Blog of Rob Galanakis (@robgalanakis)

A manager’s primary job is to build trust

While interviewing for my new position at Cozy, I was repeatedly asked what the job of an Engineering Manager is.* By the end of the day, I had decided (for myself, anyway) that the most important job of an Engineering Manager** is building trust.

  • Senior engineers must trust you. They can succeed without you, but you can’t succeed without them. Why does your job exist? It isn’t enough for you to trust them; that’s a prerequisite. If you don’t trust them, that needs to be rectified first. If they do not vehemently trust you, your role is not just worthless, but a net negative.

  • Junior engineers must trust you. They need to have a reason to stick around. They must trust that you are giving them opportunities, and they don’t need to leave to be treated better. They need to trust that they are learning, growing, advancing. Finally, they need to believe that if and when they leave to see what else the world has to offer, they will be welcomed back. If junior engineers do not trust you, they will leave, and take their ideas and passion with them.

  • Design must trust you. They must believe you when you present estimates or assessments from engineers. They must believe that they are getting good information from you, and you aren’t an out of touch middle manager. They must see continuous improvement and engagement from the engineers. They need to trust that you and the engineers are working towards the same goals as they are, with fire and passion. If design does not trust you, you are damaging engineers and company and should just get out of the way.

  • Management must trust you. This is generally an easy one, because if they don’t trust you, they should fix it or remove you.

  • Finally, one that cuts across roles: malcontents and metathinkers must trust you. Many people (especially engineers) just want to avoid politics and are happy to work on on their tasks and not ask questions. As long as you don’t actively screw up, these people will usually trust you. Much more difficult are the critics. They come in all shapes and sizes. It’s not that they need to agree with you, but they do need to trust you. These people often have big ideas and cultural influence. Distrust will drain your organization of talent. As a member of this category, I take this very seriously. When I’ve actively distrusted management, and subsequently left, there’s been a flight of talent afterwards as problems get worse. I’ve written about the importance of the malcontents on this blog before, and as a manager it’s always been a yardstick. If malcontents and metathinkers are leaving, something is going very wrong.

Trust is probably the most important metric for whether you’re doing a good job and your organization is healthy. It is a product of some actions, and a foundation of others. If it’s going up, your organization is getting stronger. If it’s going down, you need to get to work.

* I really enjoy interviews, especially in-person interviews, because it really helps me clarify my beliefs. This can lead to a high bounce-rate, but generally I’m left with culturally compatible companies after that. I consider this a benefit but YMMV.
** Any manager, really.

7 thoughts on “A manager’s primary job is to build trust

  1. robert kist says:

    Very well analyzed, Rob, and true. But trust isn’t a given, you have to earn it. Sometimes you may get a bonus or the benefit of doubt. The trust placed in you may be challenged by politics or the usual fuckups that happen in the IT / games industry. Also, trust isn’t a metric. It’s not quantifiable. But there may be other metrics, which combined, may give you an indication how much people trust you.

    Do you have any insights beyond “work hard, be nice, etc”, which helped you build trust in the past? How are you going to judge if people trust you – what would your indicators be, if you decide to treat it as a metric?

    1. I have a post in the queue already that touches on these topics. And I’m going to start another related one. But ultimately building trust as a manager is no different than in other relationships: 1) be open and honest, 2) have the other person’s best interest at heart, 3) do what you say you’re going to do, 4) don’t devalue the other person’s experience, 5) end things when it is clear it won’t end well, 6) take a stand on what you feel is important but always be open to changing your mind. So there’s a heavy emphasis on the “etc” and “yada yada” and “blah blah blah”.

      As for indicators, I have to think about it, and it probably deserves its own post as well. The problem is, there are no real quantifiable indicators. Because the impact of a manager is itself difficult to quantify, any poor manager ratings/metrics can be rationalized away. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly. Likewise, a good manager seems to have the self-awareness to know these things without quantification.

  2. Artur Leao says:

    Having worked with Rob in the past I think I can easily see where this is going and I’m actually interested in getting his written insight. Having that said, I think you started the right way: trust. I can easily identify with that, it’s the hardest thing to get and the easiest one to loose.

  3. Jon Lauridsen says:

    How is engineer-trust earned? I guess the obvious way is as part of the group, and gradually float upwards in the organization taking all that earned trust along. The “start in the trenches” approach. Are there alternatives? Are there ways when not associated with a team? I don’t know which situation you’re aiming for so I’m just asking in the general, after reading your post I was wondering how deeply I would expect an engineering manager to know my code.

  4. Charles Palmer says:

    By doing the things Rob enumerates above.

    It goes a long way to have genuine concern, lead from the front, be open and frank and follow through on things IMO. The visible difference between someone doing that and not doing that is pretty stark I think.

  5. […] a previous article, commenter Robert Kist […]

  6. […] written before about how a manager’s primary job is to build trust and this is a good, concrete example […]

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