Five years into my career, I had gone from being one of the few engineers at the company, to being the expert on a medium-sized engineering team. If someone misunderstood how something worked, I could list all the ways there were wrong. If someone had a product idea, I could find all the ways it might not work. I even remember joking about this by saying, “if you need someone to poke holes in an idea, you know who to come to”. No one ever said anything directly, but my manager started getting feedback about how I was coming across. I got some formal 360 feedback that was filled with phrases describing me as “always needing to be right”, “thinks he knows everything”, and “too cocky”.

I wasn’t sure how to process the feedback at first, but eventually I realized that the biggest thing limiting my impact was my relationships with other people. This was a formative piece of feedback in my career, and marked the first time I started thinking about my “soft skills”.

Healthy relationships at work are not just about the people on your team, or even the people you interact with. They are also the way you interact over email, in a large Slack channel, or in a document. It’s OK to occasionally cross into curmudgeon territory, but don’t make a steady diet of it. If it’s too frequent, too visible, or inappropriate for the audience, it can cross the line. You can’t go wrong if you consistently take ownership, assume good intent, and radiate positivity.

What Good Looks Like

You always want 360 feedback from your relationships to be excellent. In terms of having healthy relationships, this looks like consistent positive comments about your professionalism, tone, and collaboration. Feedback that is specifically about you or your relationship should not be negative, even if there are challenging projects, or circumstances. You want feedback from others to be critical of outcomes, not of you personally.

For engineering managers, this means feedback from your direct reports as well as your peer product managers, designers, and engineering managers. Your manager probably gets feedback from these folks in one on ones, and from anonymous surveys. Feedback can also come from exit surveys when people leave the team.

As you get more senior, the pool of people who have visibility on you grows. At some point, you can reasonably expect feedback to potentially come from anywhere in the company. It starts to reflect not just on you, but also your whole team, and your leads.

Model the relationship that you want in your own interactions with folks. Demonstrate trust, always keep things professional, and criticize the work, not the person. Also, keep an eye out for common work stressors.

Common Stressors on Healthy Relationships

Having healthy relationships does not mean that nothing will ever go wrong. But when things do go wrong, your relationships are not the cause, and your relationships are not burned resolving the issue.


Whatever the issue is, you want to talk about it with your team, peers, and your boss. This happens in one on ones, and team check-ins. To some extent, it’s OK to vent or be frustrated in a one one one with your manager. That’s part of what they are there for. But in a team meeting, you want to quickly move forward constructively. You can do this by taking a lens of extreme ownership, where you take responsibility to solve the issue together.

If you have an idea for a solution, use your manager as a sounding board to help you work through it. It’s OK to come to them without a solution, but be prepared for ideas from them. You should expect that 80% of the time, your manager will propose a solution you can act on yourself, versus having them act.

What if the blocker is another person? Remind yourself that you need to assume good intent, ask open-ended questions, and frame things in a positive light. Don’t turn a non-people problem into a relationship problem.


The level of uncertainty and ambiguity you deal with on a regular basis is only going to increase as your seniority and scope increases. At a certain level, no amount of uncertainty is anomalous or outside the range of expectations for your role. Uncertainty itself should not be an excuse for unhealthy relationships or interactions.

Sometimes, you need to live with the uncertainty for a bit. You may catch yourself making the mistake of trying to resolve uncertainty too quickly, versus not quickly enough. Sometimes what is required is just to sit patiently with the uncertainty. In general, your best tools here are going to be perspective, curiosity, and reaching out to the right people.

If you need to escalate to resolve the uncertainty, be sure to follow healthy escalation best practices.

Lack of Confidence

What if you think that a peer is not performing in their role? First, you should give them feedback. Then, try coaching them. Finally, give their manager feedback, either directly, or though your manager. Your working relationship with the person should never suffer. Even if the person is under-performing, you don’t want your relationship itself to become a contributor to blocking the team.

Be mindful that it’s not your decision whether a cross-functional peer, or anyone outside your org, is performing well in their role. You cannot make that determination unilaterally with the information you have. Don’t assume you know what is expected of them outside the context of your roles and responsibilities with each other. What you can do is make your respective roles and responsibilities clear, in writing.

Never balk at performing your own role based on a sense that someone else is not performing well. A specific case that you may see is when you are not happy with the level of detail in product specs. Do not refuse to estimate work, or put items on the roadmap. This can put your relationship with the product manager at risk. Instead, work with the whole team to refine and scope the work together.

All Hands Q&A

The larger the audience, the more potential risk there is to damage relationships. One of the larger forums that you may be a part of in your work is an All Hands Q&A session. You never want someone to be able to interpret a question you’re asking as having bad intent. Even if a question is anonymous, make sure it comes across in a healthy way. Avoid making unvalidated assumptions, and keep the tone positive. Ask yourself, how would you feel if this question was on the front page of the New York Times?

Asking provocative questions is valuable, but not if they negatively affect morale, or reflect poorly on your team. It doesn’t matter if you’re 100% right, if you don’t find an effective way to ask the question. The ratio also matters, you don’t want to be the person always throwing bombs.

How to Optimize for Health Relationships

Communicate with Ruthless Positivity

It’s up to you to radiate the positivity that you would want to see in anyone. Relentlessly assume good intent. Psychological safety is a two-way street; in your interactions with peers and your manager, given them space to feel safe. Tailor your communication to leave the door open for constructive discussion. Take accountability for how you communicate, how it’s perceived by others, and it makes them feel.

If you find yourself communicating with a sense of frustration or entitlement, take a step back. If you can’t find a way to say something that does not pose a risk to healthy relationships, save it for a one on one with your manager. You might try explicitly labeling it as a “rant”. As always, praise in public, and criticize in private.

Prioritize Relationships

How and whether you show up for people affects the relationship. You should make time for regular one on ones with your team, as well as key peer relationships. Communicate that the relationship is important to you by keeping the time on the calendar, and coming engaged with topics to discuss.

Get to know people on a personal level. Spend the first part of one on ones and smaller meetings asking folks what is going on outside of work. What are they excited about, right now? Smile and laugh with them. Make it genuine. Strong relationships built in the small moments will be what you lean on to get through tough times.

Don’t underestimate the concentrated power of sharing a meal with someone, in person.

More Story Time

Much later in my career, I was fired from a role due to unhealthy relationships. My results were great. My peer, team and direct lead relationships were great. But, I had pissed off my great grand boss, and I didn’t last long after that. There was no warning, and no feedback. I’m not even 100% sure what happened, but I can guess.

It came down to a refusal to engage my team, when I balked at moving forward with a project that didn’t have a product manager. I had given direct feedback, but my tone was “this is crazy”, “this is unreasonable”, and “YOU need to solve this”. That interaction put me on a knife’s edge. Later, there was a simple misunderstanding, but my credibility with this person was shot. I had burned the relationship, and it was unrecoverable.

Outside of layoffs, I have more often seen attitude and unhealthy relationships result in termination than actual performance issues. Sometimes you can do enough damage to your internal reputation that it’s impossible to recover. There is no PIP for that.