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Engaged engineering teams

Four steps to building engaged engineering teams

Main illustration: Bill Rebholz

Engaged teams are the backbone of a healthy organization. When you’re on a team that is highly engaged, the team is humming.

Product launches go smoothly, teammates have and resolve healthy conflicts naturally, and even big challenges are viewed as opportunities to improve and grow. The dynamic on the team seems to be one that just works.

“One of the most important roles a manager plays on their team is building engagement”

When you’re on a team that isn’t engaged, however, everything takes longer. People may be more distant or closed off. Teammates can take on work with little understanding of why it matters, and ultimately, the team suffers. One of the most important roles a manager plays on their team is building engagement so that the team looks more like the former than the latter.

During my experience as an Engineering Manager, I’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to build engaged teams (as well as how not to build them!). While there are no universal truths, my goal is to share my experiences so that others thinking about building engagement on their teams can do so faster than I did.

Lesson 1: Know yourself

An important first step for a manager to make toward building engagement on their teams is to understand themselves and the things that motivate them. If a manager doesn’t know what they care about and why, how can they expect the team to care?

“A couple of years after I became a manager, I had a ‘crisis of management’ in which I almost quit my job”

When I first became an EM, I repeated things I had seen on the teams I’d been on without as much of an understanding of why I should do those things. I also didn’t know why I had become an EM specifically as opposed to a tech lead or some other IC leadership role.

A couple of years after I became a manager, I had a “crisis of management” in which I almost quit my job to go back to being an IC engineer – it was a situation where we owned things that we shouldn’t have. I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time, but we needed a strategy, we needed better leadership support, and we needed better alignment between the skill sets on the team and the work that we were doing. Thankfully I had support at the time in solving the root causes, and I stayed on as manager.

But it wasn’t until I started the job search that eventually led me to Intercom that I began to develop a sense of why I wanted to continue in management, which started with my values:

  • Directness
  • Curiosity
  • Peacefulness

Every person will have different values, but it was important to me to understand mine because they provided me with a lens for making decisions and interacting with the world. I knew that if I could find a place with values that were aligned with my own, the hard things wouldn’t be so hard and I’d be able to succeed. It took me a lot of self-analysis and soul-searching (and support from people who cared about me) to identify my values, but this has been essential for my growth as a manager and as a human. These values have also been the key ingredient as I tried to foster a sense of engagement on my teams.

Lesson 2: Have a philosophy

When a manager knows their values, they can start to form better opinions about how they want to operate their team and why. They can shape this into a philosophy of management (sometimes also called a management style); that is a set of principles for making decisions about how the team operates.

Once I knew my values, I started to think about why I liked people management, and how my values might map to those things. I also thought about some of the things I disliked about people management and how there might be reasonable alternatives to my values that would lead someone else to enjoy those same things.

“Where my values are statements about myself that are unique to me, my philosophy is a translation of those values into how I want my teams to show up day-to-day”

I went deep on the why behind these likes and dislikes until I was able to blend inputs from my personal and professional life to form a sense of my managerial purpose, along with the principles that I hold in pursuit of that purpose.

My managerial purpose is to build and participate in effective teams, and the principles I believe will get me there are:

  1. Create and reinforce accountability on the team
  2. Foster a culture of continuous improvement
  3. Work in a way we enjoy

Where my values are statements about myself that are unique to me, my philosophy is a translation of those values into how I want my teams to show up day-to-day. I shared these rough ideas with other leaders, with trusted colleagues and mentors, and finally with my team, and these have shaped a framing for why I behave and work the way that I do as a manager.

Lesson 3: Have an opinion, be willing to adapt it

Managers who hold strong opinions and are inflexible on changing their minds will ultimately lose the trust of their team and undermine engagement. Most teammates won’t want to work with a manager where it’s “my way or the highway” and will become disinterested in the direction the team is going.

“I was a stickler for doing things in certain ways and didn’t do enough to bring people along with my thinking”

When I first started managing, I held opinions too strongly. I was a stickler for doing things in certain ways and didn’t do enough to bring people along with my thinking, and I burned some trust with some of my engineers in doing so. I realized that I needed to do a better job of bringing others along with the why behind my actions but I also needed to be receptive to feedback.

Since developing a philosophy, I’m still learning lessons from applying it; sometimes the way that I approach a situation rubs someone the wrong way and my approach needs to adapt. My philosophy is a crude mental model of the world surrounding me, my teams, my organization, and it needs to evolve as I get more input.

Lesson 4: Show people that you care

Telling people about my philosophy isn’t hard. Truly living by it in trying times is where the rubber meets the road. I didn’t care enough about the first engineers that I managed, I cared more about the quality of their work and the results of the team, and I did some of them a disservice by not being attentive enough to their individual needs.

“Being a manager is unique in that you’re not only impacting the company, you’re impacting the careers and lives of the people you manage”

I’ve lost some great people from my teams because I didn’t care enough about them. I’ve changed by trying to lead with listening, asking people to tell me their stories, and understand where they’re coming from. I realized that I should never compromise on my commitment to people management.

There are many ways to have an impact, but being a manager is unique in that you’re not only impacting the company, you’re impacting the careers and lives of the people you manage – never take that for granted.

Reflecting on the lessons learned

Engagement can be the difference between a productive and impactful team and one that is struggling. Improving team engagement is one of the most important jobs a manager can do. I realized that I’m in this job because I care about people first, and this is my priority as a people manager.

“Most importantly, my teammates are happy, excited to come to work, and enthusiastic about working together”

By applying these four lessons, I’ve seen engagement on my teams improve, and the business results have followed.

But most importantly, my teammates are happy, excited to come to work, and enthusiastic about working together. I’m happier now as a manager than I was before I had learned these lessons.

Most of these lessons were hard-learned and I made many mistakes before understanding what to do. I’ve made mistakes since but these experiences have served as a framework for learning and improvement, and I hope they can offer guidance to other managers as they seek to ensure their teams are as engaged as possible.

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