Startup Management and Labor Psychology

This post is part of a series written by Abhishek “Bobo” Bose-Kolanu on his Summer 2013 Duke SIP experience.

What makes a successful manager successful? Perhaps more ink has been spilled on this topic than any other in business literature, so here’s a perspective that’s slightly less traditional, and somewhat specific to startups.

Management for Entrepreneurs

The classic entrepreneur problem is as follows: I have no customers. I assume my customers are like me. I build something I like. No one uses it. I’m out of money.

Solution – frequent and often user testing. But why is this solution helpful? Because it helps you (the entrepreneur) get outside of your head, and into your potential customers’. Humans are ego-centric creatures by design. Introspection, problem solving, etc. all operate on this fundamental cleavage between self and world/other. It’s a strength (here’s where originality happens) and a weakness (here’s where blindness happens).

It’s also the lynchpin to effective people management in a startup.

Workers as Customers

You see, your workers are actually another kind of customer for your startup. They exchange their labor-power in return for something. As with other forms of work one major component of that exchange is financial compensation. But more so in startups than traditional business, workers choose to work in a startup because they believe in it.

Faith demands miracles. These miracles are different for different people: some enjoy working on extremely difficult problems, others seek significance in the concrete business objectives of the firm, some are strongly motivated by the drive to grow something from small to large. Every sufficiently motivated worker at a successful startup must experience their daily work as a miracle.

This is what sets apart the quality (and oftentimes quantity) of effort produced in successful startups’ workers.

Tying it Together

All this labor psychology helps clarify your role as effective manager in a startup. You must understand what each of your team member’s motivations is. Why do they come in to work, and why do they come in to work here?

Next, you must figure out how to best utilize that person so that their motivations are fueled by the work you ask of them. However, it would be a mistake to only give someone work they like to do. First of all this is likely not possible. Second of all, even if it is possible in the short-term, it is a poor utilization of resources, because it misses out on our next objective.

In addition to fueling an individual worker’s motivations, you must figure out how to divide and generate work in a manner such that their contributions fuel other workers’ motivations. In this fashion you can generate a virtuous cycle of cooperation in which an individual’s strengths cover others’ weaknesses, and motivational drives reinforce the overall motivation of the team unit with respect to work that needs to be done.

The Final Word – Pay Your Debts

Of course it is usually not possible to only ask people to do work they want to do. There are things that need to be done that most everyone agrees is tedious. Being aware of your workers’ core motivations will help you manage these emotional bank accounts. Each time you ask them to do something tedious you are debiting that account. And each time you pass a work unit that resonates with their core motivations you are crediting that account. Awareness in this area will allow you to give your workers what they want, and that helps drive business objectives forward.

Abhishek Bose-Kolanu, Summer 2013




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