Let’s say you only have 5 minutes with one of your teammates to answer the question “How satisfied is this person with their job?” What do you ask and what do you look for?
Of course many readers immediately reject the premise at this point. I know – ideally you get more than 5 minutes for these kinds of checkins because you’re proactively scheduling skiplevels and other forms of soliciting feedback. Let’s just hypothetically assume that perhaps your planning and scheduling don’t quite go to plan. I know this definitely never happens to you but it certainly happens to me on a regular basis.
So what do you do with those five minutes? What do you look for?
The Trifecta of Job Satisfaction
When I have only a few moments to check in with someone, I look for indicators of what I consider the three pillars of job satisfaction:
In a deeper conversation like a skiplevel, there are many other things I look for about their career and their relationship with their manager. When I don’t have much time though, these three qualities are often a leading indicator of all sorts of problems.
I define utilization as “the mapping of your job to your skills and interests.” While this isn’t always the same as utilization from the business’ perspective, it’s a useful proxy to gauge how motivating an individual finds their work.
I list utilization first because the other pillars take a backseat when there are problems. If I value myself as a designer but most of what I do is backend coding, I won’t feel well-utilized regardless of how much I’m growing or making a difference.
Utilization can also swing too far in the other direction, feeling over utilized. This generally means someone has a work-life balance issue or has to juggle too many competing demands for their time at work. For most people this is just as serious a problem as under utilization.
If someone’s skills are well-utilized, the next pillar of satisfaction is growth, the rate at which they acquire more skills. This should be a key motivator for virtually all members of the team. If it isn’t, you have a deeper problem than someone’s satisfaction.
Growth is also a reasonable proxy measurement for challenge. This is particularly important for high-performers - they often report a lack of growth when they aren’t feeling appropriately challenged.
The last metric I look for is impact – whether they feel their work makes a difference. Even if you are growing and well-utilized, feeling like your work has no impact is a sure path towards burnout. The root causes of this can be everything from organizational communication problems to challenges outside of work. Finding an impact problem rarely presents an immediate solution, but it directs you where to keep digging.
Assessing impact can be particularly important for spotting burnout in newer engineering managers. These folks are often still coming to terms with the transition from maker to manager. They can feel like their new workload lacks the same visible impact as shipping code to production.
Digging into impact can also reveal problems even when someone believes their work makes a difference. Sometimes, an underperformer will still believe their work is making an outsized contribution. This is a sign that feedback mechanisms are broken - perhaps they aren’t getting enough feedback or aren’t interpreting it correctly.
I would hazard a completely unscientific guess that these three factors cover about 75% of the typical satisfaction problems in an engineering organization. The remaining 25% is a myriad of issues which are specific to the individual and the organization. Typically those are only uncovered by deeper conversations though.
In time you’ll find your own ways to dig into these pillars and perhaps come up with a different three. My set has evolved several times until I landed on the three here. Regardless, it’s important to have a consistent gauge for happiness and to make sure you have the opportunity to dig into each team member’s satisfaction whenever you can.