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How Emotions Affect Perceived Productivity
The role of emotions in developer productivity, and what triggers these emotions.
This is the latest issue of my newsletter. Each week I cover the latest research and perspectives on developer productivity.
This week I read Emotions and Perceived Productivity of Software Developers at the Workplace by Daniela Girardi, Filippo Lanubile, Nicole Novielli, and Alexander Serebrenik. This study explored the extent to which emotions influence productivity, as well as the triggers of both positive and negative emotions within the context of the workplace. This paper provides useful insight for engineering leaders to better support the well-being and productivity of their teams.
My summary of the paper
It is generally understood that emotions play a crucial role in people's work performance, especially for roles that require creativity and problem solving skills. Researchers have also made similar connections within software engineering specifically, having identified a bidirectional link between satisfaction and productivity and that happy software developers achieve better performance. The authors of this paper sought to test and build on these findings.
This study was conducted with professional developers at five companies. To collect developers’ emotions and perceived productivity during working days, researchers used experience sampling. This included sending developers a survey multiple times per day for three weeks. The surveys used a reliable technique called Self-Assessment Manikin, which asks about each emotional dimension, to collect developers’ emotions. They also asked developers to report the task they were doing at the moment of the interruption, their perceived productivity, and to explain the causes for the reported emotions.
Here are the key takeaways from the paper:
Emotions are correlated with productivity
Researchers first categorized the emotions of developers using a model which represents emotions according to valence, activation, and arousal. Pleasant emotional states, such as happiness, are associated with positive valence. Unpleasant ones, such as sadness, are associated with negative valence. Arousal describes the level of “activation” of the emotional state ranging from inactive or low, as in calmness or depression, to active or high, as in excitement or tension. Dominance is the extent to which an individual feels in control of their emotions.
Then they studied the correlation between self-reported emotions and productivity by fitting a linear mixed model. In addition to the three categories of emotions and developers’ self-reported productivity, this model also took into account the time of day when each survey was submitted.
We can first observe that there is a statistically significant correlation with perceived productivity for all three categories of emotion: valence (emotional state), arousal (calmness or excitement), and dominance (sense of control).
Interestingly, the correlation between emotions and productivity is stronger in the afternoon, and the correlation between sense of control and productivity is stronger in the morning. The researchers think this may be due to fatigue, which is known to impair emotion regulation. “This suggestion is consistent with previous results reporting fatigue as a cause for negative emotions. We can also interpret these results in light of previous findings… the authors found that fatigue harmed developers’ productivity as well as the quality of their work, creativity, and motivation.”
The triggers of positive and negative emotions at work
Researchers analyzed and codified developers’ answers to the open-ended questions about the causes for the self-reported emotions. They identified 18 triggers of positive emotions and 19 triggers for negative emotions, which are categorized into six themes. These are shown in the table below.
The most frequent trigger for emotions refers to the self dimension, which relates to whether developers feel productive. This includes feeling in flow (positive) or being stuck (negative). Feeling confident is also part of this dimension.
Developer-task relation relates to factors such as the solution design, code comprehension, and novelty of the task. For example, clear solution design triggers positive emotions, and unexplained broken code is associated with negative emotions.
Artifacts and instrumentation is about code quality, tooling, and documentation. Working with no errors triggers positive emotions, while poor tooling and poor code is associated with negative emotions.
The social dimension relates to feedback and collaboration. Feeling appreciated and collaborative problem solving are triggers of positive emotions. Helping peers triggers may trigger either positive and negative emotions.
Work management relates to the quality of decision making and whether meetings are constructive.
Additionally, individual or social breaks are triggers of positive emotions.
Overall, positive emotions are mostly triggered by the developers’ perception of being productive, either because they feel in flow or completed their tasks. Other causes are working code with no errors, successful collaborative problem solving, and constructive meetings. Negative emotions are mostly triggered by code comprehension issues, poor tooling, and fatigue.
This paper further supports how important of a role emotions play in developer productivity. Leaders may find it specifically helpful to understand what triggers negative emotions, such as code comprehension and poor tooling, so they can work to reduce these experiences.
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