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6 Tips for Coaching Your Development Team

September 30th, 2007

I'm just a simple plow hand from Arkansas, but I have learned over the years how to hold a team together. How to lift some men up, how to calm others down, until finally they've got one heartbeat, together, a team. - Bear BryantPart of a development lead or manager’s job is to be a good coach to other members of the team. The further you go along the management track the more important this becomes, however, even at the team lead level it is quite important. Here are six tips you can use to become a better development team coach.

1. Provide Encouragement But Be Sincere

When a team member is doing things right, notice it. Far too often it’s easy for a lead to forget to offer praise for a job well done. Don’t let the opportunity to praise a team member slip by. Managers who take their team’s good work for granted only insure that their team’s morale and performance will eventually suffer.

Don’t do something silly like Schrute Bucks or other such vapid or vague gestures to show your approval. Programmers generally despise such things more than the general population. Also, avoid contests between team members since this can cause undesirable in-fighting. Instead, say something simple and to the point, like “You handled the deployment of the new version very well” or “I was impressed by your solution to the memory leak problem.”

2. Share Praise in All Directions

If praise is unheard it has a lesser impact than praise offered in public. Make sure that everyone on the team knows that if they do a good job they’ll win your approval and that you’ll let everyone know about it. If you hold team meetings, mention it there. If there is a company web site or newsletter, get it mentioned there. Make sure your managers are told about the excellent work that members of your team are accomplishing. Note that you give the credit to the team members, not yourself.

3. Keep Criticism Private and Positive

If you need to criticize the performance of a team member, do it in private. Never do this in public where other members of your team can hear. Also avoid making a show of calling someone into your office or a conference room for a one-on-one meeting when it is obvious to everyone that you’re intent on criticism of that individual. Nobody else needs to know or even guess about anything that was said.

Never criticize a team member when you or the team member are angry, tired or stressed out. This can quickly devolve into a shouting match or, later, bring out passive-aggressive behaviors or other negative actions. Be sensitive to both your emotional state and the employee’s. It can be very difficult to retract hurtful things said in the heat of the moment. Don’t let this situation happen to you.

When you need to make a point about substandard behavior, make sure you work toward a positive outcome. If you approach it like, “Improve your code or you’re fired.” or “Your code isn’t functional or elegant” , you will only put them on the defensive. Defensiveness shuts down listening.

Instead, state your exact problem with the team member’s performance, such as “When you’re telecommuting we’re having trouble contacting you by phone and email.” or “Your work has been behind schedule for the past month”. Then follow it up with a way to have the person participate in the solution such as, “What do you think would be some ways we could improve your communication with the rest of the team?” or “What can I do to help you get back on track?”

4. Define Your Expectations and Goals

If you don’t say what you want, how you define successful work, then you will find it difficult to provide appropriate praise or criticism. For example, if you expect a particular part of a project to be completed in 2 weeks but don’t tell this to the responsible team member it is quite unfair to criticize them for not meeting your expectations. They can’t read your mind and you don’t want them guessing about what you want.

5. Be Fair

One common problem is where one or more team members are held to a different standard than others. For example, you might like Joe and, although you know he slacks off regularly with long lunches and personal activities, you let him get away with it. But you don’t really care for Bill so when he leaves early one day for a dentist appointment you criticize his dedication to the team, project, and company. Team members will pick up on this quickly even if you do try to keep it private so don’t let favoritism or your personal dislikes and prejudices enter in to your treatment of team members.

6. Do It Now

One common problem in the personnel review process at many companies is that it’s once a year or once every six months. If you wait that amount of time to impart your praise or criticism the opportunity is lost. Also you’re more prone to creating a defensive reaction to criticism or a “so what” attitude toward praise if you delay. Instead insure that both excellent work and problems are dealt with in a timely manner.

As I mentioned above, you want to avoid jumping right into a negative situation but neither do you want it to fester for months. Handle the situation calmly and appropriately within a few days. Problems don’t resolve themselves. Likewise, praise for something a team member did 4 months ago won’t mean as much as praise within the first few days after their accomplishment.

What do you think? Are there any coaching tips you have? Any other thoughts on this topic? If so, leave me a comment.

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Entry Filed under: Development Teams

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cerberis.EU Blog » &hellip  |  October 2nd, 2007 at 3:19 am

    [...]   6 Tips for Coaching Your Development Team Oct02 2 October 2007, admin @ 11:19 am From: 6 Tips for Coaching Your Development Team [...]

  • 2. John Seiffer - Business Coach  |  October 2nd, 2007 at 6:42 am

    These are not actually coaching skills - they are just good management and interpersonal relation techniques. Coaching is a lot more in-depth than this. If interested google the International Coach Federation and look for their coaching core compitencies.

  • 3. jfrankcarr  |  October 2nd, 2007 at 8:03 am

    Thanks John

    In the software development world we consider ourselves lucky to get good management and interpersonal relationship skills in our managers so, yes, I’m really hitting the basics here. Most of us would be happy campers if our managers just did the 6 things I mentioned.

  • 4. adam smith  |  October 20th, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    This is excellent advice. I would also suggest that if one wants to read about this approach in more detail, “The One Minute Manager” is a good place to start, as it presents a simple, cohesive framework within which all these tips are applied.

  • 5. jfrankcarr  |  October 20th, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Hi Adam,

    It’s been years since I read “One Minute Manager”. I think I read it back in the 80’s, maybe while I was still in the Marines. I’ll have to see if I still have it around somewhere.

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