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Happy People Still Quit

Why thinking that happy employees will never leave is not necessarily true, and what factors lead employees to quit.

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Twitter leads me to some interesting blog entries sometimes, and this time, it led to me to @rands’s entry entitled Shields Down, which appears to have the subtitle “Happy People Don’t Leave the Jobs They Love”. In it, he’s got some good discussion about being a manager and the realization that by the time of the exit interview, it’s already way too late for him to “save” his employee from leaving. Or that, in fact, it starts much, much earlier than that.

He begins by essentially pointing out that when you get that email from your friend, who says, “Hey, dude, you should totally come check out this place where I’m working right now” and you agree to it, your “shields are down”. This is his code-phrase for “you are now considering leaving your place of employment”.

Shields Down! Oh No!

Here’s my first disagreement with him:

Technology Employees Are Always Considering Leaving Their Place of Employment

Seriously. If you’re in this industry for any length of time, you’ve done the math, and realized that there’s far more jobs out there than people to fill them, particularly if you’re a programmer and have just a few precious years of experience under your belt–those with zero years have a harder time of it, for sure, but it’s still a lot easier than people with zero years of experience and an Ancient Languages degree, even if it’s a Master’s or something.

This is not a hard rationale to follow: These are highly analytical people we’re talking about, and they are fully capable of looking around and seeing their co-workers jump out of one thing and land into another. Couple with that the fact that most programmers are paid far better than anyone of equivalent experience in other industries–all the lawyers who are making six digits immediately within two years of graduation of law school, please raise your hand?–and you begin to realize that for the average tech employee, their shields were already down.

All that email from their buddy did is make them realize that there was maybe an option a little closer to home than they might have thought otherwise; all that means is that they are simply one step closer to a new gig than they thought they’d be, and they don’t even have to engage with a recruiter if they don’t want to.

(By the way, how incredibly arrogant is it of us as an industry to be all up in arms over recruiters calling us–dare I say pestering us–about finding a new job? Seriously, folks, sure, it’s a PITA when they’re spamming your Inbox, but it’s really no worse than Viagra ads, and FFS, quit being such primma donnas. You really want to be in an industry where there aren’t recruiters constantly chasing you? Go take up a job working in Ancient Languages for a while, or maybe Astronomy or some other academically-dominated field, where the ratio of jobs to candidates is like 1-to-10. You’re like the hot girl in high school who is constantly complaining to all of her friends how all these cute boys just won’t leave her a-LONE, for crying out loud. Cry me a river.)

The Algorithm of Job Switching +3, Vorpal Blade

Rands goes on to suggest that upon shields-down status, people start going through a pretty complex set of questions:

When you are indirectly asked to lower your shields, you immediately parse, place a value, and aggregate your opinions on the following:

  • Am I happy with my job?
  • Do I like my manager? My team?
  • Is this project I’m working on fulfilling?
  • Am I learning?
  • Am I respected?
  • Am I growing?
  • Do I feel fairly compensated?
  • Is this company/team going anywhere?
  • Do I believe in the vision?
  • Do I trust the leaders?

… you use that blend and ask yourself one final question as you consider lowering your shields. What has happened recently or in the past that either supports or detracts from what I value?

The answer to that question determines whether your shields stay up or go down.

Here’s the thing: that is a hell of a list to end up with an all-yes set of answers. Honestly, I don’t think there’s ever been a job, ever, that would yield a 100% “yes” rate. Particularly when we start with “Am I happy with my job?”; that’s sort of the roll-up question that is the sum total of all of the other answers. You’re happy with your job if you like your team, your manager, you’re doing fulfilling work, and so on.

Were I to take this checklist to anyone–and I do mean anyone–I suspect the answers will inevitably come to some percentage of “yes”, and some percentage of “no”. (And that’s assuming all of the answers are intrinsically binary, which I don’t really believe to be the case.) It’s like trying to go up against a windmill with a lance, or an orc trying to win a battle against a warrior (of any level) wielding a +3 longsword, vorpal blade.

When faced with such staggering odds, the answer is a foregone conclusion. So, again, employees’ shields are already down.

The Interrogation

He goes on to do the human thing: “Each time [a co-worker leaves] I work to understand two things: Why are they leaving? When did their shields go down?”

He points out that #1 is the smooth, practiced answers that they use to convince themselves that this is the right thing for them to do. But he wants to drill into the successor: When did their shields go down? What was the critical moment?

I can answer #2 for you. Matter of fact, I already have: their shields were always down.

What follows, though, is best left in his own words:

To find and understand this shields-down moment, I ask, “When did you start looking?” Often the answers are a vague, “It kind’a just happened. I wasn’t really looking. I’m really happy here.”

Bullshit.

If I’m sitting here talking with you it means two things: I don’t want you to leave and, to the best of my knowledge, you didn’t want to leave either but here you are leaving. It didn’t just happen. You chose. Maybe you weren’t looking, but once your shields dropped, you started looking. Happy people don’t leave jobs they love.

He’s spot-on with this assessment: you made a choice to interview somewhere else, you made a choice to evaluate their offer, you made a choice to accept the offer and all the “transitions” that are involved (changing your daily routine, changing your work friends, working to discover what the new lunch options are, and so on), so it didn’t “just kinda happen” any more than that Hollywood starlet “just kinda happened” to be naked in bed with her co-star while her boyfriend was a continent away. Choices are choices.

What sort of concerns me the most, though, is his conclusion:

The reason this reads cranky is because I, the leader of the humans, screwed up. Something in the construction of the team or the company nudged you at a critical moment. When that mail arrived gently asking you about coffee, you didn’t answer the way you answered the prior five similar mails with a brief, “Really happy here. Let’s get a drink some time!” You think you thought Hmmm… what the hell. It can’t hurt.

What you actually thought or realized was:

  • You know, I have no idea when I’m going to be a tech lead here.
  • Getting yelled at two days ago still stings.
  • I don’t believe a single thing senior leadership says.

Often you’ve forgotten this original thought in your subsequent intense job deliberations, but when I ask, when I dig, I usually find a basic values violation that dug in, stuck, and festered. Sometimes it’s a major values violation from months ago. Sometimes it’s a small violation that occurred at the worst possible time. In either case, your expectations of your company and your job were not met and when faced with opportunity elsewhere, you engaged.

Rands, I’m going to pop a bubble here for a second: It’s not you, man.

The Contract

When somebody comes to work for me, there’s an implicit–and I try to make it explicit–contract that we establish: You tell me what you want, and I will do everything in my power, within the boundaries of my authority and what’s practical for the company, to help you get it.

That first part is where things need to be more clear: you need to tell me. You want that tech lead promotion? OK, let’s talk about what that means, what skills you need to have in order to take that job, and what of those skills you currently lack or need to brush up on. More importantly, if we don’t have room for a new tech lead, no matter how badly you wnt it, no matter how skilled you are at being a tech lead, I can’t give you that promotion.

Shields down? Of course. So what? Employees’ shields are always down, remember? They were down yesterday, and the day before that.

(Don’t believe me? Quick, all you technical types: hands up if you’ve NEVER thought, “Damn, that guy from Vietnam made like a million dollars making Flappy Bird , and I’m still here writing code for the TPS reports. I wonder….“)

So your shields are down? Well, it is a Friday. So what?

Rands seems to treat this moment with fear, as something to be avoided.

I don’t fear that moment. Matter of fact, I personally embrace it.

Managing a Shields-down Team

I admit, I’m fairly new to this management thing. But there’s a few things I’m pretty sure about, and so far (2 years, and running) it’s worked out pretty well.

If the place for which I work doesn’t currently have the opportunities for you, then I think it’s my job as your manager–an individual who should be responsible for not just making sure you get your work done on time, but is also interested and responsible in your job and career growth–to help you find the challenges you want and/or need.

Yes, this means it’s my job as your manager to help you find something outside of the current workplace sometimes. Or, at the very least, not stand in your way.

Because, to be really blunt about it, I can’t do the kinds of constant scrutiny that Rands holds himself accountable for:

I’ve been here for three years and I’m looking for a change of scenery. It happens. Two months ago, someone told them their project was likely to be canceled. It wasn’t.

I have no idea what I as their manager was supposed to do: cancel the project anyway? The business makes decisions based on the business’ needs, not the needs of the individual contributors on those projects. Any business that didn’t make decisions that way would very quickly be out of business.

You know, I have no idea when I’m going to be a tech lead here. At the end of last month, she heard via the grapevine that she wasn’t going to be promoted. When she got the promotion she deserved, it was too late.

Did she ask about the promotion? Did she come to me and say, “Hey, Ted, I’m really interested in taking that tech lead role?” Did we discuss her current qualifications and how she could put herself into the best possible position to take it? Was I responsible for choosing who received that position? And did I communicate to her why she didn’t receive it, if she didn’t get it?

I’m in the enviable position right now of having a dozen people working for me, most of whom are easily tech leads. They’re sharp, they’re self-directed, they can see the forest for the trees, and I don’t have enough teams on which to make them all leads. We’ve rotated a few around, and we’re trying to grow the firm, but if one of them comes to me and says, “Dude, I am really ready to be a tech lead, and I won’t take no for an answer”, then the only option is to help them find that role, outside of the firm if need be.

Getting Yelled at Two Days Ago Still Stings

You know what? If I yelled at you, then yeah, that means something really went south. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll hold you accountable if you screw up, but there’s really no reason for any one adult human being to be yelling at another one unless somebody’s life is on the line. And if I didn’t come to you afterwards to apologize and clear the elephant out of the room, then that’s on me. I would like if you would come to me and say, “Hey, Ted? The other day, when things got a little heated, I thought you were a little harsh and I didn’t appreciate it” so we can sort that out, but that’s only going to happen if you’re comfortable doing so, and if you’re not, then our work relationship was already in jeopardy.

I Don’t Believe a Single Thing Senior Leadership Says

At the last All Hands, I blew off a question with a terse answer because I didn’t want to dignify gossip. I forgot there is signal even in gossip.

Rands, give yourself a pass here. Employees don’t reach that level of distrust based on one blow-off. (Not unless they were significantly cynical to begin with, anyway, which is its own problem.) If you have a continuous history of blowing people off, that’s another problem entirely. And they may trust you, but not your management–and there’s not a damn thing in the universe you can do about that.

More importantly, you can’t dignify gossip, but you can’t stop it, either. When I do a one-on-one with my folks, I even explicitly ask them, “Are there any myths, legends, lore or gossip you want me to confirm or deny?“, because employees talk, and I want to give them a chance to air that stuff out and get an answer from me. But, again, I’ll have my limits–sometimes I don’t know the answer, and sometimes I can’t say the answer. Case in point:

  • “Are we going to land that new client?” Frankly, I don’t know. Things may look good (or they may look bad, or they may not look like anything at all), but nothing’s a given until paper is signed. I’ll let you and everybody else know when I do. If you want my personal opinion, though, it sounds relatively positive (or negative, or the conversation went way south when they started talking bill rates in the pennies per hour, or…), but that’s just my opinion.
  • “What happened to Bob? Why isn’t he here anymore?” Ah, that’s an HR thing, and I can’t really comment on it, sorry. Suffice it to say we had an issue, and we (the leadership) felt it necessary to take that step. (Assuming Bob was fired, of course, and didn’t leave of his own accord.)

I’m a manager, not God.

The Contract, Redux

If you work for me, it’s simple: You tell me what makes you happy, and if I can make it happen for you, I will make it happen. But:

  • … you have to tell me. Ask my wife, I am not a very good mind reader.
  • … you have to accept that I am not a miracle worker. Giving you what you want has to be within the company’s and my boundaries to grant. I can’t let you work from home on a regular basis if we have needs that require you to be in the office (whatever those may be). I can’t get you onto a project using F# (no matter how much I may want to!) if we don’t have any projects that are using F#. I can’t get you a pony. I have my limitations.
  • … you have to keep up your end of the deal. We have Pluralsight subscriptions for all of our employees–you can’t tell me you don’t feel like you’re not getting enough learning in your job if you’re not taking advantage of that. Sorry.

And in return for all that, it is my job to:

  • Give you autonomy. I hired you because you’re a professional, and you’ll get the job done. So it’s my job to stay out of your way, until you need me to get into the fray and clear out an obstacle before you that you can’t clear out yourself (or would cost exponentially more to handle than if I did it).
  • Grow your competency. You’re not a fixed “resource” (Lord how I hate that word), you’re a human being, and no matter how competent you are currently, you can be better. Part of my job is to help you grow your own competency, even if it far surpasses my own.
  • Help you relate. You’re not an island, and you’re not a cog. You are part of a team of people working on a project, even if you’re working alone for a while. If you “fit” within the team, and the team is “connected”, that’s going to be a huge factor in your willingness to stay and contribute. If you don’t fit, then it’s my job to do what I can to help find a way for you to fit, whether that’s helping you adjust to the team, or helping the team adjust to you.

If I’m not doing these things, then I’ve broken my end of the contract, and you should be out looking for other places to work.

Discover the warning signs of DevOps Dysfunction and learn how to get back on the right track, brought to you in partnership with CA Technologies.

Topics:
jobs ,recruiters ,developer career

Published at DZone with permission of Ted Neward, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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