Unhappiest day of the year

Like many organisations, SEEK has a performance appraisal process which culminates in an end of year review. We are encouraged to check-in on performance regularly. However because of the relationship with salary reviews and bonuses which happen at the turn of the financial year, there is an emphasis on performance and ratings during May and June.

Part of the review process involves collecting feedback from a wide range of people who have worked with each person, to get a complete view of where they have done well or where their development areas lie.

It was in the midst of this process that despite good intentions, and unbeknownst to me at the time, I inadvertently created what might have been the unhappiest day of the year for my team.

This is a cautionary tale and reminder to place “people over process”, and a nod to the benefits of measuring team happiness.

Earlier in the year, one of my team members suggested trialling a ‘mood tracker’ with our team. The hypothesis was that by introducing it into our workspace we would show that we care about people being happy at work. Hopefully this would trigger some dialogue about what makes us happy and what doesn’t and provide input for improvement. Any metrics to come out of it we thought might be interesting, but would probably be a bonus.

fig 1 — Happiness tracker, with Jamieson H

After the tracker had been running for a couple of months, I wanted to try a different voting method. I closed off the current survey, and pulled down the raw data to have a look and shared it with the team.

One thing stood out immediately — on the 6th of June, average team happiness was zero. In other words, everyone was unhappy that day. I scratched my head and immediately started wondering what had been going on.

fig 2 — Average team happiness

Had there been a company announcement people were concerned by? Had a competitor launched a new product we were nervous about? Were there team members out sick that day affecting an important deployment? I went through my emails and team slack channels to read through conversations from around the same time and came up empty.

Still puzzled I wondered, ‘how was I feeling that day, and what had I been doing?’ I went back to my calendar to refresh my memory and to look for clues. While my calendar is normally fairly full, the 5th and 6th were completely packed with meetings — lots of 30 minute blocks with subject lines: ‘Input into end of year reviews’, with what were meant to be very nice invites to frame open and friendly chats:

Hi <name of person>,

As we’re coming up to the end of the year, I was hoping to listen to you for a few minutes to get your input into end of year reviews for <colleague> and <colleague>.

Happy for you to tell me about this any way you like; I’m most interested in what you’ve liked or appreciated from them over the last year, as well as some things they could work on.

Cheers,

Jordan

With a sinking feeling, the penny started to drop; ‘what if I had done something to make my team unhappy?’

As I started to cast my mind back over the conversations, I started to feel confused and then even a little disappointed. From my perspective the chats I’d had with everyone had been comfortable, casual and had yielded some great insights that I was able to weave into my end of year reviews. I was even able to leave everyone with a parting message about feedback culture and encouraged everyone to provide feedback to one another directly. Overall, a great success!

I paused, and just before completely slipping into denial and putting the ‘unhappiest day’ down as a mystery of the universe, never to be solved, I started to put myself in their shoes.

How daunting to be invited to a one-on-one meeting with your manager’s manager, whom you rarely catch up with formally? How much pressure, to come up with solicited feedback? How much of a burden, to bare the responsibility of contributing to someone’s end of year review? How to reconcile the hypocrisy of being asked to give feedback peer-to-peer in the future while in this kind of meeting? How unhappy would all of this make people feel?

The answer with the 20:20 perspective of hindsight is of course, obvious. Although the link with the happiness tracker is circumstantial not causal, it’s clear that this was not the right thing to do or the right approach to take. The feedback I collected during those meetings was not worth the damage it did to my team’s happiness and level of trust.

While I can’t undo those meetings, I was fortunate to be able to share this story with my team recently, and promised not to take this approach again.

Next time I’ll deal with feedback in a way that demonstrates the open culture we are striving for and that people are happy with, rather than the easiest way to fulfil the process. If we can get that right, hopefully we’ll have the happiest day of the year!

Key takeaways:

  • Happiness is as important as any team metric
  • Your intentions don’t count if your behaviour undermines them
  • Focus on your people and how they might feel, rather than the process you need to fulfil

Resources:

Mood tracker: https://moodapp.mobi/

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/happiness-missing-kpi-david-bellamy

http://agilemanifesto.org/

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