The Secret to Productive Engineering Teams

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

What’s the secret sauce? It’s not a secret that happy and motivated employees are more productive at work. How do you keep employees engaged and motivated? There isn’t a one size fits all approach because each person is unique, has a diverse background, and are driven by different reasons to work. A leader must invest the time to learn the person’s work background, their personality, their passions, where they want to go in their career, and much more. Only after gaining this knowledge can an effective method to be tailored to motivate an individual by supporting their needs and career aspirations. That’s a lot of work, but it’s well worth it once all the individuals fall together into a high performing team.

Safe Environment

The work environment makes a tremendous impact on a person’s productivity, which is why it is so essential first to create a safe space. Productive employees don’t hold anything back and run at full speed toward their goals. Allow people to fail without blame because instilling a fear of failure into employees will cause them always to take the safe route and never take any risks. People take high risks to achieve amazing things that rock the world.

“Great love and great achievements involve great risk.” — Dalai Lama

Everything starts with trust, which must be gained over time by what actions the leader makes in different situations. There isn’t a magical shortcut of doing a “trust fall” that will instantly get someone to believe in you. The best way to earn trust is to be consistently honest, reliable, open, and respectful even when no one is looking. Does your direct report trust that you have their best interest in mind? Can you believe that your team will do their work? If you don’t have confidence in your group, they aren’t going to have faith in you either.

Forming a real work connection with direct reports starts with making an effort to learn more about them. One-on-one meetings are a great way to learn more about what your employee wants to do or where they want to go with their careers. It’s also an excellent time to learn about a person’s strengths and weaknesses instead of focusing only on getting the status of the person’s work. Then create a plan with them on how to improve their weaknesses and present opportunities where they can show their strengths toward the career path they want.

Sometimes it is hard for employees to approach a manager because of their rank or authority over the employee. Similar to meeting a stranger for the first time, the fear of danger goes away after knowing about the person more. A manager can become more approachable by getting to know their reports more on a personal level. Having lunch with team members is a great way to find out about how their kids are doing, what their hobbies are, or even what books they are reading. The work environment can get stale so throw in a fun conversation about utter nonsense such as if a hot dog is a sandwich or not. Keep the work atmosphere positive and light-hearted.

The ability to listen carefully and effectively communicate are essential leadership skills. Conflict usually happens due to miscommunication, which is why it’s important to take the time to explain each decision or direction. Give people a chance to express their opinions and let them know that their opinion is valued even if it may not be the best choice. I highly recommend taking it a step further by learning how to negotiate as it will teach many useful skills to use at work even if there isn’t a conflict. A great book is:

Work Engagement

Ever get that rush of accomplishment once a difficult problem is solved? It’s a fantastic feeling to have. Great software engineers don’t want to be doing the same thing over and over again. Doing so will lead to stagnation and boredom, which will cause great engineers to leave. Find out what your employee likes to work on and present them challenging opportunities, but also balance it out with work that is outside of their expertise.

Hack days or hackathons are becoming more common as they are great morale boosters and gives engineers the freedom to work on whatever they want to. Fixing a bug, working on their pet project, improving the product, and more. This event doubles as a safe place for employees to potentially fail because the objective is to have a break from working on the company’s projects. Once in a while, great innovative ideas come out these events such as Facebook’s “like” button came from one of their hackathons.

Talk to your employee about what they want to achieve in a year and what they want to be in five years. One reason people leave their job is they feel that they have outgrown their current position and they want to find new growth opportunities. Nothing kills motivation like the feeling of being stuck in one place no matter what you do. Give your direct reports opportunities to advance even if that means they will be leaving your team.

Regardless of how technical you are, your direct reports need to develop more skills than just technical skills. As an engineer progresses along their career track, planning, leadership, and soft skills become more critical. These are the type of skills you can pass onto your reports. For example, you could teach your direct report on how to develop ideas into actionable items if they have trouble identifying tasks out of abstract concepts.


Always celebrate the wins. Especially after completion of a long and complicated project. A team lunch, team dinner, happy hour drinks, or even a party are good ways to celebrate. Novelty gifts such as a small trophy or a t-shirt that says “I survived _____ and got this lousy t-shirt” can form fond memories after a hard hurdle. It also nicely doubles as a reminder of a good achievement made.

While celebrating wins is excellent, remember to celebrate people because it shows employees that they are more than just a cog in the machine. On a team scale, events such as welcome lunches, parting lunches, or even celebrating a team member’s birthday with a cupcake. These events give a nice personal feeling toward the individual. On a larger department level, activities such as team off-sites and awards will significantly improve morale.

Praise people who do a good job and especially those who go above and beyond what they were expected to do. Small things such as thanking them on a team meeting goes a long way. Another great idea is to nominate that person for a department or company award. All of these actions show how much the person’s work is appreciated. Never steal credit and always give credit where it is due.

Closing Words

Whatever your management style is, don’t forget about the people you’re leading because they need your support and guidance to achieve greatness. The manager is the multiplier for the team’s productivity and success. Give them an environment they can thrive while keeping them engaged in work and appreciated by the company. Set up your reports up for success, believe in them, and watch them soar to new highs.

Engineering leader. Software Developer. Problem solver. Failing forward.

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