5 mins

Knowing how people think and act, alone or in groups, is a powerful compass for engineering leaders. Using this compass can help leaders better guide their teams to success.

In 2012 Google launched Project Aristotle which looked at 180 teams and 37,000 workers over two years to understand what makes engineering teams successful. 

Their findings were unexpected. They discovered that high-performing teams depended on something other than the team's mix of personalities, skills, or how it was organized. Instead, they found that the key to a team's high performance is psychological safety. The term psychological safety means “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect.” What this actually looks like in practice depends on human behavior and engineering culture.

Why do people act differently in groups than they do alone?

Have you ever followed the crowd only to regret your actions? That is because people tend to behave differently in a group than alone. We naturally conform to group norms, finding safety and acceptance within them, which can be beneficial if they promote positive behavior. 

A notable experiment by Soloman Asch showed that individuals often conform to a majority view, even when evidence shows the majority is in the wrong. About 75% of the experiment participants chose an incorrect answer to match the group at least once. 

Our actions are also influenced by what we perceive as normal within a group, a process called normalization, which strengthens our connection to groups with shared beliefs. Moreover, being in a group that echoes our opinions tends to amplify them, making us more confident and less open to opposing viewpoints.

Leadership plays a crucial role in harnessing the natural tendencies of conformity and normalization to foster psychological safety and motivate teams. By understanding these norms, leaders can actively shape them to promote positive outcomes such as encouraging open communication, mutual respect, and inclusive decision-making. 

For instance, leaders can model behaviors prioritizing psychological safety, such as admitting mistakes, encouraging diverse viewpoints, and showing vulnerability. This sets a precedent for the group, making it more likely for the team to emulate these behaviors, reinforcing a culture where people feel safe expressing their ideas and concerns without fear.

How to help engineers speak up 

Imagine that during a technical discussion, the principal engineer suggests a solution. Even if another developer disagrees, they stay quiet because no one else speaks up. They assume everyone else agrees and worry that if they express their disagreement, they might seem foolish.

Does this sound familiar? Pluralistic ignorance occurs when people erroneously infer that they feel differently from their peers, even though they behave similarly.

This issue is closely linked to psychological safety. If people constantly fear judgment and looking foolish, they won't speak up. Such an environment is unsafe for engineers, and expecting these teams to perform well is unrealistic. Tech leaders can reduce this issue by:

  • Creating an open and transparent feedback loop by establishing clear communication channels, encouraging participation, regularly collecting and acting on feedback, and transparently reporting outcomes.
  • Fostering a growth mindset where asking questions and making mistakes are encouraged as valuable learning opportunities.
  • Consider asking the first question in a meeting to help encourage others to participate.

The overjustification effect: Finding the right motivation for engineers

The overjustification effect describes how we can become less motivated to do an activity we once enjoyed if we start getting an external reward, like money or prizes, for doing it. 

There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation happens when we do things because we love them; when we do them, we feel fulfilled. Extrinsic motivation comes from external factors like money or rewards. Imagine you love painting, then start to sell them. Once you start selling, it feels more like a duty than a joy. Being offered money for an activity you love replaces intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation, which causes you to feel less motivated. 

Does that mean we shouldn’t do something we love as our job? Absolutely not. However, the overjustification effect suggests we should find more intrinsic motivation in our actions. 

How leaders can best motivate engineers with overjustification in mind? 

Companies and leaders need to consider the effect of overjustification when deciding how best to motivate their employees. Visibility into who is working on what and how engineers allocate their time (such as if they are working on new features, bug fixes, KTLO, etc.) helps managers determine whether engineers focus on intrinsically motivating tasks. 

While it is hard to eliminate all external rewards, like salary, leaders must remember the intrinsic value of the activities to retain motivation. 

For instance, if an engineer loves working on innovative product development but dislikes the repetitive nature of updating documentation or handling legacy code updates, management can offer external rewards specifically for these less appealing tasks. Rewards could be bonuses, public recognition, or additional personal development opportunities explicitly given for completing these necessary but less intrinsically motivating tasks.

By doing so, the intrinsic joy and satisfaction derived from engaging in creative development work are preserved. At the same time, the necessary but less enjoyable tasks are still attended to, motivated by suitable external incentives.

Moreover, leaders can align external rewards not just with the completion of these tasks but also with their quality. For instance, instead of merely rewarding the act of updating documentation, engineers could receive rewards for creating exceptionally well-structured and comprehensive documentation that details all pros and cons effectively.

Takeaways for leaders

It's essential to recognize that everyone is different and unique. We should get to know people instead of viewing them as “headcounts.” It is also crucial to start humanizing work interactions: make personal connections and listen to others. Appreciating each person's unique traits is key to building trust.

Understanding how group dynamics work differently than individual behaviors is important. This awareness helps us lead teams, solve problems, or motivate others. Instead of guessing why people act as they do and trying to navigate blindly, we should learn what drives their behavior.