This is a question that I periodically ask my direct reports. I try to ask it somewhat regularly, ideally at checkpoint moments such as the end of year, when discussing career goals, or during performance review cycles.
Asking someone to rate their job satisfaction numerically is an intentionally direct way to check in on a team member’s happiness. It’s easy for busy people to fall into a slow decline – some projects get boring, a teammate has a bad attitude, some unexpected work comes in, and eventually someone wakes up and realizes they hate their job. The next week, a recruiter reaches out with an obnoxious LinkedIn message and instead of deleting it they respond. This is an especially easy trap to fall into when everyone is working remotely and you can’t see someone’s body language in person.
Keeping your team happy and productive is your principal activity as a manager, and you will only incur pain by beating around the bush. Infrastructure teams set up monitoring to objectively verify that the servers are healthy, because these are business-critical processes. You don’t ask “hey, what’s going on with the servers?” when there’s a production incident – you say “what is the exact status of the servers and what can we do to fix them.” As a manager, your team’s happiness is an equivalent metric that you should monitor with equivalent directness and rigor.
There are a few ways that things can go when you ask someone to rate their job satisfaction in this way:
- In many cases you know that someone is upset and likely to give a 1-6. You should already be working with them on how to help. Don’t ask those people this question.
- Other people will be obviously happy at their jobs, rating at a 9-10. You should ask them to confirm your assumptions.
- Many members of your team will likely be somewhere in the middle, and these are the most important cases. Some of them will actually be happier than you expected – this is great to know and tells you to carry on as you are today. Others will be less happy than expected, and this is also vitally important as an early warning signal. And of course, some will be in between. This naturally presents an opportunity for a discussion.
Once you have a sense for a team member’s overall satisfaction, the most important follow-up question to ask is not “why is that your rating,” but “what can I do to help this improve from X to X+1,” or “what steps can we take as a team to get you to a 9 or a 10.” There are a few advantages here:
- Most immediately, it starts a conversation on how to make one of your employees happier. That’s immediately useful since this is your P0 priority as a manager.
- It focuses on concrete improvements. You’re looking for steps that you can take right now to improve an employee’s happiness. People appreciate it when you act fast – it demonstrates commitment and that you value a team member if you act fast to increase their happiness.
- Finally, it reframes the conversation around your actions as a manager. Employee satisfaction is ultimately a two-way street (some people are inherently never satisfied and you probably can’t fix them), but it is your job as a manager to do the best that you can.
You should dive as deeply as you can into why team members are unhappy while being professional / respectful. The more that you can get to root causes, the better. And keep in mind that happiness or unhappiness at home often bleeds into work (and vice versa). You should also never retaliate against what someone says, and do everything you can to make sure that there are only positive repercussions from being honest with you. This exercise is an opportunity to encourage more transparency, and that only happens if you use it to build trust.