How to Lead High-Performing Software Engineering Teams​

Drive high performance by focusing on technical skills and work experience when building a software engineering team.

Drive Higher Performance

Get practical advice on creating an environment that encourages software engineering employees to go above and beyond.

By clicking the "Continue" button, you are agreeing to the Gartner Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

Contact Information

All fields are required.

Company Information

All fields are required.

Type company and location
Optional Optional

Leaders need to create an environment in which their teams can flourish.

To deliver critical digital technology initiatives, software engineering leaders must build accountable, empowered teams with the skills required for end-to-end value delivery.

Download this report to discover:

  1. How to lead high-performing teams
  2. How to create development plans for yourself and for your teams
  3. What drives learning, collaboration and innovation

Two critical success factors for software technology leadership

Software engineering leaders aim to improve strategic business impact and build high-performing teams.

Drive cultural change based on clear objectives and incentives.

Software is the engine of business transformation, and software engineering leaders must grant their teams the power to take control. This requires leaders to cultivate a culture of ownership within product teams, articulate a vision that inspires change and identify the biggest barriers to change initiatives. Culturally, this means shifting the narrative from business and software engineering teams as order-takers to collaborative business partners. 

Software engineering leaders must define what ownership means and explain the importance for their teams and the organization as a whole. Also, they need to look for feedback and pushback, as these are signs that the teams feel psychologically safe, and integrate the vision into the organization’s goals, incentives, management practices and structures.

To encourage ownership:

  • Specify and define what you’re really asking your team members to do. 

  • Establish the importance of ownership to yourself, your teams, the organization, customers and users. 

  • Stress how ownership is beneficial by identifying specific improvements to the software engineering organization and its individual members.

Remember, motivation and ownership are highly correlated. Incentives — whether intrinsic or extrinsic, designed or accidental — are powerful. 

Software engineering leaders’ focus on product teams is critical, as it involves moving a group rather than an individual. Shifting to product typically means a single product per team, which reduces task switching and enables a longer-term view beyond simply concentrating on the next task. However, teams look after their own and can often be competitive, so make sure teams see themselves as members of a single team aligned around the same business outcomes and with the customer squarely in mind.

Software engineering leaders should recruit internal candidates to build a tiger team for a new product and define core outcomes for the team to achieve. Avoid micromanagement; rather, set goals that align with business outcomes and give them your trust. Tell them why there is a need, not what to do and how to do it.

Software engineering leaders should also consider strengthening their marketing skills to promote cultural values that support ownership and invest in career development (formally or informally) to gain a better understanding of business processes and finance. Read the same books as business leaders to develop a clearer case for change, framed in terms that will resonate with them. Also spread such capabilities to the product teams so they gain confidence interacting more directly with the business.


Support team members to take interpersonal risks that drive learning, collaboration and innovation.

Software engineering leaders cannot simply form teams with talented people and hope that they deliver. Rather, they must drive high performance within their teams by fostering psychological safety, improving developer experience and connecting people and teams.

Companies increasingly find that it’s most critical to create an environment in which team members are willing and able to take interpersonal risks that drive learning, collaboration and innovation. For this, they need a safe space in which to speak up and share their viewpoints. In other words, they need “psychological safety.”​

Also needed: Your commitment to remove friction and frustration for developers as they interact with tools, platforms, processes and people (that is, improve developer experience) — and connect team members effectively to enhance both their performance and their mental well-being.​

Software engineering leaders must empower team members to learn new technologies, languages and frameworks, and to debate design decisions. They need to give their people opportunities to learn and grow so they don’t lose their passion.

Examples of such opportunities include:

  • Education and development. Providing options to learn new technologies that may open pathways to innovation. 
  • Communities of practice (COPs). Fostering communities creates pathways for members to expand their interests and network outside of their core teams.
  • Conference attendance. Providing a more informal way to learn and to take business-oriented breaks from their normal workflow.

Software engineering leaders should use a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards to motivate team members. Extrinsic rewards can be effective in the short term, but they are not enough to drive lasting changes in ownership behaviors. They need to tap into their team members’ motivations to strengthen and support a growth mindset.

Examples of rewards:

  • Salary growth. As team members develop additional skills, their value on the market will increase. 
  • Celebrate learning from failure. Encourage people to take calculated risks. That is where innovation occurs.
  • Bug bounty. Companies like Google provide financial rewards for people who find vulnerabilities and bugs in software that was developed by other teams or organizations. 
  • Team budget/morale budget. Free team swag and promotional items to create a sense of team and mission. Or activities designed to build a sense of team. 
  • Feedback from users. Improve your team members’ connection to users by passing along both positive and negative feedback from users, which can both be powerful motivators. 

While tools themselves do not drive ownership or innovation, software engineering leaders should use team collaboration software to support the right culture and practices that simplify reporting, improve collaboration and provide visibility.

Tools that enable better collaboration, support learning and knowledge management, or encourage efforts, can contribute to implementing change. Dashboards are more than a way of making things visible, they can also provide a means of motivation. Connecting people to business outcomes — and their own achievements — should also be a part of the work done by dashboards.


Gartner Digital Workplace Summit

Join our panel of industry leaders and Gartner experts to explore key market insights, business goals, digital workplace strategic plans and much more.

Drive stronger performance on your mission-critical priorities.