The 4 Key Ways We Fail As Engineering Managers

Being a successful engineering manager is not easy. Learn about the 4 key ways of failure you need to watch.

The 4 Key Ways We Fail As Engineering Managers

Management tends to get bad rap and unfortunately many times rightfully so. Having a bad manager can make one’s life miserable and hinder their growth. Managers can seem like politicians who don’t know anything about our trade yet they give us directions.

On the other hand having a good manager can make you feel supported, can boost your career (and sometimes personal) growth and help make your team and company a happy place.

For better or worse, managers have a huge impact on their teams’ and direct report’s lives. It’s extremely important to understand some usual failure scenarios so we can course correct and provide better service and support to them.

Let’s see four usual ways we fail as managers.

1. Low self-confidence

It’s not the lack of ability or opportunity that holds you back; it is only a lack of confidence in yourself.

Richard Monckton Milnes

I’ve known much more engineering managers with low self-confidence than otherwise. Honestly, I can relate! It’s usually really hard to see our work’s positive effect, feedback loops are just too long, and cause-and-effect relations aren’t always trivial to see.

This is especially true for new managers, who just stepped into a completely new skill area and often try to cling to what they already know. It’s really taxing on one’s confidence to suddenly be a beginner again after previously being highly performing (engineer, many times). The end result is that we are trying to prove to ourselves (and sometimes to others, too) that we do deserve the manager role.

Feeling like this is entirely natural, and it can motivate us to learn and do better. Troubles start, though when this inspires the wrong kinds of behaviors in managers.

For one, continually demonstrating insecurity, in general, can undermine people’s confidence in us as leaders who can enforce our negative thoughts and create a vicious circle - we start noticing others don’t have much faith in us.

People with low self-confidence usually have a hard time saying “I don’t know”, which is essential as an engineering manager. We cling to the thought that we have to know answers to everything that comes up; otherwise, we’re just not performing well.

I’ve seen some insecure managers trying to do team members’ jobs. They do this not because they don’t trust their team, but they need something they’re proficient with to feel more secure and confident. This was partially the motivation for me to write one of my old posts titled Engineering Managers, Stop Coding!

Another way for such managers to feel that they are still worth something is to be too nitpicky, for example, in code reviews or simply when giving feedback. Among many things, all this can lead to the team’s engineers feeling that their engineering manager is competing against them in a way.

I’ve seen another behavior of low self-confidence managers: they sometimes complain about their direct reports to other direct reports (please never ever do this!) or their manager.

Usually, this is only a transition period, but sometimes managers get stuck in this for years. A good support circle (the other managers in the company) and a good manager of the manager can help tremendously. Being able to discuss insecurities and fears with others can make you understand that this is normal, you’re not alone, and you can learn good coping and growth strategies from more seasoned peers.

2. The silver bullet a.k.a. the one-trick pony

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.

Jelaluddin Rumi

We might not be conscious about it, but we all have a natural, default style when it comes to management. This is shaped by our general personality, our experiences and things we’ve learnt along the way. As managers, we unconsciously rely on this style, and without guidance, we tend to use that style with every direct report. Even when it becomes conscious, we justify this with ‘this is who I am’ and sometimes even with core values and our self-image (see my earlier post Stories We Tell Ourselves). Also, in many cases this style is actually the way we prefer to be managed.

While having strong core values is vital to being a successful leader, using a single management style just simply won’t work with all your direct reports over the years. Acting this way will harm some of your direct reports (and of course hinder your performance as an engineering manager, too).

One-trick managers often talk about the one true way to do things. They get overprotective about their style as they face more and more challenge. They often see the failure to be with the direct reports who don’t respond well to their style instead of adapting to theirs.

This usually shows in hiring, too - engineering managers who are stuck with one single style of leadership often prefer to hire people who are like them instead of diversifying the team.

INTERVIEWER 1: I think you’ll be a really good culture fit, Dave. INTERVIEWER 2: I have to say Dave, your answers really impressed us. CANDIDATE: Thank you, Dave. You too, Dave.

@tef_ebooks on Twitter

These managers will have a fantastic relationship with some of the team members who’ll get most of their attention, leaving the others in the limbo a bit. These engineers who are left out will get frustrated and might end up doubting their performance if they don’t realize what’s happening.

As managers, it’s our core job to form a good working relationship with our direct reports. When this requires us to adapt our style or adopt new styles, it’s our job to do so. It’s not fair to expect our direct reports to adapt to our way of management. Situational Leadership is a part of this.

3. Too much business focus vs. too much people focus

I still believe in synergy, but I call it natural law.

Barry Diller

We’ve all met managers who are only into business and view their direct reports as “resources”. They seemingly don’t care too much about their folks’ wellbeing and are only driven by deadlines, impact and KPIs. If the team is successful, it’ll make them happy, right?

We sometimes (much more rarely) see leaders who are only into the people part of their job. They create safe havens for their direct reports, try to protect them from the ‘evils’ of the world and the company and don’t seem to care about performance and business results too much. With a happy team, everything will just work out eventually, right?

These are obviously polar extremes - in reality, this works much more like a balance. Some business-focused managers actually do care a lot about their direct reports but firmly believe that the only way to happiness is a successful business. People-only leaders do sometimes nurture amazingly performing teams.

I just said ‘balance’, but I don’t view these to focuses as opposites. It’s much more about the balance of the short term and the long term. This balance manifests in many areas - solution quality vs. time to market, investing in the people vs. investing in the business, etc. etc..

Too much focus on the business in a leader will sometimes result in that leader prioritizing short term wins over long term ones. Such managers will talk a lot about holding people accountable. They are quick to ‘abandon’ direct reports who don’t fall in line in terms of team commitments and performance instead of coaching them and working on alignment. The sacrifice here can be tremendous: company culture suffers, and this setup won’t work in the long term. People will get burnt out and will leave. Sure, they will hire new engineers, but there’s the cost of onboarding and slowing down, lack of tenure and an overarching understanding of the product and systems and the job market will know what kind of place their company is.

Only focusing on the people without considering that you as a team are responsible for making the business successful can be equally detrimental. As an extreme case, a failed business won’t be able to eventually employ (as many) engineers. Individual and team success needs to align with the business’ success. Such leaders will often position themselves as gatekeepers of core values versus the rest of the company, or senior management. They will view their team as the last stand against the tides of evil.

This, in the end, is not about balance, I think, but rather about synergy (look, look, a buzzword!) - not building a silo of a safe haven for your team but finding a way for the individuals to grow and be successful in tandem with the business’ goals. Naturally, you need the right kind of company for this - if the company’s core values aren’t aligned with nurturing happy teams, it’ll naturally fail as a business, too. If you feel as a leader or as an individual contributor that you cannot stand by your company’s core values, by all means, do yourself the favor of finding a better place for yourself (unless you believe you can steer the company, of course).

I’ve personally only seen high performing AND happy teams when business results and team happiness/health were aligned.

4. Too much solving, not enough listening

I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.

Larry King

Interestingly this can happen both when we’re not confident as leaders and when we are too confident. We tend to focus on solutions too much instead of supporting/empowering others or listening for more context.

Sometimes people only need someone to vent to and are not looking for solutions immediately. Even when they are, we can act as coaches and guide them to the solutions, helping them grow in the process so that next time they will be able to solve on their own. Even when they need an immediate solution, we might fail to get the whole context by not authentically listening to them.

Such leaders usually jump to solutions right after hearing about an issue, and even when they ask for more details and input, they are not listening authentically. They might get impatient when the discussion drags on.

There are two ‘skills’ we can hone here: Authentic listening and asking good questions.

Authentic listening starts with the proper attitude and intentions. Your attitude should be one of genuine caring, curiosity, and openness to being influenced by the person you are with. Your intentions should be to fully understand your peer, encourage them to fully express themselves about this topic, and validate their thoughts and feelings. Leave your judgment out of the conversation. Make the discussion about your peer, not yourself. There’s a great summary here: 7 Tips for Authentic Listening: Do You Set Yourself Apart as a Leader?

I’ve written an entire post about the role of questions in management: Questions vs. Directions

Closing words

I’d been extremely lucky when I started my (real) engineering manager career in 2014 - I had an amazing, supportive team and a great manager with a strong people-first attitude. I’d been an engineering leader and executive before that - but that couldn’t even compare. I was very different back then and so was the company culture. I know it’s an overused statement but company culture really matters a lot. If you can, choose a place which inspires you and which aligns with most of your core values.

I’ve met a lot of fellow managers along my journey, and at the risk of sounding judgemental I can say that most of them exhibit different combinations of the above - including myself. The best we can do is talk about these issues, make them conscious and work on ourselves a bit. Change is possible, I’m 41 and I’m still learning the trade, sometimes day by day.