Four steps to building engaged engineering teams

Four steps to building engaged engineering teams

Note: This article was originally published for Intercom's blog in August 2020. I am republishing here for visibility and ongoing maintenance.

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 become opportunities to improve and grow. The dynamic on the team seems to be one that just works.

When you’re on a team that isn’t engaged, however, everything takes longer. People can be distant and 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 leader, 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 in 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?

When I first became an EM, I repeated things I had seen on the teams I’d been on without much 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—the role sort of fell into my lap and I took it without full knowledge of what I was getting myself into.

A while 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 of 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 really honed in on why I wanted to continue in management, which started with my values:

  • Directness. I seek to say what I am thinking and feeling while being empathetic toward others.

  • Curiosity. I seek to understand the world and how it works.

  • Peacefulness. I seek to work in a way that brings peace to me and others—peace with each other, and peace with change.

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 in 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.

I went deep into 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 healthy, high-performing 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, and be willing to adapt it

Managers who hold strong opinions and are inflexible in 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.

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 and 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.

I’ve lost some great people from my teams because I didn’t care enough about them. I’ve changed by trying to lead by listening, asking people to tell me their stories and understanding 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, but you’re also impacting the careers and lives of the people you manage. I view myself as a steward of the careers of engineers who report to me and I try never to take that for granted.

Reflecting on the lessons

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.

By applying these four lessons, I’ve seen engagement levels on my teams improve significantly, 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 ever was before learning 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.