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:
- Any noticeable change in daily routine. A decrease in productivity is a great early sign that something’s up, but what you are looking for is any change in their routine. Increased snark? Unexpected vacations? Later arrivals? Earlier departures? Anything that strikes you as out of the ordinary for someone whose day you are familiar with is worth considering. The root cause of this change may have nothing to do with boredom, and the best way is figure that out is…
- You ask, “Are you bored?” Even if you don’t have a gut feeling, it’s a good question to randomly ask your team. When I ask, I look you straight in the eyes and if you can’t stare me in the face and answer, I’m going to keep digging until you look me in the eye. Remember, the goal here is to discover boredom before they know it, and the act of a simple question might be just the mental impetus they need to see the early signs in themselves.
- They tell you. And you listen. You’d think that someone walking into your office and stating that they’re bored would set off all sorts of alarms in your head, but that’s because you’re halfway through this article wondering when I’m going to cut to the chase and explain how to fix bored people. The reality is that someone is going to tell you they’re bored quietly and when you least expect it. They’ll tell you halfway through your 1:1 and they won’t use the word bored. They’ll say something innocuous like, “…and I really don’t know what to do next,” and you’re going to blow right by the most important thing they’ve said in a while because you’re worried about your next meeting.
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:
- Where are they going?
- What are you currently doing to get them there?
In your head, answers sound like this:
- Francis wants to be a senior engineer and we’re getting him there by giving him increasingly more responsibility.
- Ronald wants to build his own company, so I’m going out of my way to include him the meetings where he can learn how the sausage is really made.
- Brooke has no idea what she wants to do, so I’m throwing curveballs at her until she hits a home run.
Knowing the answers to these questions makes the rest easier, but if you don’t have answers, you can start figuring them out by:
- Keeping an interesting problem squarely in front of them. Walk through your team right now and tell me the project they are working on that floats their boat. It doesn’t need to always be their main project, but there must be a piece of work on their plates that when they talk about it, their eyes light up. If their eyes aren’t lighting up, if there is no project in mind that will get them rambling endlessly, you…
- Let them experiment. Let them obsess. Let them scratch that itch. If there is no project on their plate that you know is engaging them, create time for them to explore whatever they want to obsess about. I absolutely guarantee there is an investigation somehow related to their work that they are dying to tinker with. The business justification for this wild-ass effort is likely not obvious, so I’ll define it: the act of exploration is as valuable as the act of building.
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.”
- They can only ‘take one for the team’ for so long. There are legitimate and frequent situations where someone needs to suck it up and dig into crap work for longer than they’d like. This is an inevitable function of teams of people working together — work becomes stratified by perceived importance. There’s no shit work when the work is all yours, there’s just work you like to do and work you have to do.
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.
- Protect their time. Embrace the ambiguity of their experiment. Agreeing to let them experiment and obsess about a fascinating project is only half the game. The business day is full of previously undiscovered “things to do”, and your knee-jerk response when you find this new, urgent piece of work is to saddle it on the guy who is working on… something. You don’t know what it is because he can barely describe it himself, so please handle this urgent task. I swear when you’re done you can get back to… whatever it is you’re doing.
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.
- Aggressively remove noise. In addition to previously undiscovered work, a daily set of distractions courtesy of exhausting people will pull your engineer away from their work. Random meetings, phone calls, interviews. These 30- to 60-minute tasks feel transactional and brief and there is no way you can fully remove a team member from them, but you manage them. Similar to crap work, it’s your job to evenly spread the load of daily noise across the team. More importantly, it’s your job to remember that productivity costs surrounding these micro-tasks aren’t just the 30 minutes necessary to get them done, it’s the context-switching tax involved in stopping their work, preparing for the task, doing the task, and then rebuilding the context regarding the work that floats their boat.
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.
- Tell them what the hell is going on. Much of the above activity implies that you’re paying attention, but your attention is only half the solution. The other half is regularly keeping folks in the loop regarding your thoughts. In terms of a low-cost means of keeping your team content, the simple act of saying, “I know where you want to be and I’m thinking about how to get you there” is a way to demonstrate you care about the growth of your team.
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.