How to build trust on engineering teams

How to build trust on engineering teams

How do effective engineering managers build trust – and support individual engineers, teams, and organizations? Consider this advice from an engineering leader

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The engineering manager’s job description is diverse: It includes hands-on coding, technical leadership and decision-making, process and project management, product oversight, people management, finding and hiring talent…the list goes on.

The role also involves a healthy dose of ambiguity: Many problems or questions don’t have straightforward answers – just as there aren’t always clear answers to what it means to be a successful engineering manager.

But there are certain values and guideposts to follow. Let’s look at what defines an effective engineering manager – and how they can best support individual engineers, teams, and organizations.

What do engineers need?

Let’s start with the basics. Research from performance coach and trainer Paloma Medina reveals six core needs of human beings; she refers to this as the BICEPS model:

  • Belonging: As humans, we strive to be part of a community of like-minded people where we understand and support each other. We also want to feel that we are not being discriminated against or marginalized.
  • Improvement: We seek to continuously learn, improve, and grow in areas that matter to us, as well as to our team or company.
  • Choice: We want to have choice, control, and autonomy over important parts of our lives.
  • Equality: We want to know that our access to information, money, time, and other resources is fair and equal for everyone – not just for ourselves, but also for the people around us. Everyone’s needs should be treated as equally important.
  • Predictability: We look for certainty, safety, and stability in our lives. We also want goals, strategy, and direction to be consistent – and to not change too quickly.
  • Significance: Deep down, all of us seek meaning, importance, and status. We also want to be appreciated for our work by people whose opinions matter to us.

So how can engineering managers put the BICEPS model into action to help their teams thrive?

[ For more leadership advice, read IT careers: 5 essential soft skills to strengthen. ]

Building trust-based relationships 

The foundation of being a good engineering manager is getting to know your teammates and understanding what is important to them. Here are a few places to start building trust within your team.

The foundation of being a good engineering manager is getting to know your teammates and understanding what is important to them.

Ask questions. This is one of the most powerful tools of an effective manager. The basis for managing well is listening, observing, taking note of what motivates your teammates, and digging into the responses to your questions.

I usually gather questions before I meet with my team members one-on-one so I am prepared and can guide the conversation toward understanding them better. Over time, I have built a kit of questions to help drive these conversations.

Asking questions helps you adjust your leadership style to the individuals on your team. It also ensures that they feel understood and heard, which are important pillars of inclusion and belonging.

Be curious. People are full of surprises, and your team members’ reactions may sometimes be completely different from what you expect. I once received a message from an engineer on my team who was deeply upset about the specific wording used in a product-release note to customers. At first, I did not understand their strong reaction. But when we talked, I learned the engineer had been overruled by someone with more power, making them feel helpless and threatening their core need for choice and equality.

The moral? What you might perceive as no big deal might be an enormous threat to one of your team members. These situations offer good opportunities to focus on human-centric responses, such as giving people the opportunity to talk through their feelings.

Connect to the bigger picture. Creating an impact is an excellent motivator, so make sure the engineers on your team understand how their work helps users or supports other teams. While goal-setting frameworks like OKRs can help with this, it is also crucial to align engineering initiatives with higher-level goals and connect them clearly with user value.

Involve engineers in decision-making. Feeling that decisions are fair and equitable is an important component of the BICEPS model. Before you make decisions, ask your team members for their opinion. You won’t always be able to oblige everyone, but you can try to contextualize your decisions and assure people that you considered their feedback.

Give feedback. One of the best things you can do as an engineering manager is to support your team members’ growth. Give feedback regularly to help your engineers understand where they are and how they can grow – by course-correcting where needed and setting new goals in areas in which they excel.

One of the best things you can do as an engineering manager is to support your team members’ growth.

Also, managers need feedback too: Don’t forget to ask your team for feedback so you can also adjust as needed.

Be a coach. Coaching helps people find answers independently, improves their problem-solving and leadership skills, and increases learning, resilience, and self-management.

Sponsor your team members. Think back on your career – have you had a mentor who helped you grow professionally, expand your network, and generally made a difference in your career? Be that person for someone else: Invest in their growth, lift them up, and put your weight behind their success. Supporting the success of individual team members can make an important difference for them – and have a positive effect on the entire team.

This is the foundation of our work as engineering managers. In part two of this article, we'll look at the  characteristics of a high-performing team and how to support organizational change. 

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

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Lena Reinhard is the VP of Product Engineering at CircleCI, the leader in continuous integration and delivery for developer teams. After a career in finance, arts, and media, Lena found herself working in tech, and at age 26 cofounded her first software company and became a CEO.

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