This piece was co-written by Carol Lee, Senior Research Scientist, Developer Insights Lab at Pluralsight.
Employee burnout, talent mobility, job turnover, and the lack of available talent in the marketplace have flooded the tech world. As a tech company dedicated to driving workforce transformation and tech fluency at other tech companies, we firmly believe that reducing turnover and burnout is the best way to increase overall productivity as well.
Improving your developers’ experience is the rising tide that brings everything else up along with it. But what does “Improving the developer experience” actually mean and how can you assure that it’s not just a short term fix? It starts by understanding the underlying aspects that affect behaviors.
Research shows that there are two key factors that increase behavioral engagement, while boosting mental wellness: self-efficacy and value building.
What is self-efficacy?
When we talk about building self-efficacy, we’re referring to your perceived ability to do something successfully. In terms of psychological processes, self-efficacy is a powerhouse. It’s not only an important mechanism in reducing stress and anxiety, but also one of the strongest predictors of behavioral engagement.
We’ve all felt the impact of self-efficacy before. For example, you might have been thrown into a complicated project or codebase with little guidance or preparation. In these scenarios, you might feel like you’re “not ready,” that you don’t know where to start, or like you’re not set up to win. These experiences can be demoralizing and subsequently reduce willingness to engage with tasks.
How do we build self-efficacy?
- Experience Success in Related Tasks. This is the best way to build self-efficacy, as it gives us hard evidence that we are capable of doing similar tasks. In developer teams, this might look like assigning smaller or easier tasks to individual contributors ramping onto a team or codebase to help them familiarize themselves with the task, before assigning them increasingly complex tasks.
- Share Expertise. Watching experts or more experienced teammates model how they tackle a task helps us see that a path to success is possible. Leaders could implement this by providing individual contributors mentors for different types of tasks or by instituting a pair programming system.
- Encourage and Celebrate. It’s important to celebrate all successes and efforts. Celebrating early and smaller victories as you would celebrate large scale wins encourages individual contributors to keep working toward those larger goals.
Establishing the importance of value building
The more important something is, the more likely we are to do it. But important to whom? The research on value building shows that we are more likely to engage when we personally find something to be important, then when others find something to be important.
Regardless of the level of employment you’re at, we’ve all had that moment when we’re working on a project where we question the point of the work we’re doing. We don’t feel like the work is essential to our career or company goals. It may even be the case that the work we are doing is important, but because we have never been told why or how, we don’t fully value it as such. This type of work is draining and leads to burnout and it’s why team leads must make a concerted effort to show how their individual contributors' work is connected to team and company goals.
How can development team leads build value?
Provide the Why and How. Leaders need to constantly provide tasks that challenge their teams mentally while also ensuring they see how it’s connected to organizational goals. Take the time to explain why and how something is important for the team, the company, and potentially the individual.
For example, you could explain how a piece of work fits in with the company’s roadmap, why it’s helpful to the team, and what an individual contributor could gain from the experience. Increasing the speed of software delivery is a constant goal for every development team.
Individual contributors need to feel like their efforts are a part of large scale goals like reducing cycle time or driving towards major feature releases. You can create this sense of belonging and connectivity through improved communication and transparency. In your team ceremonies, communicating how tasks and sprints are driving to overall organizational goals builds purpose into developer work.
Make Room for Passion. Create space for individual contributors to work towards personal goals and learning that they already value. Host frequent hackathons that enable developers to work on projects they are passionate about. The creative hours can help leaders better direct their teams to tasks they’ll be more engaged with and, by extension, more productive.
Build from the start. The key is to build positive feelings of value, connection, and self-efficacy into projects for your engineers right from their onboarding. Even onboarding tasks are important and valuable and lay the groundwork for how new team members will learn to document processes, understand team communication styles, and begin to feel connected.
When your teams have access to engineering insights tools like Pluralsight Flow, not only can you see how your teams are performing in terms of things like DORA metrics, but you can also look at Retrospective and Investment Profile reports to highlight who is working on projects directly connected to company revenue and if other developers are consistently performing tasks like bug fixes and code reviews. This work, while important, can begin to feel mundane which leads to dissociation and burnout.
When engineering leaders have access to these types of metrics they can lead data-driven retrospectives, removing the emotions that can come from sprint retrospective meetings. More in-depth work may need to be performed by senior team members but having access to metrics connected to Team Health Insights enables you to spread around the work with great perceived social value.
Value building within daily work improves the developer experience and builds a culture where engineers understand their part in the big picture. This can help create a culture of continuous learning as employees are driven to keep learning new skills when they know those skills will be used to drive towards individual and organizational goals.
- Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.84.2.191
- Bandura, A., & Adams, N. E. (1977). Analysis of self-efficacy theory of behavioral change. (1977). Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1(4), 287-310. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01663995
- Rodebaugh, T. L. (2006). Self-efficacy and social behavior. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1831–1838. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2005.11.014
- Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179-211. https://doi.org/10.1016/0749-5978(91)90020-T
- Lee, C. S. & Hayes-Skelton, S.A. Social cost bias, probability bias, and self-efficacy as correlates of behavioral action in social anxiety. Behavior Modification, 42(2), 175-195. https://doi.org/10.1177/014544551772044
- Lee, C. S. & Hayes-Skelton, S. A. (2021). Personal meaning as a predictor of behavioral action over and above the role of state social anxiety. Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology, 5, 26-34. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts5.81
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