Sign up ×
Programmers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development. It's 100% free.

So I work with a few people that I feel are intelligent but don't seem to be working out well. After working with them for a while I have seen the flashes of brilliance but mostly I see a reliance on others. What I mean by this is that most times it seems like at the first moment of trouble they go ask for help. Now personally I am all for helping and spend a significant portion of time helping others with whatever they need, but after helping others for so long I have noticed a disturbing trend.

These people seem terrified that they might make a mistake and because of this they don't try. So my question is how can I motivate someone who is afraid of making a mistake? In my career I have always learned the most by making mistakes and learning from them. Personally I feel that if I hadn't learned so much I would never have made it as far as I have.

So how can I get them to discover that they have the ability to figure it out themselves and that if they make a mistake and learn from it they will be better off. I feel that if I can discover some way to properly motivate them that we all will be better off.

share|improve this question

closed as primarily opinion-based by gnat, Bart van Ingen Schenau, MichaelT, Robert Harvey, Simon Dec 4 '13 at 19:54

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Are you most worried about them asking for help from you? from each other? or from sites like StackOverflow? – Ryan Hayes Feb 1 '11 at 4:17
I think he is more saddened by the lack of confidence they display in their own abilities and that they just cave in at the first sign of difficulty. – wildpeaks Feb 1 '11 at 4:22
This question appears to be off-topic because it is about workplace/management issue – Simon Dec 4 '13 at 19:54

10 Answers 10

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Ask them, "How can I help you be more productive?"

This has two purposes. The first purpose is to let them know that the conversation is not punitive, and that you really want them to succeed. The second is to find out if they really do have an answer to the question. They may be afraid of you. Or, it may be some other reason.

In any case, you must then clarify your expectations. That means that they must understand what their job is. Let them know that you are there to help them, but that it is ultimately their responsibility to get whatever knowledge they need to be a productive member of the team.

Make sure that they understand that mistakes are part of the learning process, that a certain amount of trial and error is to be expected, but that you also expect results. Give them the confidence to go "figure it out."

share|improve this answer
Make sure that they understand that you, and all applicable managers, understand that mistakes are part of the job. If any of them have been raked over the coals for making a normal mistake, they're going to be very loath to try again. – David Thornley Feb 8 '11 at 17:47

These people seem terrified that they might make a mistake and because of this they don't [even] try.

They lack courage because fear is blocking them. Fear is a great demotivator for experimentation and creativity which is the core of effective problem solving.

It's not about inspiring people, but rather remove what is stopping them. Inspiration comes by itself later, when it is safe.

The way to overcome fear is to build trust. You need to create an environment where people can trust that nothing bad comes from trying new things, where experimentation and failure is something to learn from. That's all there is to it really.

(I've written a bit about it here and here if it helps.)

share|improve this answer
+1: You nailed it. Great blog post about 'The Importance of Trust'. I've experienced precisely what you're speaking of, and you're absolutely right. When the software development equivalent of Harvard Business School comes along, you should write a case study about this subject. You articulated the ramifications of fear in software development very well. – Jim G. Feb 8 '11 at 18:32
Want more validation? Check out this podcast: // The second topic that Carl and Richard cover with the guest is - 'The Importance of Building a Culture of Trust'. Sound familiar? – Jim G. Sep 17 '12 at 17:18

I've found 2 particular things that are really helpful or completely detrimental to inspiring programmers.

  1. The Really Helpful One: everyone needs a mentor--someone that's better than you that you can learn from. These people are by their very nature inspiring if they are not the person I'm going to describe in #2.
  2. The Completely Detrimental One: programmers or managers that are always right. I've been That Guy before (and maybe still am), and it tends to crush innovation because everyone wants their ideas to be considered fairly based on merit, not crushed by the loudest guy in the room.
share|improve this answer
+1: Two equally great points. I think your point about 'The Completely Detrimental One' is often overlooked by software developers and software development shops alike. – Jim G. Feb 8 '11 at 18:33

Give them the opportunity to see mistakes from others and how you handle those mistakes. Give them your own code to review, debug and test.

Make clear that when a bug is found, the corrective action is to fix it, not to find out who is responsible. This was the very first lesson that I learned when I started to work.

Fail, fail again, fail better...

share|improve this answer

One thing I personally do is, never solve it for them ( never touch keyboard or mouse ) and ask them to write down the problem, and use lots of counter question.

share|improve this answer

You seem to assume that this is a motivation issue - that, perhaps, your teammates are not interested in doing the extra work, or lazy. Have you considered that this may be, instead, a self-confidence issue? This would be especially more likely if you're dealing with new and/or junior employees.

Perhaps you'll be better off by, instead of trying to motivate them and encourage them to try things on their own, giving them excessive positive feedback when they perform a job successfully, especially if they tried it on their own. Rather than thinking of it as encouragement to push harder, it might be useful to model it as changing the environment to be safer for taking risks.

share|improve this answer


At work right now I'm encouraging developers to ask for help at the first sign of trouble.

The intent is for individuals to leverage team knowledge and experience. They still have to do the work themselves. However, they should leverage other people's experience and knowledge whenever possible so they don't have to spend more time figuring out what someone already knows. This also helps to foster free flowing communication and technical dialectics. They also get their work done faster and they usually end up better educated on the issue.

share|improve this answer
Free flowing communication is important, but the OP's problem is that his devs don't believe in their abilities, not that they don't know the answers. – Matt Ellen Feb 1 '11 at 14:40
@Matt Ellen: Alternately, that the devs don't believe in their abilities to avoid getting called on the carpet for mistakes. – David Thornley Feb 8 '11 at 17:41

The core issue is the fear. Help someone overcome their fear and as a result they will be inspired and free. Just don't force it on them.

share|improve this answer

When your collegues ask for help, how do you help them? Do you just give them the solution to their problem? Then that's probably your answer.

It's generally better (but harder and more time-consuming) to help them solve their problem on their own. This can mean all kinds of things from "being the rubber ducky" to suggesting a good book about the subject (e.g. an algorithm book in the company library if someone's stuck in a problem that can be solved by a well-known algorithm). It can mean asking the right questions instead of giving the right answers. Or it can mean searching for the answer with them (googling, looking it up in a book, trying something in a throwaway program) although you know the answer already.

share|improve this answer

Give them responsibility. Make them their own boss and held them accountable for their work. Remember with With Great Power comes Great Responsibility

share|improve this answer
-1: This probably isn't applicable to the OP's problem. – Jim G. Feb 8 '11 at 18:36

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.