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Healing Broken Trust in Your Team

New Manager
Psychological Safety

1 June, 2021

Swapna Savant, Senior Engineering Manager at Headspace, speaks of her effort to heal broken trust between management and frontline engineers in the ever-unpredictable world of startups.


There is always some amount of disconnect between management and frontline engineers. Most often, in spite of the hard work engineers put in daily, the results are not as what management expects. Dissatisfaction swells on both sides until trust breaks, tension spills over to the entire organization, and toxic tendencies are let loose.

This is a common scenario in many startups. Unless responded timely drastic measures are to be made later. I was (un)fortunate enough to live through this kind of situation at my previous company and experienced the highs and lows of it. This is why I was able to easily find my way around when I was tasked to manage a team that was rather distrustful toward management.

Actions taken

First and foremost, I tried to resist the urge to be judgemental and point the finger at anyone. I was stuck between two narratives of what happened and wanted to learn more. The leadership had their version of the story to tell, while at the same time, I was managing frontliners who had their own. I was observing and listening. In front of the leadership, I would be more supportive of engineers and vice versa because I understood both sentiments and wanted to bring together these two perspectives.

The very next thing I did was to revisit and redefine team values. For starters, I wanted to make sure that people on the team could acknowledge that “their” situation was a common startup scenario, something that everyone willingly accepted when choosing a startup over a large company. Startups are notorious for their uncertainty, inconsistencies, and unknowns, and many processes -- including those that would ensure better communication with management -- are yet to be created.

Then I had to make some difficult decisions and navigate through them. I clearly defined roles and responsibilities and made sure they are aligned with the strategy. I scrutinized our roadmap rigorously and came up with some proposals that I shared with my manager, executives, and some product people. The roadmap was rather extensive, and with the existing team and their low morale, it was not achievable. I proposed to narrow it down to one or two initiatives that the whole team would be working on. That would allow them to bond together and reignite their motivation by experiencing what success would look like. Once they would go through that together, they could work on multiple initiatives and still feel like the same team.

Throughout the whole process, I was regularly talking to my team, facilitating feedback. That helped me identify some warning signs of potential problems. I was able to detect those team members who were demotivated and, with some extra support, be able to get them on the right track. Unfortunately, some of my attempts were not successful. However, through caring discussions, I was able to help those people realize that they should look for a place where they would be more motivated and relate to the company vision for the sake of their own career growth.

Lessons learned

  • Setting up team values is the most fundamental thing a manager could do in a situation of distrust and disconcertment. Values are cornerstones on which everything else is founded.
  • I always start with Why. It implies asking some tough questions to different stakeholders, including executives. A manager needs to understand why their team is doing something, why it is important, and how that pieces together with what other people are doing. Bear in mind, though, that the Why of executives differs a great deal from the Why of ICs. Earlier I was executing on things without stepping back and asking why and what is the value we are getting out of it. Why helps me explain a strategy to my team and bring them on board.
  • Clarify roles. I used to act as a project manager, tech lead, and product manager in some instances of the same role. That could apply to any other team member. For example, for a specific project, I would assign one engineer to be a team lead. At any given moment, people on the team should know who to ask for advice or direction and I need to be confident that I chose a person that will be able to provide direction.
  • In the past, because of my cultural upbringing, I used to say, “We are going to do this.” Now, I better understand why people in the US tend to delineate clearly, “I am going to this, you are going to do that” -- it makes everything so much easier.

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