People & Process

Want productive engineers? Start with trust, not metrics

15 min read
Two people with long hair smiling, an illustration of a handshake, and a symbol for security

This blog post was co-authored by Eric Grigson, Director of Developer Experience at Culture Amp, and Lauren Peate, CEO of Multitudes.

There's a lot of talk about how to measure engineering productivity. Alongside that, economic uncertainty has increased the drive to efficiency. This has made engineering metrics commonplace in the workplace – but it has also increased the risk of metric misuse.

It’s clear that measuring engineering productivity is no simple task. Like other knowledge work, software engineering involves a mix of creative problem-solving and teamwork. There's no simple formula for how someone’s contribution across code, peer reviews, documentation, mentoring, and more impacts the outcomes created for users and the company.

Especially with the risk of metric misuse, it’s tempting to focus on finding the perfect set of metrics – but we believe that this is a distraction. There is something more fundamental that we should all be talking about in the pursuit of productivity: trust. 

Who are we to speak on this topic? Our day jobs are focused on increasing engineering productivity. Lauren is the founder of Multitudes, which provides analytics and tools to unlock happier, higher-performing teams. Eric leads the work to improve engineering productivity at Culture Amp, a company which is all about improving the world of work by focusing on the experience of employees.

We both love a good metric, but our real-world experiences have led us to increasingly focus on the people and processes around the metrics. The bigger impact comes not from choosing the right productivity metrics but from creating the right conditions for success – a high-trust environment where we reflect on metrics and take action to improve.

Why do metrics matter in the first place?

Signpost with a graph and to-do list

There are big, ongoing debates about what the "right" productivity metrics are. But why do metrics matter?

Ultimately, the outcome we want is a high-performing team. What does that mean? It’s a team where everyone is contributing to the best of their abilities and, together, they have regular, positive impact. 

It’s a team where individuals feel both valued and challenged, care about their work, and can disagree on work decisions without it becoming interpersonal conflict because everyone knows that they have each other’s backs. It’s a team where there’s a shared goal, plus autonomy and support to get there. High-performing teams are rewarding to be part of and are important for organizations to meet their goals. 

Zoomed-in view of the signpost on the path, showing a graph and a list of actions

Metrics are a signpost to show if we’re heading in the right direction and to communicate progress to others.

The search for the “perfect” metrics

Why do we spend so much time looking for perfect metrics, rather than thinking about how to use them? 

There are valid reasons to get the metrics right, but when this search goes too far, it can be a sign of other issues. Often, there’s a fear under this search for perfection – a fear that metrics will be used without context to judge, place blame, or even fire someone. This can be a sign of a low-trust environment. 

It’s a false search though, because in a low-trust environment, people will blame and judge each other with or without metrics. If you’re worrying about metrics, that can be a sign to instead look at the trust in your team.

The environment impacts what a team is able to do with metrics. A low-trust environment fosters fear, uncertainty, and doubt, and encourages behaviors that are anti-social and zero-sum – where I need to protect myself and my turf, because no one else is looking out for me. All of this discourages the collaborative behaviors that are important for good coding – things like reviews and good documentation. These take time for the individual to do and so can feel like a cost in a zero-sum world, but they are critical for good outcomes like code quality, task performance, and more.

Magnifying glass over a bar chart graph; it's surrounded by other graphs

In a high-trust environment, we don’t need to hold things so tightly. There’s space to try something and learn. Even if the first thing we try doesn’t work out, it’s ok because we know we’ll support each other to improve. This means that the agile process and scientific method also work best when there’s trust. In fact, in a high-trust environment, we can even start with imperfect metrics and know that there’s enough trust that we can refine them as we go. 

There’s a mountain of research around the link between trust and productivity. When there’s more trust in an organization, people are “more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer.” (For more benefits, see this HBR article).

In summary: When there’s trust, everything gets easier. 

So instead of searching for the perfect metrics, let’s get to the heart of the matter – building trust on our teams, so that we can use the metrics well. 

What is trust and how do we build it?

Trust is not an abstract concept; it's a tangible atmosphere where individuals feel secure and valued. In a high-trust team, there's a sense of psychological safety, open communication, and a shared commitment to the team's goals. It’s something that is best measured through the experience of the individuals in the team, which means that is where we need to start.

So how do we build this atmosphere? It can’t be done “bottom up”. If a leader is not trustworthy, it's challenging to cultivate trust within the team – or do anything great. At best, the leader will create an unhealthy dynamic where a rift emerges between leadership and the team. Trust requires authenticity and open communication, otherwise psychological safety will not be present.

We also know that leaders have a big impact on their teams. Culture Amp’s research has found that the Manager / Direct Report relationship is one of the best levers when it comes to motivation in the workplace. When an employee has a great manager, one whom they see as a role model, they score 27% points higher on motivation (source: Culture Amp). That’s why, to build trust, we need to start at the top, with leaders role-modeling high-trust behavior to motivate their team members to do the same.

That said, everyone has opportunities to lead, in every role, so, this means productivity starts with you. 

Illustration showing 5 people in a circle, with orange lines connecting them

Trust is about how we build a relationship. Relationship psychologists like Esther Perel have much to share on this topic. Perel posits that extending trust is a risk – but a necessary one. Cultivating trust “requires millions of micro-risks” that, over time, build confidence in the relationship. 

What behaviors can you take to build a high-trust environment? If you want to create a high trust environment, you need to behave in a high-trust way, things like:

  • Recognize people publicly for good work. 
  • Communicate openly and authentically about what’s happening on your team and in the company. 
  • When you say you’ll do something, see it through
  • Ask for help – this is a sign of a secure leader, and it makes space for others to ask for help too. 
  • Be as clear about what you won’t do as it is about what you will. 
  • Focus on building connections with your team members – listen to them and take a genuine interest in their lives and wellbeing. 

Before you know it, others will be following in your example, and the team will start to change.

What can make this tricky at work is that there’s a power imbalance between the employee and the manager. This is even more reason why trust-building must start with leaders. The person with more power must extend trust first. So it’s not: Hire someone and make them prove themselves to you. It’s: Hire people and extend trust that they will be amazing – unless they prove otherwise.

Example: We both think about our “share of voice” in meetings. As leaders, we want to make sure we’re giving more space to others to speak (research also shows the importance of listening to building trust).

  • For Lauren, her personal goal is to “speak less, speak last”. She shares that goal in her first 1:1 with every new team member and asks them to help give her feedback on how well she’s doing with that. 
  • For Eric, he puts this into practice with a tool called Krisp. It hooks into his video calls and, at the end, shows him the percent of the time that he spoke. His goal is always to speak less and listen more.

How can we build trust with our products?

We also know that we need to build trust between our products and the people using them. Our users won’t spend time on products they don’t trust

This is part of why it’s so important to have values and guiding principles for product development – that’s how employees and customers know what you stand for.

Example: At Multitudes, we’re very careful to weave our values into our product development. We have a set of data ethics principles that govern what features we build. They’re things like “Collective Benefit” and “Reciprocity.” Every quarter, we have a session as a team where we review upcoming features against these principles. If a feature doesn’t pass the ethics bar, we either adapt it or get rid of it. 

One principle is accountability – we invite people to give us feedback on how well we’re living our principles. This is true for both employees and customers – Lauren looks for is whether she’s getting regular, contructive feedback from both groups. Since no person or product is perfect, getting no feedback can be a sign that either people don’t care or they don’t feel safe to speak up. 

Two product features, A and B; A has 2 hearts and a cross, and B has 3 hearts. B is shown going into the final product.

In summary: Start with trust, not metrics

Ultimately, trust is foundational to everything you do in your organization – from how you interact with your colleagues to how you develop your products and services.

This is true not just in tech but in any collaborative industry. Whether in business, healthcare, education, or technology, trust cultivates an environment where individuals feel safe to share ideas, take risks, make changes, and collaborate openly. When trust is prioritized, communication improves, conflicts are resolved more effectively, and innovation is nurtured. If you want high-performing teams, start with trust.

What that means for performance metrics is: Stop worrying about finding the perfect metrics – instead, build a high-trust team, choose some metrics, and then take action to iterate and improve over time. Once you have the foundations of trust, everything else becomes easier – both measuring performance and building a high-performing team.

Circular loop that starts with a team of 5 in a circle, then points to metrics, then to actions, and back to the team

Thanks to Nathen Harvey and Paul Hughes for reviewing and giving feedback on earlier versions of this article. Any remaining omissions or errors are our own.

Lauren Peate
Lauren Peate
Founder, CEO
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