Social skill building, morale and wasting time/money

When I was in the army, I had a very strange conversation with my company commander. Somehow we got on the topic of whether officers had permission to shoot their own people. It was a very dark topic, for sure. My captain said that in battle, he would consider shooting a person from our Battery/Unit if that person was poisoning the morale of the team. He said that in battle, morale can be the difference between winning or losing (basically: living or dying, for our whole group). Morale was that important. In battle, he could not take the chance of one person getting everyone killed.

His words really stuck in my mind. I never thought that maintaining a good attitude could be a life or death choice. (Also, after that day, I was conscious about demonstrating a positive attitude around the Captain, more consistently. Heh).

Several years after I left the army, and I started my career as a programmer, I still thought about my captain’s words. I wondered if morale could have a relatively strong effect on other fields of work. I’m not implying that programming is anywhere as dangerous as being a soldier. However, on a much simpler level, I was still dealing with peoples’ lives. Only, it was more in the form of their careers and not actually any life-or-death situations.

As it turns-out, once you remove the battle portion of army leadership, morale still plays a pretty big role. In fact, it has a pretty big impact on any job anywhere. This seems especially true of people who rely on their thinking skills. I guess it makes sense: If somebody relies on his mind to do his job, you don’t want to do something to interfere with his mind. If his morale is low, his mind will be on his problems, instead of on his work. So monitoring this sort of thing should be a high priority for someone in charge of programmers (or similar jobs that rely on a person’s mind).

Unfortunately, monitoring the morale of developers can be a little difficult at times. I know you will be surprised to hear this, but, programmers tend to have a reputation for being under-socialized. Yes, it is true. Some of them are not the social butterflies that everyone imagines. If you ask them how they are feeling today, they will hum a little tune (Mmm-nnn-uuuh) which means “I don’t know”, or they will instinctively respond with “good” and then go back to being not-social.

Therein lies a problem: how do you monitor and perhaps influence the morale of people who are not accustomed to socializing?

Studies have shown some major benefits of socializing with your colleagues:

  • It can boost morale. Which, in-turn will result in
    * Better employee retention
    * More productivity (happy people are known to work harder)
  • Some people need to burn-off excess social energy. It is better to do it in a controlled manner.
    * More productivity (you have a chance to ration a period of un-productive time)
  • Team feels more connected, increases teamwork, problem solving
    * More productivity, because “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”

It seems ironic, doesn’t it, but socializing can result in higher productivity (indirectly).

So, maintaining morale is a pretty important thing, but it is hard to do sometimes. This means, maybe you have to try a little harder to get some people to socialize a little.

In stark contrast, people who are socially adept will notice that you are actually encouraging your team to socialize more, and they will think that you have lost your mind! “Why in the world would you try to get these thinker-folks to socialize?!” It is hard for some people to believe that geeks would benefit from (improvement of) skills that most people take for granted.

It does still present a slight challenge. After all, you want some socialization (to produce good morale), however, you don’t want things to get out of hand. Certainly, if you turn these programmers into a bunch of chatty-cathys, then your productivity is going to drop-off real quick.

How to keep a lid on it so you do not waste time/money

    • Set up socialization moments with limited timelines
      * Pre-meeting warm-up
      * Morale building events
      * Friday team lunch
    • Daily routes for monitoring morale
      * Identify a good time to interrupt. (Always be ready to postpone, if the person is deep-in-thought. Sometimes a person really needs that “library time”)
      * Periodic fly-bys. Say hi. See if the person is having trouble focusing.
      * Don’t be creepy or stalker-ish. If asked, be honest, but positive. This is beneficial.
    • If the work gets done in a reasonable amount of time, then it gets done. Call it a win. Not a BFD.

When you monitor the morale of some people, it will make them paranoid. “Why are you constantly checking-on me? Don’t you trust me?” Don’t fall for this bait by responding in a defensive manner. People only act paranoid like this when they need re-assurance. Just tell them:

      1. “Relax”
      2. “I know you are doing a good job”
      3. “I just stopped-by to say hi. This is what good team leaders and managers do”
      4. “Keep up the good work”

If the person is really paranoid, he will dig and fish for an indication that you are stalking him. Just remind him of the first 3 points and leave it as that. It may take a while to sink-in but eventually, he will catch-on and relax.

In the end, setting up some social time for your programmers will provide a genuine value. Deep inside, you know you would much rather work with people that you view as friends. Sure, you could go somewhere else and make more money, but you would rather be here, because you like this place a little more. It is partially due to the fact that you like your co-workers.

You may wonder, what if you have people on your team who do not care about having friends at work or forming social connections with their colleagues, (because maybe they are some kind of grumpy cat or something). This is fine. There really is nothing lost on them anyway. I guarantee that there are some other people who need this positivity and it is good for those people.

Be a good leader and encourage this kind of improvement in your team.  Help them develop better social skills. The benefits will be worth the effort.

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About Tim Golisch

I'm a geek. I do geeky things.
This entry was posted in Career, Professionalism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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