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How to Measure Happiness and Safety in Tech Teams

Sumudu Mathew
May 30, 2024
Read: 4 min

Software product development initiatives can go awry for a whole range of reasons. However, the main ones tend not to be technical at all. Rather, they are a result of the human factor, such as:

  • Inadequate planning
  • Lack of skilled resources at the right time
  • Unclear lines of communication
  • Conflicting priorities

The first people to know that the product development is going off the rails are the team members who are building the product. This is where timely, frequent feedback comes into play.

As a manager, you would want the team to share their concerns with you, so you can address any risks early on. However, team members are unlikely to share these if they are not happy and do not feel safe.

So, to be able to identify pitfalls, you first need to be able to measure happiness and safety in the tech team. This is the first step towards setting the foundations for trust and transparency in a dynamic product environment.

This article is going to help you start measuring happiness and safety among team members. It is also going to offer applicable tips for creating an open environment and building strong connections based on mutual trust.

A template for measuring happiness and safety

A common mistake that managers can make is only measuring the achievements of the team, focusing on features delivered or issues solved.

Happiness and safety, although closely related to productivity and motivation, remain challenging for managers to try to gauge. To help you with that, I am sharing a template I typically use with the product teams I manage in order to understand how team members feel.

Collecting feedback through this template is quite straightforward, and it usually takes less than 5 minutes to complete.

Check to measure happiness and safety in tech teams

Use a collaboration tool of your choice (e.g. Lucidspark, Miro, Mural) to create the simple template above. Explain to the team why you are conducting this exercise and emphasise that voting will be anonymous.

Before kicking off the voting session, make sure to explain each scale:

  • Safety scale: Measures the person’s willingness to have a discussion among the team. It is a reliable snapshot of how safe an individual feels at a particular moment;
  • Happiness scale: Equality simple where 5 means very happy and 1 means very unhappy.

Do feel free to adjust the above template, including the definitions of the scales, to better to suit your team’s circumstances.

Working with the findings

Once the voting is complete, have a look at the scores at both an individual level and a group level (average score), while also paying attention to the lowest and highest scores.

Happiness:

  • Score 4, 5: The individual is generally in very good spirits
  • Score 3: The individual is neither happy nor unhappy
  • Score 1, 2: The individual is not happy

Safety:

  • Score 4, 5: The individual is feeling very safe
  • Score 3: The individual is neither safe nor unsafe
  • Score 1, 2: The individual is not feeling safe

If you register scores of 3 or lower, point the team members to an escalation mechanism they can use. Such a mechanism might involve individuals raising their concerns:

  1. During a project retrospective (if the person feels safe);
  2. With the project lead, account principal, line manager, a senior manager or any person that they trust.

Best practices for measuring happiness and safety in teams

Safety and happiness measurements will vary over time, so it is good practice to record the numbers to see if there is a trend.

Below are a few best practices to consider:

  • Anonymous voting
    You will notice that the template explicitly indicates that voting is anonymous. Non-anonymised feedback, will compromise the authenticity of the results and prevent you from measuring the actual sentiment among team members.
  • Surveys
    In my view a survey is one of the worst ways to do this because typically there is a lack of trust associated with surveys plus surveys being generally considered as additional work for the team.
  • When to measure happiness and safety
    A team retrospective run at the end of iteration (every 1–4 weeks) is a great time to measure happiness and safety, but in my experience most retrospectives miss this opportunity.
  • Record average scores
    Safety and happiness levels are a crucial indicator of project health and team productivity. Hence, I recommend including these scores as part of a delivery KPI for senior leadership.

The Prime Directive

To maintain a high score for happiness and safety, leaders need to establish and reinforce trust and transparency within the team.

Feedback exercises and project retros could easily turn into blame games if managers fail to provide proper guidance and set a tone of trust and respect.

In his book Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews, Norm Kerth introduces the Prime Directive, a short message that leads can use at the start of an exercise to foster transparency and prevent blame culture.

The Prime Directive reads:

Regardless of what we discover, we must understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

— Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews

This is a simple tool that helps acknowledge the dynamic nature of the project or product and sets the right tone for retro.

I find it useful to display the Prime Directive on the team board or request a team member to read it out to promote engagement and equity.

Final word on how to measure happiness and safety in tech teams

In this article, I have shared a simple exercise that enables you to consistently glean insights into the well-being and satisfaction levels in your team. Understanding more about how team members feel will help you identify areas of improvement and address any concerns promptly.

When team members feel happy and safe, they are more likely to be engaged with the project and committed to their work. Happiness and safety improve creativity, collaboration and problem-solving, which, ultimately, are crucial for project success.

Further reading

 

Visit the Infinite Lambda Blog for more insightful content on running successful projects.

If you are looking for a partner for your cloud, data and AI project, reach out and tell us more about your objectives.

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