The “Happy Meter” – How to Improve Employee Happiness and Retention

The “Happy Meter” – How to Improve Employee Happiness and Retention

By George B Swan


Here is a situation that happens to most managers at some point in their career:

As a caring manager, you hold frequent ‘one-on-one’ meetings with each of your team members. In each meeting, you make a point of asking, “How are you doing?” Team member says “Great!” This happens week after week, month after month. Then one day, the same team member is in your office telling you that (s)he has decided to leave.


When do you start hearing what the real issues are? My experience is that more often or not, it is when the team member is explaining why they have decided to leave. They are unhappy about something: bored, no challenge, want a career change, etc. If you are lucky, you might do a diving save and turn the team member around. However, in most cases, you have lost your opportunity to solve the issues that caused the team member to look elsewhere in the first place.

I struggled with this for quite some time, and came up with a novel solution. Why don’t I routinely ask the team members what working well and what’s not? Also why not ask the team members where they want their career to go in two years? If you don’t ask, then you are only guessing

This article takes this basic premise and creates a “Happy Meter” worksheet and tried-and-tested methodology that you can use at any level within your organization to improve retention while simultaneously improving team morale and happiness.I have used the “Happy Meter” successfully for many years. It’s a great technique for:

* Finding out what motivates and frustrates your team members. The solutions for increasing motivation and reducing frustrations are often surprisingly easy to implement

* Structuring a growth plan for each team member that can be integrated into performance reviews and bonus goal setting

* Structuring an action plan for improving overall team retention, happiness, and productivity

However, it only works if you, as the team’s manager, are committed to making things better and are willing to be measured against this commitment:

* In many ways, the “Happy Meter” is a contract between you and the team member. You are saying “If you give me the feedback asked for in the Happy Meter, then I, as your manager, will agree to do all that I can to make the highlights better, and remove the challenges. It is one way for you to measure my performance as your manager”

* You need to take action on the feedback gathered, and invest sufficient time to follow through on the action plan. Otherwise, the team will realize this is just another toothless exercise management is putting them through

* Be ready for some tough criticism. Much of the feedback may be directed at you and the way you run your team. That can be hard to accept.

The rest of this article describes the content of the “Happy Meter” worksheet, suggested steps in how best to deploy the “Happy Meter” methodology, and finally some real examples of the feedback you can expect to gather.

The “Happy Meter” worksheet

The main goal of the ‘Happy Meter’ worksheet is to focus the questions on key areas of interest, yet leave the potential scope of the answers to be as open and as broad as possible. The end result should be a highly relevant series of responses that are truly important to the team member. Equally importantly, the responses are articulated in their words, and not compromised to fit into yours.

The second goal of the worksheet is to leverage the team member’s ideas on how best to resolve their frustrations and career goals. They have probably thought way more about these issues that you, therefore why not capitalize on this?

I generally have people fill out the worksheet as text, but some people prefer to talk. In this case, your job is to act as note taker, letting the team member review your notes to ensure you have correctly captured his/her thoughts.

The following questions are most pertinent:

Q1: How happy are you in your current job?

1. Very Unhappy. Only doing it until I find something better

2. Unhappy. Number of frustrations etc. that reduce enjoyment

3. Quite happy. Would be better if some frustrations removed

4. Very happy. Enjoying the job a lot

5. Extremely happy. Can’t imagine a better one

It is good to get a high-level sense of happiness. I like to call this the “Happy Meter” rating.

Q2: List the top three highlights that make your job satisfying?

It is important to initially focus on what is working well, and not just the issues. It sets up a positive tone for the rest of the worksheet. It also lets you maximize those things that are working well, instead of just minimizing those that are not.

Q3: List the top three frustrations or issues that reduce your job satisfaction?

Notice how open-ended this question and the previous is? The answers can go in many different directions. This is valuable, because there is a lot you can read into why the team member picked *those* three points to highlight. Outside of the actual data being articulated, there may be themes, or core values you can pick up on.

Q4: What actions can your manager take to remove these frustrations?

Take the guesswork out of management. Usually the team members have great insights into how to fix the problems they bring up. Why not ask them?

Q5: Describe your career goals and personal goals two years from now

A big part of a team member’s happiness may be tied to how quickly they are reaching the professional and personal goals they have set for themselves. This is a great time to capture these goals. Have them describe what their world looks like two years from now.

Q6: Growth objectives you would want to achieve in the next twelve months that would move you towards your career and interest goals

Again, usually the team members have a good sense of the challenges they are interested in taking on. Ask for their input.

The “Happy Meter” methodology

This section suggests how to deploy the “Happy Meter” within your group. I recommend a six-month or twelve-month cycle. Pick what fits best with your performance reviews and/or bonus plans schedules. The schedule below assumes a six month cycle:

First 30 days:

* Distribute the “Happy Meter” worksheet to each member in your team

* Have each team member fill it out, then present it back to you

* Based on their presentations to you, create a set of individual goals and action plan for each team member

* Armed with the collection of filled out “Happy Meter” worksheets, extract the common themes. Then create team goals and an action plan to reach these goals

* Present the common themes and action plan to your entire team

30 days to 180 days:

* On a regular basis, meet with each team member to review your progress with respect to their “Happy Meter” worksheet, as well as review their progress on performance goals and action plan.

* On a regular basis, meet with your entire team to review team goals and action plan status.

180 days:

* Hold a retrospective on how to improve the methodology next time around

* Go back to step 1 and repeat!

Each step will now be discussed in more detail:

Step 1: Distribute the “Happy Meter” worksheet

Complete the following tasks:

* Hand out the Happy Meter during one of your one-on-one meetings with the team member

* Make a pact with team member

* (S)he takes the time to thoughtfully fill out the worksheet

* You sign up to having your value as a manager measured on your ability to address the issues where possible

* Articulate that all the feedback in the worksheet will be kept confidential between manager and team member

* Set a date and time to meet and review the ‘Happy Meter’ feedback (for example, in two weeks).

Step 2: Have the team member fill out the worksheet, and present it back to you

Complete the following tasks:

* Let the team member fill out the “Happy Meter” worksheet using whatever medium works best for him/her. Some will want to write down their feedback. Some will want to verbalize their feedback. Some may need help sharing and articulating their views before telling you. In any case, do what you can to capture the feedback into a written form without injecting your own viewpoint on the data received.

* In the presentation meeting, you:

o Listen

o Clarify

o Understand expectations

o Obtain mutual understanding of resolution difficulty.

o Brainstorm with the team member on possible solutions

NOTE: Some frustrations and solutions may be out of your control to solve (e.g. “I don’t think the executives are taking the company in the right direction”). It is okay to strike some of the frustrations off the list as “Not solvable” or “Out of our sphere of influence”. However, you will find that many are trivial and will be solved quickly.

* File away the “Happy Meter” worksheet where you can find it again. This feedback is golden information! Give the team member a copy

Step 3: Create a set of individual goals and action plan for each team member

Create a personalized action plan for each team member that will:

* Leverage what’s working well

* Remove or reduce the frustrations

* Address the career and interest goals for the coming year

I found that it is a great idea to incorporate as much of this action plan into your team member’s performance review. All too often, I see the performance review be a summary of the tasks that a person did over the past year, and then a list of the tasks that they need to do over the coming year. This future list is more to do with the work that has to get done versus the strengths, challenges, and career goals for the team member.A much better way to grow a team member is to focus on the developing skills and career goals, and build a series of tasks and assignments that certainly ‘get the work done’, but will help also move the individual quickly towards these goals. For example, if they are interested in a project leadership position, then over the year, you might task them to play more of a supervisory role over new hires. If teamwork is a skill needed to advance to the next level, then have the team member demonstrate better teamwork with colleagues etc.

Step 4: Gather common themes, and then create team goals and action plans

Complete the following tasks:

* Review the collection of “Happy Meter” worksheets, and summarize key themes into a report. You don’t ever want to expose the data written in individual “Happy Meter” worksheets, since it is based on a confidential conversation between you and your team member. However, you can extract common themes expressed by one or more team members.

* Work with the key leaders/managers in your team to:

o Validate the information in the report (i.e. are the highlights and frustrations correctly captured in the report?)

o Create organizational goals to reduce top frustrations by x%

o Lay out the team action plan to achieve goal(s).

Note that this summary of “Happy Meter” themes, goals, and action plan can happen at any level in the organization. A first-level manager would collect together all the themes for his/her team. A second-level manager would have the managers do their summary first, then he/she would collect together all the ‘themes of themes’, and so on.

Step 5: Present the organizational themes, goals, and action plan to your entire team

As a manager, this is a great opportunity to communicate with your entire team on something they are guaranteed to care about – themselves. Use the meeting as a chance to articulate what you believe the highlights and frustrations are in the team. Be seen to understand these points, as well as show that you have a plan in place to address the frustrations. Seek feedback on how well you understand the issues. Seek feedback on the action plan. Adjust both accordingly.

Step 6: Review individual “Happy Meter” worksheet, goals and action plan

On a routine basis, you should:

* Review the individual “Happy Meter” worksheets to make sure you are on track with making the changes you agreed to. Hopefully some of the frustrations have been removed. Maybe some new ones have popped up. Refine the “Happy Meter” action plan as needed

* Review the performance goals and action plan that you created for the team member. How are they progressing?

I find that monthly is a reasonable cadence for this review.

Step 7: Review team goals and action plan

On a routine basis, you should:

* Present the team goals and action plan status with your entire team. As a manager, it is very hard to stand up in front of your organization when no progress has been made! Hopefully however, you and your team leaders and managers have been able to make progress. Sharing that progress with the organization to 1) get validation that the progress was observed by them and 2) show that you are being responsive to their needs, is a huge morale booster for the team. Based on feedback from the presentation, refine the team goals and action plan as needed.

I find that quarterly is a reasonable cadence for this presentation

Step 8: Hold a retrospective

Before starting the cycle over, take the time to meet with the entire team and hold a retrospective. Discuss what is working, what isn’t working, and changes needed before implementing the cycle next time around

Step 9: Repeat

The “Happy Meter” is a process of continuous improvement. So store away the individual worksheets, plans, and team presentations for reference. Then start over!

Real examples of feedback collected

The following are actual examples of feedback that I have collected over the years.

“Happy Meter” worksheets

I have always been surprised and impressed with what I find out when people answer the six ‘Happy Meter’ questions. Here is a typical sample:

* “This shouldn’t bother me, but it really does. Why does Joe get a window cube and I don’t?”

* “I really would like to project lead. Maybe I could manage a summer intern to show you that I’m capable”

* “I really like the people in the team. We work really well together”

* “I want to go part time so that I can spend more time with my kids”

* “I feel that I’ve been instrumental in making some key initiatives successful, but my role continues to be limited to just xyz”

* “Our group is not a team, we don’t respect each other, we don’t have a common vision, etc.”

* “All this overhead is frustrating – I can’t get my real work done to my satisfaction”

* “I want to move back to Europe in two years”

I personally liked the “Why does Joe have a window cube?” comment. This was a major issue for Bob. It bothered him every day. We had just moved into a space with growth in mind and we were reserving some window offices for future senior hires. In hindsight, trading off the wants of a great employee against the wants of a future hire seemed silly. So we gave Bob a window cube that day, and he was happy as a clam. A big issue solved in minutes!

Happy Meter Summary

A graph of the distribution of “Happy Meter” ratings asked in question 1 of the worksheet.


2: **********

3: *****************************************

4: ******************************

5: ******************

If this isn’t the first time doing this, then I suggest also showing the distribution in the last cycle. If there has been movement upward in the average ratings, then this is great data to show the team.

What’s working well

A typical Pareto chart might look like:

Quality of people: *************************************

Challenging work: *****************************

Great management: *********************

Flexible work hours: ****************

Freedom, Independence: *************

Respected, recognized: ****

What great information to get on your team – they are loving the people they are working with, they feel challenged. Look at the pat on the back for management! Great job!


A typical Pareto chart might look like:

Not enough time to do job well: ************************************

No stability in people or process: *******************

Computers and network broken: ***********

Not sure where the company is going: *******

Office space too noisy: ******

Remote office difficult to work with: ****

Commute too long: ***

Not sure I’ve ever met a team that feels that they have all of the time or resources they need, so you might need to dig deeper into what is at the heart of this issue. But “no stability” and “broken computers” are much easier projects to go after. What is better than significantly closing out two of the top three frustrations in the group?

Career goals:

A typical Pareto chart might look like:

No change: **********************************************************

Want a new function: ************

Get into management: *******

Get a degree: ****

Go part-time: **

This is not information that I suggest you share with the entire team, since it has less to do with the team as a whole. Instead I would use this data within your staff to deal with impending change. I had one experience in which, after doing the ‘Happy Meter’ process, a manager came into my office and slumped into the chair. “My entire team is planning on leaving within one year!” Now she was a great manager. It was just that her team consisted of high-growth individuals, who were aggressive about moving their careers forward. After the initial shock, it was great to have the information. It was much better to have 12 months advance warning on this versus having to deal with it reactively. In the end, the people did leave, but the group continued to rebuild and move along without missing a heartbeat.


Information about the Author

George Swan Ph.D.

Principal and Founder of Abertech Solutions

Software Engineering Consulting and Services

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