Other people-First Management: A Key to A hit Dev Groups

As a team leader, your job is to ensure all the parts of your workflow are, well, working. However, it’s critical to remember that people are not parts. Your “pipeline” is not a machine, even though we tend to use mechanical metaphors to describe it. When you manage your teams with the understanding that there are real, living, complex, feeling humans creating and executing work for your organization, you use people-first leadership.

People today are struggling with unemployment, a recession and layoffs across our tech industry. Many people’s needs have been threatened… and continue to be. As a team leader, you might feel powerless in many regards, but one positive change you can make is to put in the daily work to be a people-first team manager.

This article will help you understand how to be a people-first team leader and how that results in more fulfilled and productive teams.

What You’ll Learn

  • What a people-first leadership strategy is.
  • How you can use it to create happier and more successful teams.
  • Five actionable strategies anyone can use to start being a people-first team lead.

You’ll start by learning the advantages you’ll get from making the effort to recognize and support the people in your team.

Why Leading With a People-First Mindset Is Important

People are challenging to manage, but it helps to remember we all want the same things at our core. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a well-known framework for describing our fundamental human needs:

Pyramid showing physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualization at the top.

In short, people want to feel:

  • They have the resources they need to live.
  • They are safe.
  • They belong.
  • They are seen, heard, respected, and empowered.
  • They are motivated to be the best version of themselves.

To translate this to a work environment, we can say that your team members, including managers, colleagues and direct reports, all want to feel:

  • Their positions and/or salaries are secure.
  • They are safe to communicate ideas or concerns, as well as to get and give feedback.
  • They can be their authentic selves at work.
  • Their skills and perspectives are considered when the work affects them.
  • They have the tools, resources and support they need to do their job.
  • They are compensated and acknowledged for their efforts.

Think back to a job you left — or maybe even one you were fired from. It’s likely that role didn’t work out because one (or more!) of the workplace needs listed above wasn’t being met.

Putting an emphasis on a people-first management style isn’t just a nice thing to do — it’s amazingly effective at creating a loyal, satisfied and productive dev team. When people feel the work they are doing matters and that their efforts are noticed and appreciated, they will do good work. It’s how humans are made.

By recognizing your team members’ needs and prioritizing them, you can significantly improve your dev team’s work. Some advantages you might see include:

  1. Improved employee engagement and satisfaction: When your team members feel that you’re respecting their needs and well-being, they are more likely to feel engaged, motivated and committed to their work. This can lead to higher levels of job satisfaction and reduced turnover.
  2. Better communication and collaboration: A people-first approach emphasizes open communication and collaboration, which can help break down silos and improve teamwork. This can lead to higher-quality work and more efficient processes.
  3. Increased innovation and creativity: When your team members feel valued and empowered, they’re free to take risks, try new things and contribute ideas.
  4. Greater adaptability and resilience: A people-first management style encourages flexibility and adaptability — a major competitive advantage in the fast-changing tech sector.
  5. Better team performance: All of the advantages above combine to create more efficient processes, higher-quality work and better overall outcomes.

As a team leader, you’re in a unique position to create a culture in which your team feels fulfilled and works together to create amazing things. Next, you’ll learn how to do it.

5 Practical Steps to Be a Good Team Leader

Managing people isn’t magic, and there isn’t a secret; it’s something you can learn to do. If you feel you aren’t a natural people leader or if you are managing a particularly dynamic team, there are a number of practical steps you can take to show up for your team in a helpful and meaningful way.

Here are five strategies you can use to implement people-first leadership for your dev team.

1. Make a Daily Commitment

Maintaining a people-first leadership mindset is a daily practice. It’s a commitment you make at the start of each work day when you sit down to write an email, set goals and outcomes for your team, give feedback, create timelines for projects, manage resources and join every meeting. You are managing people — and being a person is hard. They won’t always get it right. Neither will you. And that’s okay.

If your team knows they belong to a people-first organization, the trust and communication will be in place so that everyone feels they’re safe and empowered to make their best effort with people who care about them and the work they are doing.

Tip: You might find it helpful to paste a sticky note to your computer screen as a reminder that the work you do as a team lead should be about the people on your team. Write a reminder that speaks to you. Here’s an example:

  • “Today, people first.”
  • “I manage people, not products.”
  • “Remember to ask for feedback.”
  • “Remember to thank my team.”

When I was teaching and leading a lot of students, I kept a sticky note on my computer that said, “Every student, every day,” meaning every new day I would show up for each individual student. It reminded me to start each morning fresh and bring the best of myself, as well as the tools and resources available to me, to each lesson, conference, email, etc. I carried that forward when I started managing teams to ensure every person, every day, on every project received renewed patience, empathy and effort.

If it sounds like extra work to take care of the people on your team first, before and in addition to the logistics that go into managing projects, you are absolutely correct.

Because people are incredibly unique and are subject to physical, mental and emotional changes every day, no two days of management will ever be the same. The combination of personalities, moods and circumstances among your team members will be new each day, too. However, the payoff of having a happy, engaged and effective team is worth the effort.

2. Develop People-First KPIs

Certainly, part of your organization’s roadmap or strategy will outline the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) you want your team to work toward — such as projects completed or numeric goals reached. This is especially true in the tech industry. You’ll be tasked with leading your team to deploy apps or software on certain timelines, while reaching other metrics like user downloads, purchases, conversions, etc.

Developing people-first KPIs (in addition to the product KPIs) means that you expressly build mechanisms into your strategy plan to measure how your people are doing over time – not just how they’re performing, but also how they’re doing as people under your care.

Some examples of people-focused KPIs include:

  • Create anonymous monthly check-in surveys that measure if employees feel their needs are being met. Set a goal for both participation and a positive result. For example: We want 80% of employees to respond to monthly anonymous check-in surveys, and we want an average score of 4.5 out of 5.
  • Ensuring employees are taking a certain percentage of their vacation days.
  • Committing to a number of 1:1 informal individual check-ins with your team so they have a safe, regular space to share concerns and successes and to be seen by you.
  • Committing to a number of 1:1 formal individual check-ins with your team to give them regular feedback, formally recognize their work, revisit their role description to make sure it still fits and more.
  • Revisiting the purpose and number of meetings your team holds to ensure people have the time and energy to do their work.
  • Adding “people updates” into “product updates”. When project or team leads are giving updates on the status of projects/products, make space to share team contributions and successes, ensuring the people who do the work are included and seen, not just the output.

These are just a few ideas. Maybe yours includes a company retreat, special recognitions, or bonuses that recognize the “human” aspects of your team’s success such as reliability, good communication and other soft skills.

KPIs help you learn how your team feels about their work, their role, you and your organization. This feedback is critical for successfully leading and retaining your team.

3. Listen

Although we all know we need to listen to one another, most people don’t explicitly make the time to do so. This is especially true in tech, where we are multitasking under deadlines, constantly upskilling and working on The Next Big Thing. It might seem sufficient to get a brief update at Stand-Up and, if you don’t hear any fire alarms, send people to work.

But listening is an integral part of being a team leader — it’s as necessary as taking vitals is for a medical professional. If someone is sitting in front of a doctor, the doctor can pretty safely assume the person’s heart is beating and they are breathing. But they stop what they are doing anyway, press a stethoscope to their patient’s chest, and listen.

Be honest: Do you look at your team members, sitting there at Stand-Up and breathing, and assume everything is fine? Or do you take the time to put your finger on their pulse?

As a team leader, really listening to your team is like flipping to the back of the textbook for answers. If you make space, make time, and ask good questions, your team will tell you if their needs are being met. With this knowledge, you can update timelines, change the scope of projects, consider new hires, update employment policies and take other proactive steps to ensure your team has what they need.

You are just one person doing the best you can to lead your team. But listening is the very best superpower you can develop to meet your team where they are so you can do the work to support them.

This is the really important part: Once you’ve listened, if you hear something that requires action, it’s critical you facilitate that action right away. You won’t get infinite chances to listen. If you go to your doctor and complain of a pain in your chest, and the doctor listens, does nothing and sends you home, you probably aren’t going back.

4. Communicate

There have been a lot of psychological studies on the impact of uncertainty on people. The main conclusion is that, because the brain is burdened with keeping us safe, it perceives uncertainty as a threat to our survival.

Your tech team will often face uncertainty due to the changing nature of technology, the tech market, user behavior and more — in addition to health crises and a turbulent economic climate. Even if your team’s needs are being met, those psychological studies also mention something else the human brain will do when it perceives uncertainty: It makes up stories to fill in the gaps. The stories your team members’ brains write can seed problems on your team.

Your team members may begin to doubt if you’re noticing their efforts, if their job is secure, if they are doing good work, if it’s acceptable to take sick or vacation days, if it’s OK to raise a concern and more.

Good communication skills are the best defense against uncertainty. Remember that you’re managing people: They want to know what’s going on.

Communicate with your team:

  • Transparently: Be honest and clear whenever you communicate — whether that is giving performance feedback, projecting upcoming projects, sharing challenges, etc. People can handle difficult information; it’s uncertainty that feels like the threat.
  • Often: Don’t give your team members’ brains time to start filling in gaps. Give updates and feedback often so your team feels safe, seen and included.

Consider building team communications (again, about issues that affect your team as people as well as the work they’re doing) into Stand-Ups, 1:1 meetings and your regular email updates.

5. Lead With Empathy

Many people in tech consider themselves introverted, logical, linear, technical, etc. Along the way, in all the robot memes and Spock jokes, I think a very unfortunate subtext has surfaced: that “techy” people aren’t very sensitive or emotional — or, worse, that they aren’t very human.

Maybe you’ve heard that, too, which is what brought you to this article. But despite the stereotypes, people in tech are absolutely capable of leading with empathy, and they need empathy just as much as anyone else.

Robot coding

Jokes aside, programmers are not robots; they need empathy.

One of my favorite philosophers, Michel de Montaigne, said, “Every man carries the entire form of the human condition.” Overlooking his 16th Century non-gender neutral language, what he means is that each of us is, at our core, made of the same stuff; we feel, more or less, the same things. Maslow supports this in his hierarchy.

You’re capable of empathy simply because you are a person. And I want to reiterate now that being a person is hard. And, again, you won’t get it right many days, and neither will your team.

Some ways to be more empathic include:

  1. Listen without judgment: If a team member is struggling, don’t take it as a criticism or an attack on yourself or the company. Encourage them to express themselves without getting defensive or arguing. Remember that both of you are on the same team, not only in development, but also in creating a positive and healthy work environment.
  2. Provide emotional support: Let your team members know that they can trust you to talk about things that bother them — or even things that make them happy. Celebrate their successes and commisserate with their struggles. Sometimes, they might not even be looking for a solution, but just a sympathetic ear.
  3. Show vulnerability: Be willing to share your own struggles and challenges with your team, when appropriate. This builds trust and creates a more open and supportive team culture.
  4. Be present: Even in a busy tech environment, setting aside regular time for each team member and dedicating yourself to them during that time is vital for making your team members feel you value them.

Remember, a lot like tech, people are in a constant state of iteration. There’s no perfection — only progress. You get to decide as a team lead if you’re willing to do the work to support your team members as they evolve.

Listen. Communicate. Lean on the benefit of the doubt. You’ll end up with a team that feels cared for, valuable and excited to contribute in a meaningful way.

Key Takeaways

  • People-first management is the art of treating your team members like people first, not just tools to produce your work product.
  • Putting an emphasis on your team members as people results in a more engaged, productive and satisfied team. Your output will likely improve and your turnover rates decrease.
  • To implement a people-first management style, commit to a daily practice. Build people-centered KPIs into your goals. Listen actively, communicate clearly and lead with empathy.
  • If something doesn’t work, iterate on the process and keep trying.

Have any questions, suggestions, or ideas about how to be a better team lead? Feel free to share them below!

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