Sometimes I have to work with a particular colleague on my team; the problem is, in my opinion, that he takes his work too lightly. When I start a job, I commit to it and want to meet my deadlines and provide a decent product (I'm a programmer).

My colleague just wants to make it work, but doesn't think about maintainability, documentation, etc. I feel like his attitude might affect our project and is the basis for some frustration.

How do I motivate him? How do I bring up that I don't like the way we are working at the moment?

  • So you're concerned about his motivation to make a good product, but he is getting his work done on time? It's an issue of the depth of his work then?
    – Rarity
    Apr 10, 2012 at 21:14
  • Since this is a team project I assume others have to read his code, right? Does anyone else maintain it? This is partly a matter of teamwork too.
    – Rarity
    Apr 10, 2012 at 21:50
  • Not yet, it's going to be done in a few weeks. Apr 10, 2012 at 21:52
  • The program works, so any additional effort is politically founded. In other words you need the organization to demand the extra work be a required part of any delivery. Jun 4, 2013 at 9:54

4 Answers 4


Make it less about the work ethic (real or perceived), and make it about the task at hand, deliverables, and making sure the work meets your expectations. In order to do that, you'll need to communicate your expectations, from timelines to quality, to whatever else are the important criteria for you. These things take time and dedicated training.

You've identified the problem (the perceived gap in delivery quality, based on a set of criteria). Simply pointing it out to the other person won't fix it - you have to be clear when expectations are met, exceeded, and left wanting. Humans are pattern-matching creatures - co-workers generally pick up on things when the goals are well defined.

I could probably point you toward some more specific resources, if you want to be more specific about the kinds of challenges you're having with this individual. Quality/speed/delivery issues are common, but rather broad, and as a result, difficult to answer with a "silver bullet" approach. You really need to dig into the specifics if you want to make a lasting, and high-quality change in the people around you.

  • I think you mostly got it. You have to be concrete about what's wrong with the work he's turning out, because he seriously may not get it otherwise.
    – bobobobo
    Mar 5, 2013 at 22:19

Far more important than trying to motivate people is help them by removing the barriers to them motivating themselves.

The reason for this is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

From the Wikipedia page:

Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on any external pressure.

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of the individual. Common extrinsic motivations are rewards like money and grades, coercion and threat of punishment. Competition is in general extrinsic because it encourages the performer to win and beat others, not to enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the activity. A crowd cheering on the individual and trophies are also extrinsic incentives.

According to research, intrinsic motivators are much more powerful than extrinsic motivators:

At lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, such as physiological needs, money is a motivator, however it tends to have a motivating effect on staff that lasts only for a short period (in accordance with Herzberg's two-factor model of motivation).

At higher levels of the hierarchy, praise, respect, recognition, empowerment and a sense of belonging are far more powerful motivators than money

Now while there is little evidence of Maslow's hierarchy itself, it is a useful hook when describing intrinsic verses extinsic motivators.

The surprising thing that comes out of the research though, is that providing extrinsic motivators can actually reduce or remove the intrinsic motivators:

Social psychological research has indicated that extrinsic rewards can lead to overjustification and a subsequent reduction in intrinsic motivation. In one study demonstrating this effect, children who expected to be (and were) rewarded with a ribbon and a gold star for drawing pictures spent less time playing with the drawing materials in subsequent observations than children who were assigned to an unexpected reward condition and to children who received no extrinsic reward.1

  1. Undermining Children’s Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Reward; A Test of ‘Overjustification’ Hypothesis, Lepper, Greene & Nisbett.

Thus, in general it is far more effective to remove barriers intrinsic motivation than it is to try an increase extrinsic motivators. This was the essence of many elements of both DeMarco & Lister's Peopleware and Fred Brooks' The Mythical Man-Month. These should be considered essential reading for any manager of software engineers, but could also help managers of other knowledge workers.

For more information, I would highly recommend this animation of one of Daniel Pink's talks on his book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us".*

  • To be fair, behavioral psychology would have it that you shouldn't tell the children in advance that they are to receive the ribbon for drawing pictures, but just do it. Over several trials, this should increase incidence of drawing. The study violated the tenets of behavior modification, so it is not surprising it produced those results. Mar 4, 2013 at 18:13
  • @AmyBlankenship - But that's precisely what they did. The study compared a group children who were told about the reward, a group children who were given no reward and a group children who were given an unexpected reward. I'll add a ref for the paper.
    – Mark Booth
    Mar 5, 2013 at 10:50
  • I hope you're not basing this conclusion on an article abstract.
    – user8365
    Mar 5, 2013 at 16:42
  • @JeffO - I'm not a social scientist, so I don't know how much acceptable methodology has changed since '72, but the paper does appear to deal with Amy's point. Also, the results (table 1) do seem to match up with the assertion in the abstract, but I would be happy to edit into my answer any criticism you (or Amy) may have of the paper cited. By the way the quote is from the Wikipedia page I referenced earlier in my answer.
    – Mark Booth
    Mar 5, 2013 at 19:43

From what I can tell, it doesn't sound like your coworker is unmotivated or taking his work lightly, let alone that he doesn't want to meet deadlines or provide a decent product - he simply has a different idea of what that task includes than you do. ("My colleague just wants to make it work, but doesn't think about maintainability, documentation etc.") This is a conversation you should probably have with him, but I don't think it will go very well if you come off as judgemental. Just phrase it as a disagreement on the best way to accomplish the tasks, and discuss it from a practical standpoint - how to satisfy the project requirements, what's easier when the whole team works on the code, what makes it easier to find bugs, etc - rather than getting involved in questions like who is or isn't properly motivated or taking the work seriously, which will only make it more difficult to accomplish anything.

Another possibility would be to take this up with management. What are their standards for maintainability, documentation, etc? If they don't have any, can you convince them to set some?

Talk to the rest of the team, too. How do they feel about the quality of his work? Have any of them tried to talk to him about it already, and if so, how did it go? You'll be in a much better position when it's not just you against him, but trying to agree on some team standards.


I see this as a problem with your company structure on the first place, not a problem with your colleague.

The structure of your company obviously does not give you the freedom to decide who to work with. Moreover, if the situation is really the way you describe it, this restriction comes as a disadvantage to the company itself.

From this point of view you could: a) ask your managers to change their policies so next time you choose your partner on a project or receive a budget to hire one yourself;


b) talk with your colleague about your standards of performance in a calm and constructive manner. Then proceed work and never fret if your colleague doesn't keep up to those standard. Ask for salary increase instead and do your part of the job top-notch and never care for the quality of the final product solely within the scope of your particular work. The rationale is that if your bosses insist on holding the power to decide who works with who, then, your professionalism should come at a price, given that they are actually sabotaging it.

  • 1
    Am I reading this right? The options you suggest are: Choose who you work with, or ask for a raise if you don't get to choose? I don't see that going over well in most places.
    – GreenMatt
    Mar 5, 2013 at 14:48
  • I started to agree with the company problem, but I don't think not being able to choose a capapble programmer to work with, but why is an incapable developer still with the company? Or maybe the Op's expectations and standards are higher than the company's?
    – user8365
    Mar 5, 2013 at 16:54
  • @GreenMatt - you are right with one small amendment - "ask for a raise if you don't get to choose someone better than the one you currently have to work with" If I were in a perfectly selected team I wouldn't ask for a raise. The great team by itself would be an exceptional benefit. But if they were making me work with somebody mediocre, I would definitely seek a compensation for my extra efforts being put into an environment of low effort.
    – drabsv
    Mar 6, 2013 at 15:44
  • 1
    A boss won't always be able to let you choose with whom you work because the organization may only have you and one other person with the expertise to do a particular job. Giving you a raise to get you to work with someone you prefer to avoid will open the org up to the same demands from everybody. The guy who you think is an unprofessional corner-cutter may think you're arrogant and more concerned about following dogma than getting the job done, so he'll want a raise. Also, will you give up that raise when the project is over and you don't have to work with the undesirable person anymore?
    – GreenMatt
    Mar 7, 2013 at 18:29
  • 1
    I certainly would not long retain an employee with this attitude. Everyone has to sometimes work with people they would rather not. Anyone who wants a raise for that is a prima donna who my organization would be better off not employing. And likely that person is not nearly as valuable as they think they are.
    – HLGEM
    Mar 10, 2014 at 21:08

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