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5 steps to building a healthy engineering team culture
High-performing teams have one thing in common: a healthy team culture. This framework will help you to create a climate that empowers developers and grows with your company.
Magda Miu is an enthusiastic and innovative Engineering Manager at Adobe Romania and Google Developer Expert for Android with more than 12 years of experience in software development. Passionate about technology and leadership, she is a blogger, trainer, public speaker, and promoter of digital communities from Romania, supporting other technical professionals to constantly improve their knowledge.
The first tech company that I worked for had 20 people. The founders mostly hired their friends from university, so the team had a close-knit feel. We never discussed or consciously considered “team culture” – behavioral norms were unspoken and driven by personal relationships.
As more people joined the company, leadership grew anxious. They worried that if they implemented processes to define and scale culture, they would lose the joyful connection of those early startup days. Over my 8 years at the company, this lack of processes came at a cost: new hires didn’t get the information they needed to integrate into the environment. People didn’t feel included, and productivity suffered.
Next, I worked for a telecom company that took a very different approach. A 5-person team with plans to grow, we started thinking about team culture right away. We documented what we liked about our climate and identified the practices that help create those conditions. From there, we were able to scale our culture to new teams.
I learned that team culture isn’t something you absorb while working in the same place. It’s a series of values, processes, and behaviors that you intentionally communicate and cultivate. When you build a healthy team culture, employees are more engaged and inspired. They are able to collaborate and achieve business outcomes more effectively. I brought these lessons with me to my current role at Adobe, where I have continued learning how to build high-performing teams.
Based on my experiences as a technical lead, I developed a framework for building a healthy culture that can grow with your company. Ideally, this framework is implemented in the early days of your organization. However, established companies can draw on elements of this framework to make incremental improvements in their climate.
Let’s break down the 5 steps to building a healthy engineering team culture and how to measure success:
- 5 steps to building a healthy engineering team culture
- Find the right people for the right jobs
- Define the team’s mission and working agreements
- Build processes with your team
- Emphasize psychological safety
- Communicate often and with intention
- How to measure success as you grow
- Getting started
5 steps to building a healthy engineering team culture
1. Find the right people for the right jobs
In order to build a healthy team culture, you need to hire people who embody the values of your company and are suited to the environment you want to create.
At the same time, finding a “good culture fit” doesn’t mean hiring one type of person. Diverse backgrounds drive innovation on a team because you are able to consider problems and solutions from multiple perspectives. In addition, not every candidate you hire needs the same set of qualities. It’s about matching each individual with the role that best fits their strengths.
To find the right people for the right jobs, define a transparent hiring process that sets candidates up to thrive. Make sure that the candidate knows what each stage of the interview process will look like ahead of time:
- What is the format of the interview?
- How much time should the candidate allocate?
- What is expected of the candidate?
During the interview, focus on identifying candidates’ strengths: their innate patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. This not only helps you to find the right person for the role, but it also helps you to support employees later on. According to research from Gallup, a strengths-based approach to development helps employees to feel more engaged and motivated.
2. Define the team’s mission and working agreements
“People need to feel that they are a part of something larger than themselves, something that matters to society. That's not only motivating; it also helps embolden them to speak up, to share their ideas, to take risks, to try new things.”
This quote from Dr. Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management, captures the importance of defining your team’s purpose. As a leader, your role is to connect everyday tasks with the larger question: “Why does my team exist?” When employees understand how their contributions impact the mission of your team and company, they will feel more engaged and inspired.
Once you establish and communicate the high-level purpose of your team, create a working agreement or team alliance. This refers to a set of behaviors that align with your team’s values and help you to achieve your purpose. The agreement helps to establish behavioral norms in all areas of your team’s work.
For example, let’s say one of our values is user focus: meeting/exceeding our customer’s needs and desires. The working agreement outlines how we can embody this value as a team:
- Ask for user feedback and include it in the work
- Learn from failures and avoid repeating them
- Find solutions and don’t feel guilty
- Focus on quality, technical excellence, and outstanding customer experience
While core company values remain constant, I recommend defining 3-4 OKRs for your team’s working agreement and updating them monthly or quarterly. My team documents our OKRs in a wiki page that everyone can access. At the end of each month, we update the status of each item, discuss whether it is still relevant for our context, and revise accordingly.
Making these behavioral expectations clear and embedding them in your team’s daily work builds accountability. In a climate where teams uphold their working agreements, everyone will feel more empowered to take intellectual and creative risks.
3. Build processes with your team
If culture is the behaviors that help you achieve your objectives, processes are documented culture. As I learned from my early experiences in tech, documenting and communicating expected behaviors are how you make culture scalable.
In my experience, these are some of the most important processes to define in order to build a healthy team culture:
- How to onboard new people
- How to manage the work. For example, if you use Scrum, you should document:
- Definition of Ready (DoR) to determine which user stories are eligible for inclusion in a sprint
- Definition of Done (DoD) to determine if a product increment can be accepted or released
- Ceremonies needed to keep everyone in sync
- Responsibilities of Scrum Master and Product Owner
- Scrum artifacts to define the work that needs to be done
- How to maintain engineering excellence
- Coding practices and documentation guidelines
- Guidelines for making decisions
- Guidelines for addressing tech wealth
- Steps to making a release in prod
In addition to documenting more concrete and technical processes, it can be hugely valuable to document processes related to “soft skills.” For example:
- How to manage time effectively and maintain work-life balance
- How to navigate “the landscape of doubt” when making decisions
- How to propose your ideas within the company
- How to communicate in an efficient way
- How to handle conflicts
- How to give and receive feedback
Leaders have expectations around how people communicate, address conflict, and manage their time. However, we don’t always make those expectations clear. Instead of hoping people will figure it out on their own, be transparent about the high-performing mindset you want to instill and the processes that go along with it.
Of course, imposing processes on a team without their buy-in is counterproductive to building a healthy culture. I have learned two important lessons when it comes to team processes:
- Create them with your team so that everyone is more invested and accountable.
- Review them periodically to make sure they are still relevant for your context.
I learned these lessons early in my management career. We had just run an employee engagement survey; upon receiving the results, I decided I would find solutions to address the lowest ratings. When I shared my proposal with our Agile coach, he encouraged me to pause and rethink my approach. To ensure these solutions were right for my team, he suggested that I involve the team in the process and learn more about their pain points.
It was an enlightening moment for me. I learned that it’s not my responsibility to solve the team’s issues on my own. Instead, I should empower my teammates and work with them to find solutions to our challenges.
4. Emphasize psychological safety
Imagine an environment where the team only brings “safe” ideas. Nobody speaks up if they realize they’ve made a mistake (or spotted someone else’s). Nobody asks clarifying questions for fear of being labeled as someone who doesn’t know their stuff.
These conditions are not conducive to building impactful products and services. As a team member, it is not your right, but your responsibility, to challenge ideas with respect. A healthy team culture enables developers to fulfill this responsibility.
Dr. Amy Edmondson developed the term psychological safety to describe a team climate “characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” In a psychologically safe environment, employees are confident that they will not be punished for speaking candidly. This confidence empowers people to share their thoughts and engage with others’ from a place of respectful curiosity.
Here are some concrete steps you can take to emphasize psychological safety on your team:
- Give and receive candid, respectful feedback.
- When engaging with your team’s ideas, model respectful curiosity by asking questions. Instead of asking “why,” focus more on “how” or “what” questions.
- Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Share your mistakes and the lessons learned.
- Don’t mistake silence for agreement. Take silence as an opportunity to pose deeper questions.
- Acknowledge that new projects have uncertainty and risk. Expect challenges and treat them as learning experiences.
Your team’s working agreements and processes can help to embed psychological safety in day-to-day work. However, these are only as effective as their implementation. As a manager, you can support your team by putting culture into practice and acknowledging your own growth areas.
5. Communicate often and with intention
Communication is the foundation of team culture and overlaps with every strategy we’ve discussed today. Building culture is about defining and communicating expectations, which should happen frequently in all areas of your organization. Effective communication is also strategic: how do I need to convey this information so that my team can receive it?
Start by defining the right channels for the right messages. For example, consider whether an email or a meeting is the better format. If a meeting is necessary, do the prep work ahead of time to ensure that everyone gets the most value for their time. Ask yourself:
- Have all the relevant people been invited?
- Do we have an agenda and an output?
- Are topics prioritized based on urgency and importance?
- How will you document decisions and communicate them to your team?
Employees thrive when managers clearly communicate the team’s objectives and priorities. However, a truly healthy culture looks beyond output to consider employees’ overall growth and career goals.
When you communicate with employees about their development, you show that you are invested in helping them reach their full potential. This helps your whole team to be more motivated and engaged. To this end, I encourage leaders to make coaching a part of their management practice.
At its core, coaching is about asking the right questions to help employees reach new understanding. These insights can be about daily work challenges or career direction more broadly. I have found that this form of communication is most effective when it is a regular part of your schedule. To start, consider adding monthly 1:1 meetings with your employees. Let employees know ahead of time that your agenda will include:
- Addressing concerns and issues
- Giving feedback about performance
- Outlining a career direction
- Making time for personal connection
These conversations are another opportunity for you to model effective communication practices and support employees in building those skills.
How to measure success as you grow
As I learned at my first tech company, you need to establish clear practices and processes in order to scale your culture successfully. You also need a plan to measure the success of these processes and practices, especially as it becomes more challenging to sync across teams.
To get a more holistic picture of your company climate over time, I recommend using a variety of data collection methods. These methods, as well as the cadence of data collection, can shift depending on your current needs and stage of growth.
At Adobe, for example, we send an engagement survey once per year. At my telecom company, we determined that a yearly cadence wouldn’t meet our needs as a fast-growing organization. During the year that we scaled from 1 to 3 teams, we sent a 12-question engagement survey quarterly. The questions focused on areas of our culture that we wanted to preserve and improve upon as our numbers increased. In particular, we asked about the working relationships within teams and between team members and managers.
From there, I implemented the advice I received from my Agile coach and facilitated team debriefs and brainstorming sessions. I took a product mindset to these conversations, asking my team: what do you need and how can I help?
Surveys can also be folded into workshops. For instance, if you run a company-wide psychological safety workshop, you can have participants complete quick multiple-choice surveys about your current climate and takeaways from the event. These results are easy to measure and provide useful insight into your company culture.
On a team level, you can also gather information about employee experience and discuss solutions during 1:1s. Survey data is important, but should be examined alongside candid conversations between managers and team members. In a psychologically safe climate, employees will feel comfortable offering feedback and collaborating on next steps.
I hope this framework inspires you to create a climate where every employee feels supported and excited to contribute. As we saw in the second company I joined, baking your values into processes and norms from day 1 is the best way to define and preserve your culture. However, I believe that teams at every stage of growth can take steps to improve their climate.
If you have already built a team, but would like to foster a healthier climate, start by collecting data. Using the methods we discussed in the previous section, determine what about your culture is working well and what you’d like to change. From there, identify 1 or 2 key areas to work on and measure over time. Draw on the relevant components from this framework to identify strategies that will help.
Whether you are building a team from scratch or looking to revamp your engineering team culture, I encourage you to enter this work with a curious and humble mindset. Before jumping into new initiatives, think about your relationship with your team. Do you trust them to know their needs better than you do? If so, you will be able to listen deeply and advocate for structures that ensure those needs are met.