much has been written about employee motivation and retention. it’s written by folks who actively use words like motivation and retention and generally don’t have a clue about the daily necessity of keeping your team professionally content because they’ve either never done the work or have forgotten how it’s done. these are the people who show up when your single best engineer casually and unexpectedly announces, “i’m quitting. i’m joining my good friend to found a start-up. this is my two weeks’ notice.”
you call on the motivation and retention police because you believe they can perform the legendary “diving save”. whether it’s hr or a well-intentioned manager with a distinguished title, these people scurry impressively. meetings that go long into the evening are instantly scheduled with the disenfranchised employee.
it’s an impressive show of force, and it sometimes works, but even if they stay, the damage has been done. they’ve quit, and when someone quits they are effectively saying, “i no longer believe in this company”. what’s worse is that what they were originally thinking was, “i’m bored”.
boredom is easier to fix than an absence of belief.
there are many reasons other than boredom that someone will quit. your company might suck or be headed towards suck. this person might randomly get an offer that fulfills their life’s dream. there is a bevy of unpredictable reasons that someone will leave, but boredom is an aspect of their daily professional life you can not only easily assess, but also fix. more importantly, boredom is not initially catastrophic. boredom shows up quietly and appears to pose no immediate threat. this makes it both easy to address and easy to ignore.
my three techniques for detecting boredom:
as i’ve reflected on the regrettable departures of folks i’ve managed, hindsight allows me to point to the moment the person changed. whether it was a detected subtle change or an outright declaration of their boredom, there was a clear sign that the work sitting in front of them was no longer interesting. and i ignored my observation. i assumed it was insignificant. he’s having a bad day. i assumed things would just get better. in reality, the boredom was a seed. what was “i’m bored” grew roots and became “i’m bored and why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?” and sprouted “i’m bored, i told my boss, and he… did nothing,” and finally bloomed into “i don’t want to work at a place where they don’t care if i’m bored.”
i think of boredom as a clock. every second that someone on my team is bored, a second passes on this clock. after some aggregated amount of seconds that varies for every person, they look at the time, throw up their arms, and quit.
a boredom plan of action
whether someone is bored or not, you always need to be able to answer two questions regarding each person on your team:
in your head, answers sound like this:
knowing the answers to these questions makes the rest easier, but if you don’t have answers, you can start figuring them out by:
exploration is hard to justify because it’s hard to measure. when exploration is complete, you often have nothing to hold up to your project manager to explain or justify the expenditure of time. here’s what you tell them, “my job isn’t just building product; i also build people.”
occasional stints on the latter are a good perspective reset for everyone on the team, but being left too long on “have to” work is a guarantee of eventual boredom. what isn’t obvious is that there are folks who aren’t going to complain because they believe the right thing to do is to take one for the team. they worry that that the act of complaining is tantamount to saying, “i don’t believe i should do shit work” or they’re simply wary of being accused of not being a team player.
we all get shit work, but it’s the responsibility of the guy or gal in charge to dole this work out fairly and consistently. that means they’re constantly aware and communicating to the person who is currently taking one for them, knowing how long they’ve been taking it, and when they’re going to be done.
a terrific way to accelerate the boredom clock is a promise of productive and creative time that is then taken away. in the heat of the moment, the ambiguous nature of their experiment makes the decision easy: get this urgent, unplanned task done or make progress on the unmeasurable? the only thing this decision teaches your team is how little you value the cultivation of your people.
there are two aspects of interesting work that equally fire up the nerd brain: the identification of interesting work and making progress on that work. and progress is not measured in interrupt-driven minutes, it’s blocks of delicious, uninterrupted hours.
don’t forget what it’s like to build a thing
this piece might read like i believe that engineering is some privileged artisan class and that i’m overly protective, and that is exactly what i believe. my gig is the care and feeding of engineers, and their productivity is my productivity. if they all leave, i have exactly no job.
part of your credibility as a leader is your public and repeated declaration that it’s your job to help your team succeed, but you have another task: you need to keep building stuff.
i’ve gone back and forth on whether managers should code and my opinion is: don’t stop coding. each week that passes where you don’t share the joy, despair, and discovery of software development is a week when you slowly forget what it means to be a software developer. over time it means you’ll have a harder time talking to engineers because you’ll forget how they think and how they become bored.