Triple Constraint of Happiness at Work

Remember the Triple Constraint of Project Management? Remember how horrible and out of sorts it feels when your management attempts to maximize all three sides of the triangle?

Well, I am going to attempt to make an analogy between Project Management constraints and your Happiness at Work constraints. When I say “happiness at work”, I mean a situation when you are mostly happy to go to work every morning.  I don’t have any illusions that things could be perfect, at least not when you’ve been working in your current role for some time. I realize that there are always going to be problems, but those problems shouldn’t give you heartburn every second of every day to make you leave – those are the problems you or somebody else on your team is methodically working to solve and the rest of you are either helping or at least not standing in the way.

So what’s the constraints?  During my time in software development, I found that my personal happiness at work rests on three main constraints that are at the base of my professional Maslow’s Pyramid:

  • Product I am building
  • Team I am working with
  • Technology I am using

When all three are balanced (once again, they can’t be all perfect all the time) – I am happy. When one is persistently screwed up, I am beginning to worry. When two are out of sorts, I am headed for the exit, unless I see a way to fix the problem. Let me explain why.

Product I am building gives me and everyone around me purpose. Multiple factors contribute to good or bad feelings about the product. I like when I believe in the product, when I think it solves a real problem, when I find the problem space fascinating, when I feel connected to my users (this could be just an illusion, right?). Take this all away, and suddenly there is no purpose, no goal, no mountain to climb. It could be OK for a short while, but it gets on my nerves very quickly.

Team I work with defines my social environment at work. I like to work in a team based on mutual respect, accountability, driven by results and not too political, and who doesn’t?  I also tend to pay attention to processes that exist in a team. How do ideas get communicated up the chain? Are they dismissed out of hand, do you have to be a member of  “in” crowd to be heard? Is your management effective, accessible and open or are they just along for the ride? Do they listen to valid concerns and take action to make the team better? Do they defend the team or just themselves in battles that are worth fighting? Basically, I try to evaluate my team using one main criteria: can we conquer team dysfunction or not?

Technology I deal with on a daily basis is hugely important for me as well. Basically, I want to be able to answer “yes” when somebody asks me question #9 on the Joel Test. I have to spend my working days making technology do what I want, so it is only reasonable that I should be a pretty demanding customer. I don’t want the technology to waste my time – I want it to help me. I also want to enjoy working with it. I also want it to be marketable enough for me to learn. No matter how enjoyable and effective Smalltalk is, the reality check tells me that becoming a Smalltalk expert is probably not as good for my resume as knowing Java or C#. And this is coming from a person that loves Smalltalk. Same goes for internal tools that most companies have.  None of these tools are marketable (they are internal), so if they are clunky, old and hard to work with, I will hate them.

So what do I tend to do when any of these pillars becomes jeopardized? Well, it’s always the same two choices when it comes to your basic needs being threatened: fight or flight, except I alway fight first. I stay loyal, I try to influence non-technical decisions about the product, I try to lend my time, expertise and advise to fix my dysfunctional team or I try to push for technological choices that I consider more promising, applicable and marketable.

However, if I can’t convince myself that at least two out of three are acceptable to me, there is nothing I can do to make them acceptable and the situation isn’t getting better, I think that it’s time to move on. As loyal as I am, there is always another team, another project, another challenge.

Because life is too short to spend it in a dead-end job you hate.


One comment

  1. Alex Weinstein

    Fantastic article. I of course have to use this opportunity to pitch my favorite framework of motivation – autonomy, mastery, and purpose – as it very closely resembles the framework you offer.

    My dear friend and mentor once told me that as humans, we tend to try to see the best in a situation – and as such, Stockholm Syndrome is VERY typical in toxic environments where one or more vertices of the pyramid are broken.

    Don’t put up with crap! Take steps back, talk to outside mentors that will help you evaluate your feelings. Life is too short to spend it on anything you don’t truly enjoy.

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