Managing Engineering Teams in a Fast Paced Environment
A six-factor method to combat burnout
I have been with my present team at Expedia Group™ for a year. They are a group of talented and motivated software engineers and I am their manager. It has been a dream to be given the pleasure to work with, and to get to know, such high performing and friendly individuals. We operate at a fast pace, and have a big impact on our company. So it was a surprise to me when I realised that our team has a history of burnout. I decided that if I could only do one thing, I wanted to find a way to deal with this.
In this article, I will share my thoughts on the impact of burnout, I will give guidance on how to combat it as a manager and I will finish with insights I have gained through my own experiences. After nearly 12 months of applying the tools described here, my team have halved our likelihood of burnout.
The impact of burnout
Intuitively, we all guess that burnout reduces productivity. Just as we imagine an injured shoulder would impact a physical labourer’s performance, suffering from burnout should impact a thought worker’s performance. I think there is little debate there. Academics agree and list “impact to concentration, successful performance of tasks and reduced organisational commitment” as common outcomes of endured mental stress .
If left unchecked, burnout will have an impact on an individual’s productivity but it will also decrease productivity for the whole team. This happens because burnout saps individual energy. The individual will find themselves becoming cynical and resentful more often than they were a month earlier. Team trust and accountability gets frayed and feelings of helplessness increase. As a manager, you will start to realise that if not dealt with, a negative mood will spread. But, it can be a struggle to know what to do. Academics will tell you that inadequate supervisor support increases the likelihood of burnout by 2.3 times . Let’s look at some techniques for dealing with burnout.
How to combat burnout
In 2018, Dr. Christina Maslach gave this presentation at the DevOps Enterprise Summit. Dr. Maslach has spent the last 30 years researching burnout and has developed the leading measure of burnout called the MBI. Dr. Maslach identifies the following six factors of burnout:
- Demand Overload —Staying late, working weekends, frequent interruptions and artificial deadlines are all likely to generate demand overload.
- Lack of Control — Can you influence your own destiny and have autonomy, or is everything dictated to you? Humans, engineers in particular, are motivated to solve problems but we need the time and space to do that.
- Insufficient Reward — The immediate indicator here is remuneration. However, there are other symbolic factors such as project visibility, praise and recognition and more to consider.
- Breakdown of Community — Do you have people to rely on or has trust broken down? Do you have others you can go to when things get tough? Are we all rowing in the same direction?
- Absence of Fairness — If you feel like you are treated differently, then this can be a significant source of stress. It is easy to create such a situation for others if we aren’t aware of and managing our own biases. For example, in my global work environment I am constantly battling affinity bias to ensure I am not being unfair to people by valuing more those who work in my office relative to others who work in a remote location.
- Value Conflict — This factor can be tricky to pin down. While an individual’s values may vary, with software engineering teams I like to start with the Adult Identity model . It says that thought workers all want to feel competent, we want to be nice people and we all want the right to be respected (or loved if you feel comfortable with that word). If anything in an individual’s work requires them to compromise one of those values, or any other value they hold important, this will cause a value conflict to arise. Perhaps this is the most challenging factor to handle as a manager because we can’t change an individual’s values.
Talking to my team about each of these six factors, I was amazed at how quickly they could trigger stressful memories for my colleagues. Quantifying their responses was a challenge. After some trial and error, I took their qualitative responses and normalised them to a 0–5 point scale where 5 indicated a big issue and 0 indicated no issue. Grouping the most stressful stories together gave the 5 measure.
Finally, I’ve decided to use these six factors instead of the MBI because they give me guidance on what I could do as a manager to improve the situation for my team. For example, I needed to make sure our community was strong. If somebody isn’t trusting somebody else, I need to find out why and take action to resolve that. If somebody has a value conflict with another, we need to bring that out into the open and resolve that. I have been doing this and more for nearly a year now and our team burnout scores on the 0-5 point scale have more than halved. In other words, by simply talking about and managing these six factors, we have halved the likelihood of somebody suffering from burnout.
- Too much context shifting will make most engineers stressed but isn’t listed as a factor. Initially, this seemed like a flaw in the six factor method. However, I now think that too much context shifting is a kind of demand overload. If you manage engineers, I suggest you pay special attention to this situation because your best engineers will crave focus and deep exploratory thinking. If they are asked to context shift too often, it can quickly become the top factor leading to a burnout pattern.
- Even careful management of these factors doesn’t remove stress from your team. Deliberately creating and then managing stress is a key principle behind creative tension—which should be one of the primary drivers of innovation in your team. If you are managing stress in a team, listen for warning signs using the six factors and be prepared to intervene if you need to. For example, I recently asked several engineers on my team to push a process beyond its intended design in order to innovate on how the process works. Then, due to forces outside our control, one of the engineers needed to focus elsewhere suddenly and for the foreseeable future. I noticed that this was a breakdown of community situation (somebody left) and decided to stop pushing the process — therefore avoiding the chance of increasing a burnout factor.
- Don’t manage other people’s lives. As healthy adults, we all have periods in our lives that are more stressful than others. Be sensitive to team members going through one of these periods but don’t try to debug or fix it. In these challenging situations, use active listening techniques instead of trying to coach. If you find yourself getting drawn in too far, I recommend the helpful CARS acronym (Care, Analyse options, Respond to falsehoods, Set boundaries) to maintain professional boundaries in a supportive manner.
- At some point you are going to be required to do a manager’s performance review of an individual who has had burnout challenges. This is likely to be a very uncomfortable task for you to do. I think the reason it is uncomfortable comes down to the fact that burnout is most often an outcome of the six factors above. As the embodiment of the business, you the manager are partly responsible for that environment. Now, you the manager need to turn around and call out the underperformance of an individual caused in part by that environment. My first piece of advice is to take stock of your own stress level around this task. If you need support, reach out to HR, your manager or a neutral party. The next piece of advice is to start early with the individual. You want to have an expectation set beforehand that the review period has been hampered by burnout, and you empathise with that. Following this, ultimately you need to respectfully state that performance is low but recovering from this position is a journey to be taken together.
Managing a team in a fast paced environment is a unique challenge that you may not have experience with. If you start to notice burnout around you, keep in mind the six factors mentioned in this post. As the manager, you can take symbolic, structural or leadership action to combat those factors.
I want to end on a positive note. Burnout can be a deeply humbling opportunity for you as a manager. Make mistakes and learn. Along the way, it is a chance for you to share your own vulnerabilities and show what you are made of. Over the years, the people I have had the pleasure of managing through burnout have often become my close friends.
 Burnout in the workplace, Parent-Thirion et. al., 2018
 Burnout Trends, P. Smulders et. al., 2013
 Search Inside Yourself, Google, 2012.