How to Build Happy Teams
Director of Engineering at Mapbox
Happy teams do better work. Happy people do better work. When people on my team are happy, I am happy. Likewise, their happiness reflects on how I feel.
Whether you are starting a team from scratch and bringing over people from different teams with their distinct cultures, or you are growing rapidly and hiring new people who could dilute the original culture, the team culture will inevitably change over time. As a manager, I encountered multiple times the same challenge: how to build -- or maintain -- a culture that embeds happiness and makes it a central piece.
Getting to know people
First and foremost, I would make an effort to get to know people well. I would create a space where everyone would feel equal and free to be who they are. In spite of our different roles and the hierarchy it entails, at the end of the day, we are all equal and our opinions, or how each of us feels, should have the same weight. To create that culture of equals, I would meet every person on the team, learn more about them and encourage them to be who they are.
One-on-ones, if run properly, can profoundly connect a manager with their team. One-on-one meetings should never be work check-ins. I would spend a significant time learning about who people on my team genuinely are -- what they do when they switch their laptops off. You need to get to know people and what they value in their lives to be able to understand what would make them happy. This was particularly important during the pandemic, where people suffered increased anxiety and distress. I experienced that firsthand since I have a family in India and have been worrying about their health and wellbeing ever since the pandemic hit.
Connecting with people
I invest a significant amount of time connecting with people through happy hours, coffee chats, birthday parties, etc. I would never cancel or opt-out of socializing events though they are mainly optional. Throughout all events, I would try to reinforce the culture of equals and make the atmosphere relaxed and supportive.
There is a simple indicator that, in my opinion, accurately shows if I am successful in my efforts. If people feel comfortable pulling my leg or cracking a joke about something I did, that means that I managed to create a safe and friendly environment. If someone can make fun of me, they can tell me I am wrong. If they can tell me I am wrong, we will be able to make the best decisions.
Connecting people on the team
Often, people get upset about things. In those moments, their happiness seems to wither away. Even minor things can start playing in their heads if we let them. What usually helps is talking with someone and having a more objective pair of eyes looking at the situation. Whenever I notice that someone is unhappy or upset, I would find them a peer with whom they can talk, confide in and discuss the problem. Otherwise, a person can continue building that narrative in their head, which can result in open conflict if externalized.
I would also intentionally create a space for people to vent. We work in a hectic, fast-paced environment where stress becomes a normal part of our life. In pre-pandemic times, people would walk to grab a coffee which was an opportunity to talk to other people and vent. I could notice how a lack of in-person interaction among team members was affecting the team’s happiness.
I take retros rather seriously and make them that place where people can vent, get angry, and say whatever they feel like. My maxim is: “I may not be able to solve your problem, but I want you to tell me what troubles you.” No one should hold back because I disagree with it or was unable to help in the past. We created a culture where people feel comfortable bringing their concerns up, discussing them, etc.
- Happy teams will make effective teams. Happiness is tightly knit to being empowered to speak up. On the other hand, when people are empowered to speak up and raise their concerns, we can rethink the existing plan or actions and together come up with a better solution. I think that happiness is rooted in trust. Trust allows people to be who they truly are; to disagree with their managers, speak up and share their silly ideas, etc.
- People make the team. Focus on people and make sure they are happy. You will not be able to create an environment for them to be happy and thrive if you don’t invest time to get to know them well. Learn who they are, not what they do on a team. I have low attrition on my team because people feel they belong to ‘a family’. Though I use the term figuratively, in reality, I spend more time with my team than with my family.
- Sometimes, people will need to vent, and disagreeing with you will be part of the package. Though you are a manager, you are also a human, and sometimes those disagreements could be taken personally. But, remember that while many grievances are directed at you, it’s only because you are perceived as a representative of a company.
- Listening to people and being genuinely interested in how they feel will create a unique bond. It is a social fabric and network of belonging that inspires people and makes them happy.
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Director of Engineering at Mapbox
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