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How do you inspire your engineering team?

We don’t deserve the team we can’t inspire. Camaraderie, purpose, and appreciation need to be our priorities.

Running for Team Victory. Illustration by author.

With record numbers of employees leaving their jobs, perhaps it’s no surprise that I recently stumbled across a product manager asking, ‘How do people inspire their engineering teams?’ Even if you don’t work in product, I’m sure many of us not planning an imminent exit can relate to this problem.

Keeping spirits high while navigating product development’s murky waters is no easy task, especially when it’s unclear if any treasure lies within its gloomy depths.

“The greatest threat to success is not failure, but boredom”, wrote James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. Anyone can work hard when motivated, but a steady IV drip of corporate optimism will not help a team move faster forever.

More is needed to exercise the intrinsic motivation muscles of those around us.

So, how can we balance motivating a team while delivering quality solutions and meeting deadlines? Beyond paying more, what can we do to help sustainably inspire a team to be their most productive or creative?

This article takes a deeper look at these questions and will explore how we can leverage camaraderie and a sense of purpose when working towards common goals.

Prioritise your relationships

We typically tend to prioritise results over our relationships.

People that only come to us when they need something are usually the ones we least enjoy interacting with. People who have invested time helping, advising or just getting to know us will always be more welcome.

When it comes to improving relationships, we could learn a thing or two from medieval farmers. Life for a medieval farmer was challenging — you never knew when you would have a good harvest or a bad one. It created a lot of uncertainty. As a result, farmers favoured a strategy of minimising their risk with relationships over maximising their profits.

During a good harvest year, farmers would typically banquet their neighbours, contribute to village festivals and pay off their debts. These activities helped build social capital, which could be ‘cashed out’ later in an emergency.

Grain may rot, but your neighbour is still likely to be your neighbour next year. By leveraging their reciprocal relationships, help was offered when times were bad so that they could reap support in return.

I’m not the best at building work relationships, but what helps is when I acknowledge the amount of cognitive effort such a relationship requires upfront. It’s part of a continuous effort not just to open ourselves to better relationships with a single person but with an unspecified number of people on any given day.

Achieving this can be as simple as carving out time to speak with your team about non-work stuff — ask about weekends, hobbies and side passions. What do they like about their role? Be genuinely interested. Even saying something as simple as” goodbye” at the end of the day can help.

The goal is to build authentic relationships that give your team the psychological safety to tackle the most challenging problems head-on.

Always clarify the purpose

Nothing draws us in quite like a sense of purpose.

You may consider what your team does as significant, life-changing work, but if the team doesn’t, then what’s the point? The truth is we don’t spend enough time communicating the value of what we do.

What I find works well is bringing a team into the product development process early. Give your team problems, not solutions. They should understand and feel the user’s pain, what is essential, and only then seek a solution.

To help you and your team attain a clearer sense of purpose and vision, Marty Cagan from the Silicon Valley Product Group would recommend asking yourselves the following questions:

  • What problem, exactly, are you trying to solve?
  • Who exactly are you trying to solve this problem for?
  • What are the goals you are trying to satisfy?
  • What is the relative priority of each goal?

For bonus points, you can go further by leveraging your newly improved relationships (see the last section) by suggesting how your teammates could apply their personal and creative pursuits to a problem. After all, helping direct a passionate interest into a practical application helps create purpose in our work.

Appreciate good work in public

Many of us seem to shy away from appreciating people publicly. It’s not because I don’t want to, but because I feel saying nice things triggers awkwardness, and unconsciously I assume others will feel uncomfortable receiving a compliment.

While most management advice focuses on sustaining productivity, the power of compliments is largely overlooked.

Some studies suggest that being recognised at work not only helps reduce employee burnout, but the very act of practising kindness and giving compliments can actually make us happier and feel life has more meaning.

Public recognition is good because it can help a colleague build credibility and lets them know they are a valued part of the conversation.

“Very humanly, when we are complimented, most of us will usually strive to perform even better down the line” — G. Kingsley Ward

The article ’How to give and receive a compliment at work’ by Christopher Littlefield from HBR offers us some tips on how we should give compliments. Chris states that “compliments are a fundamental leadership skill”. For compliments to be impactful, we should ensure that:

  • Our intention is authentic
  • Provide specific examples
  • Focus on the process (not just the result)
  • And explain how they impacted the team

It’s easy to forget to give praise, but a well thought through compliment will always be appreciated and maybe even one day reciprocated.

Broadcast your successes

You never know when you will be successful again, so we should let others know what we are proud of. To be great team members, we should always support and amplify the successes and contributions of our teammates.

Whether it’s achieving a milestone or surpassing your targets, we should plan how to quantify the value of success to increase our message’s impact. If people can see what you are doing and how well it works for you, they will be more likely to follow your example.

To ensure you never miss a triumphant moment, try to determine your value metrics carefully. Patrick Campbell, CEO of Price Intelligently, nicely sums up an approach for achieving this. Ask yourself three questions:

  • Does the value metric align with how your customer/user perceives value?
  • Does the metric scale as the product is used more? i.e. a rate or ratio
  • Is the metric easy to understand? Can you easily explain it?

The best metrics correlate with something you can change or impact. Our aim should be to build and communicate a success metric dashboard that would enable a team to quantify their value autonomously.

After that, broadcasting your successes and how we appreciate those who contributed towards them becomes much easier.

Inspiring engineers is a big challenge because they are intelligent, passionate people who want to make the best product possible.

Keeping a team together should be centred around initiatives of compassion, not convenience. It should be emotional, not artificial.

I believe the path forward requires little technical innovation but instead demands people care about people. An idea so laughably naïve yet so radically transformative.

The inspiration we drive should not purely predicate on achieving results but instead focus on fostering trust and a culture that inspires us to do our best work.

“Caring and a sense of purpose evoke better performance than pressure and fear. The idea that only obsessive egomaniacs can produce breakthroughs is nonsense.” — Brian de Haaff, CEO of Aha!