Managing with Dopamine in mind

How as a manager can you get the sort of immediate gratification that you gain as an IC?

Caedman Oakley
7 min readFeb 8, 2021


getty images :

This question has come up a lot recently, and the usual answer is “you will never ever feel that

But what exactly gives ICs that yummy, delicious dopamine drip, after all? It’s the visceral sense of satisfaction one gets from seeing a problem then solving the problem with their own two hands. There is a simple primal joy in the act of changing the world, as any baby knows. Is this thrill something managers are forbidden from experiencing, is there nothing managers can do that will give them a similar parallel thrill?

Certainly not. It just takes a bit more work to line up a steady rhythm of small triumphs for yourself to bask in. Let’s talk about how..

Managers, too, are trying to change the world. Their means of doing so is through the motivation, inspiration, guidance and education of their teams. The manager’s world is simultaneously grander and more removed from the ICs effects. Yet managers are responsible for their teams first and foremost.

This means they are quite often expected to behave as though they operate in a vacuum, even though they are operating at a wider organizational level. Their responsibility to and for their teams takes priority, but they are expected to be able to see “the big picture”. The sort of idea bouncing that happens with ICs doesn’t happen the same way for managers. It is hard for managers to do this ideation because they are generally concerned with the day to day achievement of the team’s goals.

ICs often get their gratification from solving specific problems, merging code, fixing issues etc. This is then supplemented by having ideas validated by peers, learning new techniques, and on occasion (far too rarely in Silicon Valley) receiving praise from leaders/managers. ICs operating entirely on their own, without teams or peers, can still get this dopamine hit — they are still working on problems. Managers can’t get that same hit. Their rewards come over much longer periods of time — a project coming to fruition, a team achieving their 6-monthly goal etc.

Clearly then, the answer should be something like “stop keeping things to yourself, Manager!”. And that is very difficult to do as we have already outlined. A successful managerial team culture allows managers to bounce ideas, get feedback and rewards for the various things they do. And this starts with each manager. The dopamine hit as a manager comes from the exact same stimulus as an IC — it is a response to successfully changing the world. My own personal experience of this is that when I have validation of my ideas, or acceptance of a change, or even the agreement to a meeting about CI/CD, I get happy. I get that dopamine hit.

It is hard for a manager to look at another manager and just say “hey — I noticed that Anne is more engaged than before” or “that project really went well” or “it seems that collaboration between our teams on that last task was great”. Mostly because we, as managers, are consistently scrutinized and asked to adjust because of business needs. This means that feedback usually comes across as criticism or second guessing. Praise often sounds like a backhanded insult of how the manager was managing their team before!

As an IC, not only is the validation direct and concrete, but a good manager will also point out things to improve and things that have gone well. This affirmation, validation, and education from a manager is as important as the recurrent feedback from the code. How often have you heard someone say “YES!” under their breath when working on code, or berate themselves for making simple mistakes? Now ask the same question for managers.

It’s a very different answer, no?

So, as a manager how do you :
a) provide that validation to your peers?
b) get that validation during your regular job?
c) find other places for that validation?

a) is the easy (coff) piece.
It’s easy because it just takes open-ness and vulnerability. It is literally the embodiment of “be the change you want to see in the world” (side note : not a quote by Gandhi!). It’s hard because it revolves around open-ness and vulnerability, and it will be taken the wrong way.

Take time out every day to recognise the work that your colleagues are doing and provide some feedback to your peers. Open, vulnerable and transparent feedback. And ask for honest feedback on your own achievements. Know that this won’t be an instant fix, it is part of changing the culture around you. This allows managers to be able to collaborate not only on projects, but also validating each other. A key to this is setting up triad meetings where it isn’t just 1:1 with another manager, but rather 3 people working to define outcomes. (See Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan and John King)

b) is much harder.
It is important to take time to recognise your own achievements, and look at how they come through. As a manager you have specific things that you do: presentations, standups, project plans, 1:1s, goals, etc. etc. etc. The status of each of these is a drip of dopamine.

As an example, creating a good presentation is a drip, seeing a DORA metric uptick is a drip, noting all the achieved tickets in standup is a drip …

This is your self validation — and is the thing that will keep you happy with how you feel you are doing.

Getting validation from your superiors is of course much harder. One thing that has worked for various managers is clearly setting agendas of 1:1 meetings. Lead these the same way as you expect your team 1:1s to be employee led. You are the employee. Present your achievements, ask for feedback and focus on the outcome of the meeting. It’s really easy in 1:1 meetings to fall into statusreportland. I did this last week and I will do this next week… Making it much more reflective is a boon to yourself and your manager.

This week the team achieved X, which I had instigated 3 weeks ago. I made sure that we worked with team Y and while my team did have some stumbles, the benefit to the business is Z and team member P really delivered on our 1:1 goal of being more open.

The end result of this reflection is that your manager has insight into how you work, how you run your team and who you collaborate with. They can then offer guidance rather than criticism.

Managers that approach their own 1:1s like this do not typically receive what the film industry likes to call “Notes”. Rather they receive mentorship and guidance. Gone are the days of “focus on Robert and Jane. Deliver Q. You need to give me a plan of X”. This approach to upper managed 1:1s results in “Is there anything that you need from me, I know that Q is coming down the pike, can I help?” and more importantly, because you are continually reflecting, things like planning are communicated in multiple ways — the plan, the team meeting, the 1:1, the self reflection, the kudo to the peer…. This greases the wheels of the org so that your initiatives can be worked on appropriately.

c) Self-validation can be even more difficult, but is at least as important; it involves honest recognition of your own work.
Once you have got past the need for validation from your manager, and are earning their guidance, it is really important to find external validation again.

For me (and from what I can tell it is different for each person) it isn’t enough to get this from hobbies. Rather, the validation has to come from what I read and interact with in my industry. Working on something that I have defined, and seeing that someone else is doing it somewhere else becomes a source of that dopamine drip. I might not get to be the conference speaker that talks about the latest and greatest. But if you are like me, you will probably notice that others are doing the same thing as you. You might see it as the zeitgeist, but in fact being on the pulse of things *is* where you get that validation from.

Twitter is really good for this, it allows me to see how the industry is changing, and whether the things that I adopt are valid in different companies. When a twitterato mentions something that you are doing, without even mentioning you or your company or even knowing that you exist that is a dopamine hit. The dopamine comes from the recognition that you are going in the right direction.

Setting all these different mechanisms up is undoubtedly difficult. And it is very easy to get sucked into the day to day tactical. But the same is true for ICs. The same is true for CTOs, CEOs and whatever role you find yourself in.

Thanks to Charity Majors for the article that inspired, and the further input, text, and idea bouncing that helped bring this post to fruition.



Caedman Oakley

I've been messing around with this DevOps thing for a while & like making cross-functional teams just kinda work right. Oh, and I like dogs. Sorry.