Tips for managing technical people: How to make people happy
15 January 2015, by Zoe Cunningham
The following is an excerpt from my new book, “Galvanizing the Geeks – Tips for Managing Technical People”. You can buy the full book on my website, here.
With the advent of modern management techniques, we understand that happy and engaged employees do better work and stick around for longer. Of course, it’s not always easy to make this happen. Sometimes, ensuring that every single member of your team is happy can appear to be in conflict with your other responsibilities, such as delivering a great service and making the bottom line add up. But it doesn’t have to be.
First let’s consider what we mean by ‘happiness’ in this context. I would suggest you’re looking to engender the following types of happiness in your employees:
- A feeling of belonging
- A sense of being respected
- Challenging and fulfilling work
- A career plan that means that the work you are doing now will lead to personal development and the ability to meet your goals in the future
This is not an exhaustive list, but it illustrates the kind of happiness that I’m talking about. Thinking of happiness in this way, you can see that the real value of freely available chocolate biscuits and access to fussball and other amenities is not in the short-term pleasure that people get from engaging with them; they are valuable because they are evidence that employees’ happiness is valued, and that they are respected enough to be allowed to manage their own time.
So how to achieve this ultimate state of happiness? The high-level answer is simple: you need to find out what people want, and you need to provide it. The useful answer is a lot more complicated. The distinction between short-term gratification and longer-term happiness is not always apparent to everyone. The classic example – which will be recognised by anyone who has tried to lose weight or just to keep healthy – is the difficulty in deciding between the food you want to eat now and the bodyshape and lifestyle you want later on.
Simply asking people what would make them happy, or happier, is likely to elicit short-term happiness responses. Instead you need to engage with what they really want to get out of life, and find out how much of that you can help them to achieve within your organisation. I won’t pretend that you won’t sometimes end up shooting yourself in the foot this way: helping people to achieve their dreams may mean that you help them to be somewhere other than your organisation. I think that this is an acceptable trade-off in return for committed, engaged and happy staff, and for a great incentive to retention for everyone else.
When I’ve stayed with an organisation for a long time, it has been precisely because I have continued to have the opportunity to learn. When I’ve been learning skills that make me very valuable in the marketplace, this has increased my ability to jump ship and work somewhere else. But a learning culture and great environment removes incentives to leave as long as I’m continuing to learn – and enjoying myself while I do so!