people in the lab were smart, dedicated, worked hard, and met the 24-hour rule the vast majority of the time. We lived and died by the clock. The living was obvious (data in - data out); the dying was not obvious, but it was present. People in the lab suffered a high rate of high blood pressure, alcoholism, and divorce.

The lab managers motivated people with every tick of the clock. As a result, the lab managers had to live with people whose lives hung on every tick of the clock. Whenever the clock slipped because of a technical problem, and those were inevitable, people burned with stress on the inside and screamed and cursed on the outside. The lab, although it succeeded in its mission, was a terrible place to work.

There are many other examples of motivation creating a monster. I can motivate people with money, but do I want to work with people who worship money? I can motivate people with recognition of their peers, but do I want to work with people who must be adored all the time? The same trouble can come from motivating with fear, guilt, competition, and others. Who wants to work with people who are afraid, guilty, and competing for everything all the time?

So now I am left with a problem. I want people who are motivated and have plenty of imagination and energy, but I don't want to create monsters. I suggest speaking honestly and plainly. Tell people about the difficulty with motivation and the importance of people performing their best.

One way to say this to another person is, "John, I have seen you do great things here. I want you to do well as often as possible. I don't always know how to provide an environment where that can happen. I would appreciate any suggestions and feedback you have."

I want to work with people who are motivated to do their best and I think most IT managers want the same. I believe it is wrong to think that I have the power to motivate others in a healthy manner much of the time. True motivation comes from the person. I can, however, work with the person to provide an environment that is conducive to that motivation.

Dwayne Phillips has worked as a software and systems engineer with the US government since 1980. He has written "The Software Project Manager's Handbook, Principles that Work at Work," IEEE Computer Society, 1998. He has a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from Louisiana State University.

Dr. Phillips can be reached at