What makes an engineering manager want to improve their people management behaviors & skills?

In this document, we will look at various mechanisms through which organizations incentivize good people management, and which levers are available to reports to “manage up” and hold their managers accountable.


For context, a quick aside: what are “people management skills & behaviors?”

Under this umbrella, we can include all the aspects of the relationship between the manager and their reports other than the part where they direct their reports to do certain work. This includes the behaviors & skills that contribute to work satisfaction and feeling of engagement by their reports.

Some example areas of management work covered under this umbrella:

  • basic support in work logistics, including organizational navigation;
  • basic emotional and psychological support;
  • continuous feedback on performance;
  • continuous rapport & relationship building;
  • proactive gauging of engagement and organizational awareness by their reports;
  • proactive coaching towards personal development of their reports.

Some archetype day-to-day interactions that embody these behaviors & skills are provided in the appendix at the end.


So what makes an engineering manager (EM) care about improving those things?

The question is not trivial: an EM who is already good at people management likely already wants to be good; and managers who are not good at people management are likely not good because they have not wanted to become better yet—for, otherwise (if they already wanted to improve), they would be on a path to self-improvement already.

There are also cases where an EM was promoted for being “good enough” and encounters a point where their behaviors & skills have become inadequate, but does not yet believe they need to improve.

So what makes an EM want to improve at people management?

This is really a question of incentives: through which mechanisms does an organization create this force, this “want”, on EMs to deliver adequate (and steadily improving) people management services to their reports?


A naive answer would be that the manager’s manager (director, VP, CTO, etc.) would be responsible for delivering continuous feedback. This answer is mistaken in two ways.

First, most engineering directors monitor a manager’s ability to drive results for the organization (towards business activity), with less consideration for people management activities & behaviors. This is unsurprising. Directors are in turn typically evaluated and thus incentivized to coordinate leadership towards product value, quality, revenue, cost, etc. People management is an operational concern, and typically under the unbrella of the “people operations” part of the business. At best, operations constitute a dotted line responsibility for directors. We will come back to this below.

Second, directors typically lack visibility on people management behaviors & skills of their EMs. This is because they delegate this responsibility to their EMs and, if they are any good at their job, do not micro-manage to monitor these activities. In other words, it is not directly practical for a director to comment on people management skills & behaviors in their department. We will also come back to this below.


Empirically (by looking at industry practices) we can identify the following mechanisms being used, in decreasing order of popularity:

  • organizational surveys on engagement and management feedback, usually once yearly;
  • collecting direct and anonymous feedback from reports during the manager’s performance review, usually once or twice yearly;
  • relative results coming out of the manager’s teams (a.k.a. bad people management drives results down), usually considered over longer trends;
  • comparing attrition rates between managers, also over longer periods;
  • reports talking to the manager’s manager directly so the director can provide continuous feedback (a.k.a. “skip-level 1-1s”);
  • collective action (a.k.a. the reports making a fuss, as a group).

The first 3 of these items (surveys, relative results & relative attritions) are the most frequently considered. This is because they are the easiest to quantify.

However, the order above is not the order of effectiveness. If we were looking at these mechanisms from most to least effective:

  1. skip-level 1-1s.
  2. feedback from reports.
  3. collective action.
  4. surveys.
  5. relative team results.
  6. relative attrition rates.

This is one tragedy of the tech industry:

  • report feedback (point 2) is usually not well gathered: either the individuals are not coached to speak up, or the feedback forms are not properly anonymized. This results in self-censoring by the EM’s reports.
  • the remaining most common checks and balances (points 4-5-6) are also the least effective at incentivizing EMs. They are also much slower.
  • individuals do not typically reach out for skip-level 1-1s or collective action spontaneously, unless there is severe dysfunction, so routine shortcomings do not get surfaced this way.

As a result, whichever people management that happens, happens from the natural inclinations of EMs (driven by their experience, personality, etc.) and with too little input from their actual performance in doing people management. This results in a large variance across teams w.r.t people management behavior & skills, and ultimately incurs a large variance in work satisfaction and engagement by the reports directly caused by the EMs’ practices.


Designing and implementing a good incentive structure is actually a rather hard problem. There is a lot of indirect business value to be reaped in optimizing people management, and we can theoretically expect a large evolutionary pressure to see this improve over time through the entire industry. Unfortunately, this evolutionary pressure is counter-acted by entropic effects and organizational friction.

For one, it has become customary to extract the responsibility to monitor and optimize “people operations” to a separate operations department, via “HR business partners”. This is usually done out of sheer necessity: the other leadership tasks, towards business success, are perceived to be so complex by the directors that they feel they have little bandwidth remaining to optimize for and manage the operational aspects themselves.

This creates a special form of organizational ineffectiveness: the separate operational department is not involved in the day-to-day life of the folk subject to the management practices under consideration, and thus receive weaker signals about the effectiveness of this management.

Moreover, most engineering organizations do not effectively coach their staff on engaging with the operations department about management effectiveness, and so the staff does not reach out proactively.

Then, more generally, the labor market is such that reports are more likely to seek to switch teams or even organizations rather than participate in a management feedback loop. It costs less effort and carries less perceived risk to one’s career.

Meanwhile, managers with inadequate people management skills & behavior may also choose to leave or transition to a new position before they have a chance to receive suitable feedback or before their improvements are realized.

In a nutshell, the main obstacle to effective people management is a large organizational distance, both in time and intermediate organizational layers, between the point at which people management happens (i.e., one-on-one conversations between a manager and their reports) and the point at which pressure is exerted on managers to evolve their behaviors & skills.


What can we do about this?

Since the main obstacle is a large organizational distance, perhaps obviously the answer should be: shorten that distance.

In my view, the main way this can be achieved is to increase participation in the feedback systems, the “organizational levers” that are part of the incentive system.

How can we do this?

This can be considered from two angles: from the perspective of reports, who are “managing up” with the goal to increase their job satisfaction and engagement overall; and from the perspective of the directors, who ultimately reap the benefit of a well-functioning and healthy organization.

For both angles, the first step is really to assess the current situation:

  • if you are a director, or generally have EMs reporting to you, it is worth asking the following meta-question to everyone in your organization (and not just your EMs): “How do you feel we’re doing with managing and improving management over time? What would it take to bring it up to the next level?”

    Then see what comes up and strategize based on that. Some ideas below.

  • if you are a report, or generally have EMs you’re reporting to, it is worth cross-checking: is the EM displaying the behaviors you’re expecting, at the rate you are expecting them? For this, you can use the example points in the appendix at the bottom of this page.

    If you feel generally satisfied, you don’t need to take action. Otherwise, read on.

Once there is a reason and motive to engage with the organizational levers, the following table provides suggested actions:

Organizational lever. Signs that the lever is working well. What a director can to do improve things. What a report can do to influence their manager effectively. What a report can do to influence their director (“skip-level”) to improve the effectiveness of this lever in the incentive system.
Reports talking to the manager’s manager directly.

The conversations happen and reports experience a fast turnaround between the time when they provide feedback and the point something changes accordingly.

The director also reports on the actions they have taken.

Make themselves available and approachable. Project a welcoming and accepting image.

Identify skip-level “champions” who can coach others to engage in skip-level conversations.

Learn how to approach a skip-level manager/director effectively.

Work on self-confidence issues and anxiety caused by the power differential.

Receive mentoring and coaching on how to drive these conversations.

Seek a proxy co-worker who can represent one’s concerns on one’s behalf.

Mention that “the director does not feel approachable” when asked for organizational feedback.
Collection of direct and anonymous feedback from reports when evaluating a manager’s performance.

There is a request of management feedback at least yearly.

This feedback is collected anonymously (for large teams), or there is a neutral intermediate party who translates the feedback so that a manager cannot readily identify its origin.

There is more than 60% participation rate from reports.

Set up the organizational workflows that enable and stimulate the collection and delivery of report feedback during manager performance cycles.

Recognize that low engagement can in turn cause a feeling of loss of agency (or, at the extreme, detachment or depression) and thus decrease participation. Offer coaching, mentoring and mental health services through your organization to stimulate self-confidence and a feeling of agency.

Partner with workplace operations to set up safe spaces were reports can feel confident they can speak up and be heard without fear of retaliation or judgement.

Provide manager feedback when requested.

Be upfront and clear about your expectations towards your manager, and how their actual behaviors differ from your expectations. (Perhaps refer to the appendix below for examples.)

Identify behaviors & skills that are perceived to be lacking or incomplete. Be pedantic: say “I don’t feel engaged because…” or “my job satisfaction is low because…”.

Ask about which mechanisms are available to provide manager feedback.

Ask about how the feedback is anonymized and what mechanisms are implemented against retaliation.

Collective action.

There exists forums where groups of 3 workers or more can discuss their experience of management and exchange ideas or recommendations.

Discussion on management and feedback structures is not forcibly channeled through one-on-one conversations with managers or HR representatives.

Stimulate group conversations with neutral facilitators through the organization, preferably with minimal manager presence in the group.

Set up organizational structures able to productively engage with a worker representative speaking on behalf of a collective, in a non-adversary fashion.

Provision resources to coach / mentor workers towards effective group leadership and collective action.

Freely engage with peers in conversation about management effectiveness and one’s experience of management structures.

Create shared group knowledge to dispel false social realities.

Discuss with peers how to speak with a collective voice to air concerns and request organizational adjustments.

Use this collective voice.

(Same as table cell immediately to the left.)
Organizational surveys.

Surveys are circulated periodically (at least once a year) to gauge engagement and collect cross-team management feedback.

Results from these surveys are aggregated and reported on publicly. Management leadership proposes, in public, strategies in response to the survey’s input.

Changes in survey results from period to period are also reported on publicly.

Set up the organizational workflows to publish these surveys and take action on the input collected.

Fill the surveys.

Be upfront and clear about your expectations towards your manager w.r.t people management skills & behaviors, and how the actual behaviors differ from your expectations. (Perhaps refer to the appendix below for examples.)

If the survey does not contain fields to provide this feedback, use the “other” or “additional feedback” input that should also be present in the survey.

If not available yet, request that the survey contains fields to provide additional feedback on people management skills & behaviors.

If not available yet, request a copy of insights collected through past surveys.

Relative team results and attrition rates (we lump these two together because they are similarly actionable).

Metrics are collected that correlate with the actual people management behaviors & skills used in the organization.

These metrics are shared transparently and improve over time.

Set up the organizational workflows that collect these metrics and set up the incentive systems that will influence them.

This then recursively refers to the rows above in this table.

Consider transitioning to a different team or organization when things don’t go well.

Ideally, this organizational lever would be used as last resort, and instead a report could reach for the rows above in this table instead.

Request transparent insights on these metrics and ask questions about which strategy will be used to optimize them.

Also refers to the other rows higher in this table.

As always, there may also be value in engaging multiple levers concurrently, to create redundancy in the feedback system (in case one of the levers is defective), and also because certain types of feedback flow more easily or clearly in some channels than others.


As an appendix, here are some example day-to-day topics that a manager could use. This list is not exhaustive.

  • basic support in work logistics, organizational navigation:
    • “What can I help you with?” (expected 1-2 times monthly)
    • “Followup: here is the answer you asked me for, or here is the person you should talk to.” (expected monthly)
  • basic emotional and psychological support:
    • “Your behavior has changed recently. Is there something that is preoccupying you?”
    • “Do you feel you have someone you can talk to about this?”
  • continous performance feedback:
    • “What are you working on?” (expected 1-2 times monthly)
    • “This is good.” (when applicable)
    • “This is not good, here’s what you could have done differently.” (when applicable)
    • “This is what I was expecting.”
  • continuous rapport & relationship building:
    • “I’ve heard you were feeling unwell. How are you feeling now?”
    • “What have you learned recently that you’d like to share? Perhaps not work related?”
  • probing reports on engagement and organizational awareness:
    • “How are you feeling about your life at work?” (expected 2 per year)
    • “How are you feeling about your work-at-home setup?” (expected 1 per year)
    • “How are we performing as an organization?” (expected 2 per year)
    • “What is it like for you to work with the rest of the team?” (expected 2 per year)
    • “What is it like to work with me?” (expected 2 per year)
  • coaching towards personal development:
    • “Suggestion: this might be a good investment for your career.” (expected 1 per quarter)
    • “I’ve seen you haven’t used your learning budget this year. Want to talk about it?” (expected 1 per year)

How much does your manager engage in these conversations? Does it happen often enough?

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Raphael ‘kena’ Poss Avatar Raphael ‘kena’ Poss is a computer scientist and software engineer specialized in compiler construction, computer architecture, operating systems and databases.

So what do you think? Did I miss something? Is any part unclear? Leave your comments below.

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