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Managing for Happiness: Tips to Run a Productive Engineering Team

by Gábor Zöld / November 25, 2020
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Managing for Happiness: Tips to Run a Productive Engineering Team - Interview with Jurgen Appelo (Leadership Speaker, Writer)

Managing for happiness is essential for great leaders.

In the software industry, everything depends on the quality of work your engineers deliver. Happier employees are more productive, and they’re more likely to stick around, so they will take you to more success.

How do you manage for happiness in a software engineering company?

You want to build trust. You want to have fun. You need to get to know each other.

None of this is easy, and there is no uniform solution for doing this.

This is why we bring you insight from an expert, Jurgen Appelo. He’s a leadership speaker, writer, entrepreneur, and currently the owner of Happy Melly. This interview is from episode #32 of the Level-up Engineering podcast, hosted by Karolina Toth.

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About Jurgen Appelo

Jurgen Appelo is passionate about management and leadership. He speaks at conferences about managing for happiness, and he’s even written books about it.

Currently, his focus is innovation and business agility. He believes this is the area organizations need the most help with, which also comes down to improving management and leadership practices.

What is the connection between happiness and performance?

Jurgen 01

Research shows that happiness correlates with high performance and that it goes both ways.

Happier people are more productive because they don't mind putting in extra effort, which is caused by love for their work. They enjoy being around their colleagues, and they have a purpose to strive for in the organization.

When the organization is successful, the people working there are happier. When a company makes progress, employees see that their work has an impact, which makes them happier and more productive. It’s a virtuous circle.

Happiness leads to success and productivity; at the same time, success and productivity lead to happiness.

Software Development Trends Report

What are the prerequisites for a high-performing team?

Jurgen 02

The most essential prerequisite for high performance is trust. It should be easy to discuss things with your colleagues.

Psychological safety is essential. There should be no fear of failure, so aim to create an environment where it’s okay to take risks and experiment. You have to understand that most experiments fail, but any success may turn into a big win.

If you lack the experimental mindset on your team, you will barely learn anything, and learning is closely linked with success.

How do you create a company culture based on experimentation?

Jurgen 03

Everyone has a natural amount of curiosity, just look at any kid. Some are more fearless, others are more risk-averse, but every kid pushes buttons to see what they do. Curiosity, experimentation, and play are important for everyone.

Companies don’t appreciate experimentation

It’s often beaten out of people because organizations often don’t appreciate risk-taking and exploration. They often don’t have good engineering managers. 

Side note: Jurgen wrote a book about developing better leaders and leading developers. If you want to dig deeper in the topic, check it out here.

Find the source of the problem

You need to find where the risk aversion of employees comes from. If they're not willing to test new things, it’s usually because of the company culture. It’s a good idea to start rewarding experiments.

Engineering managers can do much in order to inspire and motivate their team members. It’s a famous quote that people don't quit organizations, they quit their managers. Managers are responsible for the atmosphere and environment in and around their team.

Reward exploration

Create a software engineer career ladder, where the performance reviews and the compensation system reward learning, not only success. If you focus on rewarding success, people will follow the safe paths. Nine out of ten experiments fail, so people won’t bother experimenting if they’re not appreciated for what they’ve learned from them.

People do what they are rewarded for. If they’re rewarded for producing widgets, they will create as many widgets as possible, and let someone else deal with experiments. This is a problem in many companies.

How can engineering managers best understand their team’s needs for happiness?

Jurgen 04

Use Moving Motivators

A popular practice is doing an exercise with the moving motivators. It’s about figuring out the motivation for a team member, which could be anything from mastery, curiosity, or power. I borrowed from the self-determination research of Richard Ryan, and from Daniel Pink’s book on the topic of motivation.

You put all the motivation cards on the table and ask your report to put them in order from least important to most important. It's difficult for people to articulate their motivations. It’s a lot easier to put colorful cards in an order they feel right, and you can share your interpretations of the cards afterwards.

This gives the observer some insight into how a person is feeling. It's a great exercise to do with your reports at one-on-one meetings. Team members can use it too as a collaborative exercise, to understand how their peers are wired.

Know that everybody is different

We're all different, and we need to be aware of that. It’s dangerous to think that everyone has similar motivations to you, because that’s not the case. Freedom is my most important motivation, so I’ve always implicitly assumed that it’s the same for everyone else.

I had to realize that’s not the case. Some people value relatedness over freedom. Working on a team with friends and colleagues is more important for them than freedom.

Are surveys a good method to measure happiness in your engineering team?

Jurgen 05

Surveys are sketchy

I have no positive experiences with surveys. HR departments tend to use them, and they heavily overestimate their value. Surveys are easy to set up and send around, but the price for that is low engagement.

Get to know your team

It's far more productive to chat with people personally.

That doesn’t scale up well, while you can send a survey to a thousand people. You shouldn’t take the survey results too seriously, however, because people are busy, and they just want to get them over with.

You can have your team members do the moving motivator exercise with each other. Asking them to do this will give you all relevant and interesting insight about each other. It also adds a 360 aspect to the process, rather than delivering results exclusively to HR.

What's the process of building a management system for happiness?

Jurgen 06

No uniform process

There isn’t one process to manage for happiness.

The best way is to think outside the box and to do the things you enjoy and others might enjoy as well. Here are some examples of what I did as an engineering manager:

  • I invited people for dinner at my house and surprised them with the fact that we would cook together.

  • I put a bell in the office, so anyone could ring it when something interesting happened or when they wanted to celebrate.

  • I used lunchtime to share vacation photos with each other. I started with my own photos to get it going, and it ended up with a whole week of everyone enjoying each other’s photos.

It's about these simple things.

It would be silly to tell everyone to dedicate their lunch sessions to sharing vacation photos. But these kinds of things sent the signal that I wasn’t the same as other engineering managers. We had fun, and that made the serious stuff like SCRUM, Agile, and work in general easier to discuss.

Software Development Trends Report

Start simple

I started with non-threatening, enjoyable stuff. Soon after, my employees also came up with their own suggestions.

I loved the game nights my people organized occasionally on Fridays. We stayed after office hours and played computer games, board games, and card games. It was just dozens of people hanging out, enjoying playing games and each other's company.

It started with one person coming up with the idea, and the company backed it up with ordering pizzas and soda.

Test ideas

One of the seven silver bullets for management is running experiments. You need to test different things. Many will fail, and others will work for a while but eventually stop working.

You’ll only get it right by trying.

Signs of a happy engineering team

Jurgen 07

You can’t measure happiness, but there are signs you can observe. Workplace satisfaction surveys ask about goals and relationships with colleagues beyond just asking about happiness. You can look at these areas yourself.

1. Human connections

An engineering manager or leader should look for simple things. A telltale sign might be to see if your team members talk to each other about anything other than work. It could be their kids, vacations, or even the COVID-19 crisis; the point is to see if there is a human connection.

2. Work attitude

Look at their attitude towards work. They may strictly stick to working from nine to five, or they may be open to get something done at any time of the day because they enjoy it. They need to respect their own work-life balance and avoid burning out, but I personally don't mind doing my work at any time of the day.

3. Social happenings

When employees come up with the idea for a game night and stay after office hours to play, that’s a good sign. If the team was unhappy, nobody would want to stay after hours to hang out with each other and play games.

How can companies engage employees to take action for their own happiness?

Jurgen 08

It has to happen organically

It’s the wrong approach to have HR organize social events. When you lack psychological safety, your engineering culture won’t change by simply organizing a game night. These ideas need to come from the employees.

At my company, the employees came up with the idea of getting a foosball table. They picked the one they wanted, paid for it, and the company later subsidized it. Their own idea and desire led them to take action.

This is the type of behavior you’re looking for. My team enjoyed being in the office, they enjoyed having lunch together, and they wanted to further enhance it. They took action because they felt good.

HR should focus on creating psychological safety with trust, compensation, and rewards for the things the team celebrates. You should reward learning, not only progress. Even when you fail, you can celebrate what you’ve learned.

When HR tries to make the company joyful, it becomes insincere, and people can always tell the difference. It’s hard to make it happen in an authentic way, but it’s essential for a happy workplace.

Negative example

I’ve been at a company where the leadership organized Friday afternoon drinks to make the workplace atmosphere more enjoyable for everyone. At the same time, leaders and HR sent out performance appraisal forms for everyone to report back to HR what they didn’t like about working with the others. This created distrust among employees.

Knowing that your colleagues report about you to HR destroys the psychological safety and any existing trust on the team. After this, only the managers showed up to the Friday drink nights. Whatever you do to promote it, under these circumstances, everyone finds better things to do than to hang out in the office.

Start small

It’s useful to understand the organization for a more holistic picture before you take action. At the same time, your responsibility and influence only extend so far. Engineering managers or even directors can’t change an entire company.

You have to start where you are and lead by example. When I was an engineering manager, I started doing silly things to build trust. You don't need permission from HR to have a wacky team dinner or to show each other vacation photos.

You can do this at the team level. Even if the rest of the organization has a bad culture, you can make work fun for your team. Once you start changing things, others will see your results, and start picking up your habits.

Here are some ideas:

  • Start a book club
  • Go out with colleagues for coffee
  • Organize game nights
  • Share vacation photos and stories

Reward initiatives

You should reward this type of initiative. Even when it comes to performance reviews, it’s worth noting if an employee put effort into starting a book club or organizing a community event. Whether the reward translates to compensation and promotion is up to each leader individually.

It has happened that employees came to me about starting a community practice. My answer, in this case, is a compliment for the initiative, and I tell them that they don’t need my permission; they can just do things like this. Often the most valuable employees tend to come up with these ideas.

What You Should Do Now

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About the author:

Gabor Zold is a content marketer and tech writer, focusing on software development technologies and engineering management. He has extensive knowledge about engineering management-related topics and has been doing interviews with accomplished tech leaders for years. He is the audio wizard of the Level-up Engineering podcast.