People-First Leadership: A Key to Successful Dev Teams

Discover the benefits of people-first team management and learn practical strategies for leading with empathy and prioritizing employee well-being. Improve team performance and foster a positive work culture. By Manda Frederick.

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As a team leader, your job is to ensure all the parts of your workflow are, well, working. However, it’s critical to remember that people are not parts. Your “pipeline” is not a machine, even though we tend to use mechanical metaphors to describe it. When you manage your teams with the understanding that there are real, living, complex, feeling humans creating and executing work for your organization, you use people-first leadership.

People today are struggling with unemployment, a recession and layoffs across our tech industry. Many people’s needs have been threatened… and continue to be. As a team leader, you might feel powerless in many regards, but one positive change you can make is to put in the daily work to be a people-first team manager.

This article will help you understand how to be a people-first team leader and how that results in more fulfilled and productive teams.

What You’ll Learn

  • What a people-first leadership strategy is.
  • How you can use it to create happier and more successful teams.
  • Five actionable strategies anyone can use to start being a people-first team lead.

You’ll start by learning the advantages you’ll get from making the effort to recognize and support the people in your team.

Why Leading With a People-First Mindset Is Important

People are challenging to manage, but it helps to remember we all want the same things at our core. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a well-known framework for describing our fundamental human needs:

Pyramid showing physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualization at the top

In short, people want to feel:

  • They have the resources they need to live.
  • They are safe.
  • They belong.
  • They are seen, heard, respected, and empowered.
  • They are motivated to be the best version of themselves.

To translate this to a work environment, we can say that your team members, including managers, colleagues and direct reports, all want to feel:

  • Their positions and/or salaries are secure.
  • They are safe to communicate ideas or concerns, as well as to get and give feedback.
  • They can be their authentic selves at work.
  • Their skills and perspectives are considered when the work affects them.
  • They have the tools, resources and support they need to do their job.
  • They are compensated and acknowledged for their efforts.

Think back to a job you left — or maybe even one you were fired from. It’s likely that role didn’t work out because one (or more!) of the workplace needs listed above wasn’t being met.

Putting an emphasis on a people-first management style isn’t just a nice thing to do — it’s amazingly effective at creating a loyal, satisfied and productive dev team. When people feel the work they are doing matters and that their efforts are noticed and appreciated, they will do good work. It’s how humans are made.

By recognizing your team members’ needs and prioritizing them, you can significantly improve your dev team’s work. Some advantages you might see include:

  1. Improved employee engagement and satisfaction: When your team members feel that you’re respecting their needs and well-being, they are more likely to feel engaged, motivated and committed to their work. This can lead to higher levels of job satisfaction and reduced turnover.
  2. Better communication and collaboration: A people-first approach emphasizes open communication and collaboration, which can help break down silos and improve teamwork. This can lead to higher-quality work and more efficient processes.
  3. Increased innovation and creativity: When your team members feel valued and empowered, they’re free to take risks, try new things and contribute ideas.
  4. Greater adaptability and resilience: A people-first management style encourages flexibility and adaptability — a major competitive advantage in the fast-changing tech sector.
  5. Better team performance: All of the advantages above combine to create more efficient processes, higher-quality work and better overall outcomes.

As a team leader, you’re in a unique position to create a culture in which your team feels fulfilled and works together to create amazing things. Next, you’ll learn how to do it.

5 Practical Steps to Be a Good Team Leader

Managing people isn’t magic, and there isn’t a secret; it’s something you can learn to do. If you feel you aren’t a natural people leader or if you are managing a particularly dynamic team, there are a number of practical steps you can take to show up for your team in a helpful and meaningful way.

Here are five strategies you can use to implement people-first leadership for your dev team.

1. Make a Daily Commitment

Maintaining a people-first leadership mindset is a daily practice. It’s a commitment you make at the start of each work day when you sit down to write an email, set goals and outcomes for your team, give feedback, create timelines for projects, manage resources and join every meeting. You are managing people — and being a person is hard. They won’t always get it right. Neither will you. And that’s okay.

If your team knows they belong to a people-first organization, the trust and communication will be in place so that everyone feels they’re safe and empowered to make their best effort with people who care about them and the work they are doing.

When I was teaching and leading a lot of students, I kept a sticky note on my computer that said, “Every student, every day,” meaning every new day I would show up for each individual student.

It reminded me to start each morning fresh and bring the best of myself, as well as the tools and resources available to me, to each student interaction, whether that be a lesson, conference, email or something else. I carried that forward when I started managing teams to ensure every person, every day, on every project received renewed patience, empathy and effort.

  • “Today, people first.”
  • “I manage people, not products.”
  • “Remember to ask for feedback.”
  • “Remember to thank my team.”
Tip: You might find it helpful to paste a sticky note to your computer screen as a reminder that the work you do as a team lead should be about the people on your team. Write a reminder that speaks to you. Here’s an example:

If it sounds like extra work to take care of the people on your team first, before and in addition to the logistics that go into managing projects, you are absolutely correct.

Because people are incredibly unique and are subject to physical, mental and emotional changes every day, no two days of management will ever be the same. The combination of personalities, moods and circumstances among your team members will be new each day, too. However, the payoff of having a happy, engaged and effective team is worth the effort.