NielsenData Blog by Jared Nielsen

Driving Successful Employees Improves Job Satisfaction - Employee Archaeology

I have been revamping IT departments and groups of software developers for quite some time including for companies like Fanatics, Inc., Wickes Lumber, The Riverside Group, TBC Corp, and Universal Weather and Aviation.  Software developers are a truly unique breed of employee because they tend to crystalize into fixed roles, some of which are productive and some more challenging.  I think the secret to "waking up" an IT department is to engage with it like an archaeologist.  You need to go to the site, investigate the landscape, take measurements, research the anthropology and then start digging.  

Each employee may have been caked into a fixed position due to time, culture, tradition, and often a lack of management.  They are often buried under laziness, complacency, a lack of interest, lack of motivation, or a jaded sense that nothing will change so there's no reason to continue the struggle.  Many times they are simply aiming to "get by", retire, "punch a timecard" or just "keep a low profile" when the department has become dysfunctional.  This requires some disruptive first engagements that can have an unsettling effect on them, but they have been stationary for so long, it's at times painful to get moving again, but it's so liberating when they do.

Take Complete Control... Then Release

Generally the first step is to take complete ownership of the technical resource, by taking over their compensation and bonus structure in a way that is fair and meaningful to them.  Now they know that your mentoring will have a financial impact on their lives and an effective outcome can have a meaningful reward.  This is a critical difference that an outside consultant simply can't accomplish by advising from the sidelines.  The direct manager must take the reins, or the resource needs to be "adopted" and retrofitted by someone who can manage the person.

Sincerely Invest in Them

The second step is to start getting their skill levels up, through team coding, training, investment, and self confidence building.  This is critical because the developer needs to know that you care about them sincerely, enough to invest in them to get their skills modernized.  I find it generally takes about three people to round out one person's skills... sometimes more if they are less current in their technology stack.  By embedding them with a team, they now can develop a fraternal family where they will learn to feel safe and start to develop a pride in success.

Create a Winnable Scenario

The third step is to begin to give them opportunities to sacrifice and to excel.  Proper incentives and opportunities are critical here and it must be done in a consistent and trustworthy fashion.  Do not promise incentives and not deliver.... similarly, do not provide incentives for half-hearted attempts, or compensate them as a group where they can coast along with the efforts of others.  Making incentives targeted, sincere, and meaningful is key.  Remember, you just dug them out of the crusty limitations that they had been caked in for a long time.  It's not reasonable to make them sprint at the outset.  Give them small, reachable goals, and slowly ramp them up as their muscles get stronger.

Let Them Go... and Grow

The fourth step is to let them "graduate."  Once they have demonstrated mastery, it's most important that they fly out of the nest in an environment where they can continue and grow, outside of the mentoring tutelage.  This final test is the best way to verify that your remediation of their job function has truly cemented in their minds and motivation.  A truly motivated employee doesn't need a manager any longer.  Move on to those that need managing and let the ones that are now self-motivated and driven take off and grow into their own master of their destiny.  You will leave a legacy of people that are grateful to you and inspired to help others as you have helped them.  Then loyalty and motivation "goes viral" and there's nothing that can stop that.

Providing Opportunities to Sacrifice Increases Loyalty

It seems counter-intuitive but the more you ask of an employee, the more they will tend to respond.  This is a motivator that goes far beyond compensation and cash.  Religious councils have studied the impact of "asking more" of their congregations and how that impacted attendance and they found that when you ask more of people in a meaningful way, they actually appreciate their church family more, even when asked to sacrifice financially and donate their time.  At its core, there is an underlying inverse theory that you can ONLY love those things that you sacrifice for.

As a manager, try to take time, empathize with your team, and put yourself in their shoes.  Then ask more of them in a sincere way where they have a clear path to succeed given their current talents and resources.  Be sure to give them time and resources to win and succeed, first in bite-sized ways, and then in larger and deeper challenges where they learn to trust you (first!) and then learn to have confidence not only in themselves, but in the fact that the office culture and resource environment is fertile ground for them to excel and succeed.

You will love the results, and they will love their jobs.

Provide the Proper Political Shield

Part of being a manager / employee archaeologist, is to become the umbrella that shields them from the vagaries of office politics.  This requires taking a very different demeanor "above" and "below."  To your employees, you must be the authority, but a caring steward, who drives the agenda of the company in parallel to each person's personal needs and goals.  To your superiors, however, you need to be the strong, impenetrable barrier where they feel confident that your team will deliver, but they need to expose only you to the whims of the board and the C-Suite.  By becoming the entry point of all political challenges to your team, you will be able to filter what enters your group and you will be able to preserve your team's internal culture and environment.

Rage against "tiger teams" and other "short circuits" that try to link your team members to external groups in a way that is disruptive of the internal environment that you have established.  This doesn't mean a stand-off attitude, it simply means that you need to establish a level of control over the internal thermostat of your group and protect that stability from the winds and breezes from the outside.

Take the blame.  When someone in your team fails, you have failed.  Your team has failed.  Any recrimination from above generally involves heat and education.  Absorb the heat and let the education flow down to your team.  This doesn't mean that you conceal the consequences of failure... it simply means that you absorb the blame, and let the consequences of the learning moments through to your group.  Your upper management will reward you, and your employees will learn to respect you.  

My son shared a story with me that his running team at high school would take shortcuts once they were outside the view of the school.  My son chose instead to not take a shortcut and he would arrive, winded, behind the rest of the runners every day.  The coach would bark at him for being the last one back and my son simply took the heat and resumed the same method the following day.  Soon, the other kids began to respect his hard work and they stopped taking the shortcut.  First, they recognized his leadership - not through a job title or appointment - but through his actions.  Second, they felt a tad guilty that he was getting in trouble due to their actions.  Third, they respected him for "taking the heat".  Fourth, they started to recognize that my son was getting the actual benefit of the extra work and he was getting more and more powerful as a runner.  In other words, he was starting to accomplish the team's goal of being able to run faster than the competition, instead of trying to game the system. 

Once your organization realizes that the enemy is the competition to your entire firm... on the outside, rather than some other internal department, their loyalty will increase through mutual respect and sacrifice with the real goal in mind... beating the competition.

No Employee can Serve Two Masters

This concept has a Biblical basis, but it's a true and effective principle that will help you as you start your employee archaeological process.  By becoming their "only" boss, they now can focus and strive to one victory condition.  Much like divorced parents, attempting to divide up one person between multiple resources is almost always catastrophically bad.  The employee never knows who to cater to, and has a very unclear structure and vision of the victory condition.  There are times when an employee's expertise is needed for another project, but the best way to deal with that "sharing" is to not share them, rather transfer them to the other manager 100% for the duration of the other project.  Only when they complete that project can they come back.  This is particularly effective when your team is highly sought after, as people will strive to do well so they can return to the safety of the political umbrella that you provide them.  Alternatively, they will carry the message of success to the other team and they will become influenced by the steady training that the transferred employee has received.

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