The importance of a happy team (and 5 tips on creating one)

Whenever I work with teams in product development, I have two main goals: create value for the user and make sure the team is happy. There are of course many more – making other stakeholders happy and ensuring the product earns money come to mind. Though, I honestly believe that a happy team and value for the user are by far the most important. Everything else is downstream from those two.

Creating value for the user is likely more important than a happy team by a small margin. After all, without generating user value the company might soon no longer exist. Though, I strongly believe it’s very hard for the team to consistently perform and deliver valuable product increments if the team is not satisfied. 

I have started formulating my thoughts on user value and will likely expand on that in the future. Today, I want to focus on team building and the happy team. I will attempt to answer the following.

  • Why is it important to have a happy team?
  • What is a happy team?
  • What are some of my tips on how to facilitate creating a positive team atmosphere?

Let’s start with why.

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A happy team is a productive team

Why is it even important to have a happy team? The answer is simple. A team with satisfied members is one that is motivated and thus consistently more productive. From personal experience, I can also attest that a satisfied team is willing to go the extra mile when the going gets tough, when we really need to deliver in crunch time.

Moreover, happiness and creativity are correlated, although it is not entirely clear which of the two causes the other. In my experience though, I have found that a positive team atmosphere leads to more creative and better solutions. 

Finally, team members of a happy team are more likely to stay with the company. This seems so obvious it almost feels unnecessary to write it out. But I cannot tell you how often I have had discussions with leaders trying to explain to them that the people are not leaving because of money or some other excuse. They leave because they are not part of a happy team.

To summarize, a happy team is essential to achieving sustained success.

The characteristics of a happy team

Having established why it is so important, I will attempt to describe what I actually mean with a happy team. This is not trivial. The easy thing to do here would be to say: “You know it when you see it”. To try and be a bit more nuanced, I think it comes down to four things:

  1. The team doesn’t take itself too seriously
  2. Trust
  3. Team members are themselves
  4. Open communication

I believe all four are interrelated and benefit each other. 

First, a satisfied team doesn’t take itself too seriously. The team members are able to laugh about themselves, even and specifically in tough situations.

Second, the members of a satisfied team trust each other. This is likely the core characteristic. They trust each other that whatever they are doing or saying is done with good intentions. The team is supportive of one another and there are no lingering personal conflicts. (Personal conflicts can happen but they are resolved and don’t linger.)

Closely related to a trusting atmosphere is the third point, the members of a happy team can be their authentic selves. There is no need for anyone to disguise themselves. The characters are who they are.

Finally, a happy team is one that communicates frequently and openly. The team constantly shares information, discusses issues, and constructively solves conflicts. This is always done openly and with good intentions. The team members can have intense disagreements about strategy, solutions, or process. Those are resolved on a factual level without getting personal. Team members within a happy team are able to disagree and commit

5 tips on creating a happy team

As it unfortunately is so often in life, there is no single secret to team building and happiness. It’s not a math problem that can be solved. Much of it comes down to leadership. Nevertheless, I will share five things that I have found to be helpful in creating a satisfied team.

  • Shared values and vision
  • A light atmosphere
  • Honest appreciation 
  • Actually listening
  • Joint activities 

Shared values and vision

One of the first things I do whenever I start working with a new team is writing down how we want to work. These are the values that we as a team want to stand for, the culture we want to have as a team.

Closely related to the above, we also formulate a vision for the team. To be very clear, I am not referring to the product vision – covered in other articles – but the vision for the team. Similarly as done for product vision, we write down an ideal state for who we want to be as a team within a few years.

In my experience, the team doesn’t need to reflect on vision and values every day. However, it does make sense to retrospect every once in a while to understand if we are acting according to the values we aligned on and if what we wrote down is still valid (and change it if necessary). 

A light atmosphere

Humans are not robots (at least most of us). It’s ok for us to smile and laugh at work. I always try to keep a light atmosphere by leaving some time for off topic discussions before digging into the issues at hand, by joking around a bit, and overall by not taking ourselves too seriously. 

It’s important to sometimes remember that – at least for the vast majority of teams – no one is going to die if we don’t meet a certain deadline. The productivity gains from having a happy team by far offset the few minutes spent joking around, anyway.

Honest appreciation 

A happy team is one that understands that what they are doing is being valued. The best way to achieve this is to give honest praise when it is warranted. Let the team show off what they did in reviews or demos and encourage celebrating what they accomplished. 

In case of significant achievements, it is also helpful to ask stakeholders or even senior leaders in the company to come to our coffee break, stand-up, or review and show appreciation for the work. The praise needs to be authentic and honest, though.

Actually listening

Truly listening is a skill and an important habit that can be formed. The feeling of being heard is a big catalyst for a team to become happy. It means that the people in the team are seen as humans and not just as drones doing work. 

I feel that many project leaders, product owners, or scrum masters are themselves so under pressure to deliver that they fail to listen to the problems and issues of the team. We brush the problems aside instead of truly listening because we need to deliver. Avoiding this is a skill that we can and should train.

Joint activities 

In building a satisfied team it is extremely beneficial to regularly do things together that are not directly related to work. The activities don’t have to be anything special.They can be anything ranging from regular coffee breaks through jointly having lunch regularly all the way to evening activities. 

The important thing is to meet in person (if possible) and get to know each other outside of work topics. This builds understanding and empathy between team members and leads to a happy team. 

Joint activities are admittedly harder for remote teams but there is plenty you can do there as well. 

Something to strive for

It is crystal clear to me: a happy team is a productive team and incredibly valuable for companies. In the hectic and pressure filled day to day of building products we seem to often overlook this fact. I urge you to try and remember. 

Helping out where we can to make sure the team is satisfied is definitely a goal worth striving for. It may at times not be easy to achieve. It is, however, time well spent and will pay dividends down the road.

Coverphoto by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash