Engineering managers rise by lifting others up and helping them succeed.
If you genuinely love helping people and actively seek new ways to make your team better, you can constantly bring out the best in everyone you work with and rise in your workplace.
Based on my day-to-day experiences, I’m sharing my secrets to navigating challenging scenarios as a manager.
1. Be a great communicator
Effective internal and external communication is, without a doubt, key to becoming a better manager. So how can you get there?
Foster open dialogue
Fostering open dialog with your staff ensures that everybody has a voice, promoting psychological security. Ask your team and peers the following questions during meetings to assess whether they feel secure voicing their opinions:
- Are there any other views we should consider?
- Do you think your ideas are heard and valued?
- What will help to encourage more open team dialogue?
Make the decision to answer emails during work hours. You could even make a public commitment to hold yourself accountable. Keep your schedule updated and share your availability with your team members – and ask for theirs, too! If you can’t reply to an email within your usual response period, let the sender know how soon you can respond. This helps build trust and also demonstrates work/life balance.
Your team depends on you for information. Team meetings are the best platform for broadcasting information uniformly and allow everyone to benefit from related questions and discussions.
- Make sharing information from management part of the agenda for repeat team meetings.
- Make sure absentees receive the information too.
- Plan for questions in advance.
- Integrity is the best policy, even with terrible news.
- Connect and monitor the flow of potentially divisive messages in the healthiest possible way to the right people at the right time.
Calm down under the light
When a crisis arises from an emergency, teams need their leaders to take immediate action while staying calm and professional. Much as on a plane, before helping others, remember to first put your oxygen mask on.
When your team members are talking, always give them your total attention. Listening helps to provide the most effective answer consciously.
2. Share quality feedback
Writing reliable feedback can influence the actions of your team members. Don’t withhold difficult feedback, even if you think the person won't take it well. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott describes this as ruinous empathy: being ‘nice’ to spare people’s feelings can be ultimately unhelpful or damaging.
The ‘like-me bias’ means we’re more likely to give valuable feedback to those we relate to the most, leading to insider/outsider tensions. Combat implicit bias by checking if you have been equally open with every team member.
Here are a few things to observe when writing feedback:
- Discuss actual scenarios and specific contexts to help the recipient understand the feedback.
- Articulate your views carefully, making sure your language is accurate.
- Share how their actions affect their job, you, the team, etc.
- Don’t infer objective facts, as our evaluation of others is subjective.
- Focus more on evolving attitudes rather than personalities.
- Be conscious of cultural norms or values that may be important to them.
In addition to formal reviews, you should also regularly give timely, positive feedback.
3. Approach help in a healthy way
There are three main aspects to help: giving help, asking for help, and welcoming help. Let’s walk through each one.
As a manager, you need to support your team members without micromanaging or judging them. One person might be grateful for your proactive help, while another may feel defensive.
If you’re not sure, try asking, ‘How can I help you?' and watch out for the following when they respond:
- Are there signals that suggest when they may need assistance?
- Can you trust that they’ll ask for support immediately and in advance when they need it?
- Will they pretend everything's okay even when it isn't?
When offering help, be clear about what you can help with, what your goal is (i.e. to unblock them), and what your boundaries are.
Asking for help
You may feel awkward asking for help. Perhaps it makes you feel like an imposter, or you don’t know who can help, or you do know someone but they’re busy.
But asking for help isn’t as bad as you might think! Start by reflecting on what you need help with:
- Create a list of things where you need help.
- Focus on why you haven't found any help yet. Try to reframe a restricting belief or build alternate beliefs.
- Identify the names of individuals who might help with each item.
- Take action. Ask for assistance with at least one item on your list, no matter how small.
This is about welcoming help when you haven’t asked for it. Great managers accept support graciously and with sincere gratitude, even when that support is part of the helper’s job. Healthy teams thank each other for the little things. Team members should feel free to take chances, be vulnerable with each other, and find support.
4. Run effective 1:1s
‘I start every 1:1 with the same question: "Happiness level, 1 to 10?" I have every TLM in my org do the same.’ – Mekka Okereke
1:1s are an opportunity for you to listen to your staff, connect with them, and build rapport.
1:1s with direct reports
I try to get an idea of the career ambitions of my direct reports. It helps me identify projects, recommend courses, training sessions, conferences, mentors, etc., and also helps me understand how to match their career aspirations with the promotion cycles.
How frequently you meet your reports can vary depending on their experience level and whether you are co-located or working remotely. For example, a junior engineer might need more feedback at the beginning, and you might check in more frequently with those working remotely.
1:1s with the skip level
Skip level 1:1s are meetings between:
- You and folks who report to your reports. It's important to welcome people, learn about them, and understand how the ‘sausage gets made.’ You would meet this set of people less frequently than your direct reports.
- Your managers and your reports. You will want to facilitate some visibility between your reports and your manager/director. Such meetings would also provide your manager with more context for your performance review.
Practical tips for 1:1s
- Listen actively: Listen closely and express understanding and appreciation for the context and viewpoint of the other person.
- Adjust the location/settings: You could go for a walk, get some coffee, or have a meal. It would allow you to connect at a human level with your reports.
- It's alright to cancel: When there's nothing to discuss, or you mutually agree that things are fine for now, it's cool to cancel sometimes.
- Discuss career progression: Sometimes, have a higher-level conversation about their career and happiness. When they aim for a promotion, discuss the path forward.
- Be open-minded: Be open to reverse feedback. Knowing what your team thinks of your management style is helpful.
- Have a doc: A collaborative document helps to maintain action items, what's decided, what's due, etc. It helps you plan future 1:1s and functions as an archive.
5. Manage with empathy
Part of your job as a manager is to show consideration and support. Empathy is at the heart of this practice. The following pointers can help:
- Create a safe atmosphere by sharing your challenges and accepting your errors. Vulnerability modeling inspires others to share.
- Sincerely ask your reports and other colleagues how they are doing and what is on their minds.
- Listen with all your attention.
- If someone shares a problem or concern, don't presume they want therapy. Often, they only want to express themselves.
- Remember the small details (hobbies, family, etc.) and include them in your conversations.
6. Create a sense of belonging
The idea of belonging is a crucial element in forming successful teams. People need to feel like they’re part of something greater. The mutual need for that sense of collaboration and unity is crucial.
Here are a few ways to foster a sense of belonging within your team:
- Be consistent: Acts that encourage belonging require continuous effort and develop over time. One symbolic gesture is not enough.
- Encourage mutuality: Belonging is a two-way street between the group and the people in it. Both sides have to wake each other up.
- Persevere: Ideally, if a relationship holds over time, there should be enough space for both parties to change and grow, but you're always linked around the core intent.
- Make folks feel welcome and safe: We want to create physiologically safe spaces for team members while also being inclusive and not driving outsiders away.
You can’t foster a sense of belonging alone. But, as a manager, you have an opportunity to transform how people feel. Think about what makes you feel like you’re part of a safe community, and take steps to ensure your team feels the same.
Being a manager is work, but it can also be fun and hugely rewarding. Seeing your direct report do well is an amazing experience. In the words of Jo Miller, ‘Leaders don’t set out to climb the ladder. They rise by lifting others up.’ Good luck!