How to not make your employees unhappy

Soul-crushing art: not actually a great way to keep people happy.
Soul-crushing art: not actually a great way to keep people happy.

It has become something of a cliché that people don’t leave their job, they leave their boss, and a recent article posted to Reddit corroborated this with a bit of research. I posted a comment stating that my own research supported this, insofar as I had found that management cannot make employees happy, but it can certainly contribute to unhappiness.

I received a lot of questions about the subject, so I thought I would write a brief blog post summarizing my thoughts. What it really comes down to, though, is that a really great boss can help keep someone motivated and happy who is already motivated and happy, but if someone is miserable, demotivated, and doesn’t want to be there, the greatest boss in the world isn’t going to make an unhappy person more happy.

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What to do when wandering around

Wandering around the office spaceManagement by wandering around is not a new concept. Some attributed its invention to Abraham Lincoln, and others to Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s. It has its own Wikipedia article, and who knows how many books written on the subject. Despite all of that, it often fails to yield benefits.

I really enjoy that Wikipedia states for management by wandering around that, “by random sampling of events or employee discussions, (it) is more likely to facilitate improvements to the morale, sense of organizational purpose, productivity and total quality management of the organization.” When was the last time your boss, by popping into your office or the floor space where you are working, suddenly improved your morale and sense of organizational purpose? Instead, I think we typically feel like somebody is trying to look over our shoulder, maybe wondering if are doing something wrong, and if nothing else it’s just distracting.

But there is a way to do this right. All we have to do is something other than just wandering around.

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Say what you’re going to do, then do it

trustcircleGaining people’s trust is not rocket science, and yet we human beings screw up continually when it comes to developing trust in relationships.

I was surprised the first time I was told that my colleagues respected me. I was working in Computer Services at Missouri State University, and I had a reputation for being a hardass. I’m the type of person who keeps his personal life separate from his work life, and when I’m at work, I tend to be focused. It didn’t help that it was a stressful job in a highly politicized environment, but my personality is such that I tend to be all business when at work, and I hold both myself and others to a very high standard.

Subsequently, I knew that some people didn’t like me much. But what I didn’t know was that, even though they didn’t like me, many did respect me, and they trusted me. They knew I wouldn’t lie to them about what I thought or what I could get done, and that if I told them something, I would stick by it. If I said I’d do something, I’d do it.

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Review of The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles Green, and Robert Galford

The Trusted AdvisorOn Tuesday of last week, I was exchanging some emails with a person who has done some awesome things in her career, and I asked her if there were any subjects or books she recommended I study. She wrote back that The Trusted Advisor had recently been recommended to her, and while she hadn’t gotten far into it yet, it might be worth taking a look. The book took only a few seconds to download on Kindle and only a few hours to read, and I think it was worth the time invested.

The three men who collaborated on this book write that the lessons they’re sharing were hard won through years of making mistakes and doing things the wrong way. They’re all very successful in their careers as speakers, advisors, and consultants, but they got that way by attending the school of hard knocks, and their book The Trusted Advisor is full of both great recommendations to help the reader avoid making those mistakes and also stories of how they offended or alienated people and lost business because of it. The combination of good advice with examples of what happens when you say the wrong thing is very effective.

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How do you build a friendship?

I was talking with April last night about how I build relationships with people, a conversation that began at my bi-weekly prayer meeting with Jonny and Matt. I’ve met some people lately and thought, “We should be friends,” but I don’t really know how to make that happen. I am not what you might call a naturally charismatic fellow. An easy rapport with others is an enigma to me. But I know some people who seem like they ought to be friends because we have lots of mutual friends as well as mutual interests.

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Proving Trust

We had a meeting yesterday of all the CUSS (Centralized User Support Specialists) in Computer Services, or at least of the CUSS who were here during that shift (which was probably around half). Currently, CUSS are divided into two groups: Microcomputer Support, who focus primarily on faculty/staff on campus, and Lab Supervisors, who focus primarily on the labs and student support. For a variety of reasons, there has been some tension and distrust between these two groups in the past. Such tension is beginning to wane, in my opinion, though it is certainly far from gone, and I feel that we are currently dealing more with the memories of that tension than with any individual’s specific frustrations. We are so used to having this tension that we imagine our problems are greater than they really are.

As I was getting ready for work this morning, I had a bowl of Cap’n Crunch for breakfast and thought that I might as well be having donuts since this cereal was so unhealthy. Since I’m on the Desk today (our call center), I wondered if Glen would be going over to get any. And my train of thought progressed through to the fact that I don’t have any cash, but that he’d probably offer to pay in that case.

Why is this significant? Well, it occurred to me that, at least for people like myself and Glen, we don’t particularly like people spending money on us, and that to let someone spend money on us indicates a certain level of trust and familiarity. If we all were going out to lunch, say to a place that only took cash, I doubt many of the lab supervisors would feel comfortable with me paying for them if I had cash and they had been unaware. Or if we mentioned it beforehand, they might elect to just not go. We don’t know the people on the other side of the division (Micro vs. Labs) as well as those within our own group. That trust hasn’t been established yet.

It’s both a trust of character and the knowledge that they’re not just mooching off of you, that they’ll pay you back or return the favour in kind someday. When you know that you can count on someone to do their job and do it well (thus enabling or helping you to do your job well), it helps you take those first steps to trusting someone.

Until we get the level of trust established where we can ask someone if they want a donut, buy it for them, and it’s not that big a deal, that tension is going to remain. This isn’t a department-level trust–buying donuts for the entire department isn’t the same–but a personal one. And that’s what we need, because at this time, we just don’t know each other well on a personal level or, as I’m beginning to think of it, on a donut level.

The solution, of course, is to spend more time working together and getting to know one another. But how that works practically, considering we’re spread across three physical buildings and three shifts, I’m not really certain of yet. I have some ideas, but like Kevin (our boss) said, it’s probably going to be on the ten year plan. Getting both groups trained to a decent level where we can understand the other side and establishing that trust will take time, and with all the other projects we have, unless we want to just throw the two groups together, it’s going to be a while. Of course, we could just throw the groups together, but as Kevin observed yesterday, it would be disastrous. Our service level would go to pot because we’d be too busy working out internal differences, and that is simply unacceptable. So, we’ll go more slowly, and in the end, it’ll be good.