How managers can foster trust within dev teams 

We sat down with Brian Park, Software Engineering Manager at Uplevel, to discuss how as a manager of developers, he’s able to gain trust and respect from his team while hitting product release goals.
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Brian Park, Software Engineering Manager

Being a manager of developers is no easy feat. Often, managers must balance their developers’ needs to exercise autonomy with their team’s needs to meet product release deadlines. Brian Park, Software Engineering Manager at Uplevel, has experienced this first-hand. As a leader who started as an individual contributor and now manages a team of devs, he has learned a few ways to gain trust from his team.  

WHY IS TRUST IMPORTANT?

It may seem obvious that managers need to trust their team’s efforts, but fostering trust is easier said than done. When a sprint is coming to an end and it appears that the devs will miss their deadlines, it can be easy to overstep to avoid things falling through the cracks. 

Brian has a philosophy when it comes to this— “The people doing the work know how to deal with the painful parts of the process. They know the best way to improve it because they intuitively have an understanding where things are inefficient.”  

While it may seem easier to step in, overbearing managers might be intentionally impeding growth on their teams. Most likely, the devs already know what needs to be done. They just might need help acquiring resources or removing roadblocks. 

That’s where you—a supportive manager—come in.  

 “Trusting your team doesn’t mean getting pulled in every direction that they feel strongly about.” Brian continues, “It means that you give your team the chance to voice concerns and take those concerns seriously. It means that your devs feel that they’re being listened to.”   

THE OPPOSITE OF TRUST IS MISCOMMUNICATION

Uplevel’s advice? Make sure you put a good faith effort into addressing your team’s feedback. Even if you need to defer making changes to a later time, provide a clear plan and a rough timeline for what you intend to do. Doing so helps build up trust that you are looking out for your team – it allows your team members to feel safe while being honest. This is the first step to improving your team’s process and giving them a way to grow. 

Is your definition of “done” the same across your team? It’s important to have those conversations early on so you don’t end up falling behind mid-sprint, simply because of miscommunication.  

When Brian became a manager, he had to first learn to be a good communicator. There were times when things felt like they were falling short, and he needed to do them all himself. Other times, he was tempted to micromanage their work – to ask for constant updates on their work items, interrupt meetings with whatever was on his mind, and put pressure to work faster.  

However, he learned to delegate to his team, and set defined agreements on what was expected. He tells his team, “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but I do want to make it clear what expectations I have.”    

By having open and honest communication with your team, chances are you will avoid unnecessary roadblocks in your sprints. Trust makes life easier for your team, but it also makes life easier for yourself; it means you don’t have to be stressed out all the time about things falling through the cracks. 

HOW DO YOU GAIN TRUST?

When you grant a team autonomy, it allows them to take ownership over their own work. To do this, there needs to be a level of trust built between both the individual contributor and management.  

Brian expressed, “There needs to be a culture of transparency both upwards and downwards. Devs need to be transparent with the work they’re getting done and be honest with themselves about whether they’re going to meet their deadlines. But at the same time, leadership needs to be transparent about what they expect from the team, as well as what priorities are top of mind for the business. Giving devs a sense of how decisions are made is key in helping them feel valued and respected.”

WHAT WAYS CAN YOU GIVE AUTONOMY?

It’s important for managers to be attentive to how each developer has a unique set of strengths, weaknesses, and preferred working styles. The idea of giving teams autonomy means giving them the power to tailor their work to their own styles. It doesn’t always mean letting your team run free; it can also be a process of guiding your developers to discover what works for them, especially if they are newer to the team. 

Brian is a believer in smaller, more focused teams. He split his team into smaller sub-teams and gave them reign over their processes. He let them know that he was there to support them, but let them decide how they wanted to run stand ups, implement processes, and collaborate with design on their own. This gave them more opportunities to grow, learn new skills, and eliminate knowledge silos in the code base. It also meant that the developers had more face-to-face time with the design and product team; getting them to think more about our end users and customer stories. 

Pushing for more autonomy can be challenging, especially if leadership starts feeling a lack of accountability from the developers. It’s up to the manager to try and fill those gaps – establishing reasonable goals that the devs can agree on, and reporting on them to leadership. Brian found himself taking notes at his teams’ scrum rituals to help increase visibility on the work they were doing. He also pushes his team to demo early and often: 

“Sprint demos are crucial from a leadership perspective; I see it as a way of trading accountability for more autonomy. It shows the leadership that the process is working, and that we are making progress in our work – but in return, we ask for the freedom to negotiate the scope of projects or push back on deadlines as we need. I think it’s part of a healthy push and pull.”  

WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW  

Whether you’re a seasoned manager, or just starting out, it can feel daunting to ensure each member of your team feels they have a place and a voice. 

When Brian transitioned from an individual contributor role to a manager role, he took the time to sit down with each member of this new team one on one. He asked what would make them feel comfortable with him as their manager, and what their expectations were of him.  

Brian’s experience is likely different than yours, but one thing is the same—managers need to have trust from their team, or they will not be successful.  

The key to a happy team is trust, and you only get trust through effective communication. Give your devs autonomy, clear expectations, and listen to their concerns when they have them.  

Managing is a hard—but rewarding—job. You’ve got this.