Have you ever finished your first week on a new client project wishing you had forged better connections and camaraderie with your new team? They might be some of the smartest engineers out there, and they, like you, jumped at the chance to work on this cutting-edge project for an innovative company. But something’s missing. You’re not working effectively together – you just can’t seem to get in the right flow. You know synergy with your team will help the project be successful, but what can you do as an individual to foster collaboration?
Having a mindful approach to your day to day team interactions can help create a positive and open environment. Let’s look at three tangible ways engineering teams foster collaboration.
1) Create a Psychologically Safe Environment
In Google’s widely-referenced study, Project Aristotle, they set out to discover what makes “the perfect team.” Studying close to 200 teams over a two-year timespan, Google ultimately discovered that psychological safety was the leading attribute of effective teams. Introduced by behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is the concept that teams collaborate most effectively when they feel safe to speak up and take risks without the fear of rejection, embarrassment, or retaliation.
Creating an environment that exhibits this concept depends upon two key elements:
- “Conversational turn-taking” –giving everyone a chance to share their perspective, feedback, questions, and concerns – and, even more importantly, listening to everyone when they speak.
- “Social sensitivity” – gauging each person’s emotions according to their tone of voice, expressions, and nonverbal cues – and managing your own emotions accordingly.
It’s worth mentioning that many software engineers have a couple of shared personality traits that may make these elements more difficult to achieve (and Google, who employs hundreds of engineers, readily admits these challenges): They’re used to working independently, executing on tasks autonomously and without much need for extensive interaction.
As a result, having a positive influence on your project team and helping them collaborate more effectively will require modeling the behaviors that contribute to a psychologically safe environment. Initiate interpersonal communication often, be inclusive, ask questions, pay attention to non-verbal cues, and validate comments from your colleagues. Your fellow engineers need to feel safe and free of judgment in order to practice optimal collaboration. Aside from the obvious benefits that collaboration has towards the success of a project, this will strengthen the bonds of your team – and work is more fun with friends, right?
2) Focus on Learning Opportunities
Mistakes are inevitable, especially when a team of engineers is learning how to work together on a project. Incomplete deployment scripts, untested configurations, undocumented processes, and infrastructure failures are just a few examples where collaboration is essential to correcting the path forward. But don’t point fingers, because assigning blame is the least effective approach.
Instead, framing challenges as opportunities to learn helps us gain trust, reinforces the concept of psychological safety, and ultimately, enables us to collaborate in a way that achieves project success.
What does this look like? It means asking questions, soliciting feedback, acknowledging your own fallibility and vulnerability, and encouraging reasonable risk-taking. Explain the logic behind your decision-making and provide examples of how particular solutions or approaches may have worked for you in similar past scenarios – encourage your team to challenge your way of thinking so you can all land upon the best decision.
3) Promote Regular Communication
Many software engineers are content to steadily chip away at their work without much input from others. Even in an environment where they feel safe enough to bring any idea, question, or concern forward, there’s no guarantee that this will result in regular communication. But the fact is, collaboration improves quality and accelerates development, and it depends heavily on regular interaction between team members.
Hold your fellow engineers accountable to attending meetings and sharing knowledge, ensuring that everyone is on the same page around project goals and deadlines. Even if you’re not the lead on a project, take the initiative to huddle everyone together for regular brainstorming or troubleshooting sessions. During these meetings, model engagement, focus, and presence by making eye contact, being aware of your body language, and responding with acknowledgment and gratitude. When people feel safe sharing any and all ideas, they’re reminded why they were passionate about engineering in the first place – innovation and limitless possibilities.
Understand that First and Foremost, You’re Part of a Team
At the end of the day, the success of the project depends on your team’s ability to function as an effective unit. You might have expert-level engineering skills, but that won’t move the needle on a project if your team can’t effectively work together to deliver. By fostering a psychologically safe working environment, viewing all obstacles as learning opportunities, and making regular communication a top priority – your team can be unstoppable.