Applying Leadership Styles

The setting is a small library filled with various books on software engineering. Five people are sitting around a single, small table, the room overcrowded with the group. The Square Root team is reviewing the mid-semester presentation I threw together last night before we were to show it to our mentors in a few hours. I was showing the team the last slide. Up to that point everyone had pretty much agreed with the content in the presentation.

"Does anyone have any other risks they’d like to bring up?" I asked, confident that, as the team leader, I had a firm grasp on how the team was doing and where our current problems lay.

I waited a few seconds.

"OK, if nobody’s got anything I’ll go ahead and email this out..."

"Communication," the quietest member of the team chimed in. "We have problems with our team communication."

I was in shock. Surely this must just be an isolated problem. "Do you mean team communication or do you mean you don’t understand some aspect of the project?"

"I agree. Team communication seems to be problematic." Now there were two dissenters.

A few seconds later there were three. Three fifths of the team felt we had team communication problems that were directly impacting the outcome of the project. I sat there shocked for a moment. I had just been blindsided by a team communication problem, therefore, obviously, we have a team communication problem.

Looking back at this incident I have decided that leadership, my leadership, was to blame. From the beginning, I had led the way I liked to be led: hands-off with enough space to make my own decisions and get things done the way I wanted to do them, the polar opposite of micromanagement. Of course, for me this worked out really well. This was the way I liked to work and the way I was used to working. Unfortunately, for a new team, a team lacking in trust, whose members didn’t know one another and had other commitments and priorities (school work) my ideal working environment and preferred leadership style was disastrous.

To prevent utter team destruction I changed perspectives. From what I could tell, team members didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. I had assumed that this team would operate similarly to my last team where everyone would come together like a well-oiled machine to get work done. Shortly after the incident in the library I remembered that my last team took almost a year to become that awesome. Of course there were going to be problems in my new team.

Since my team seemed not to know how to take initiative in completing tasks and getting work done I thought I’d set an even better example for them. By doing so, maybe they’d get the hint and follow suit. The next day I kicked things into gear. I took on more work. I picked up all the slack I could and then some. I took on tasking outside of work specifically assigned to my role. I set high standards for myself and my team and we were going to meet those standards if I had anything to do with it.

Leadership disaster number two was prevented thanks to a timely assignment in my Managing Software Developers course. Leadership that Get’s Results by Daniel Goleman defines six distinct leadership styles and gives a little advice on when each style is appropriate. Up to that point I had no knowledge of such styles and had been flying on instincts. The following table is taken from Goleman’s paper but I encourage you to read the full paper to gain a better understanding of these ideas in a more complete context. There’s also tons of information on the web, a search away.

Leadership Style Description When the style works best Impact on team climate
Coercive Demands immediate compliance, "Do what I tell you." Crisis, kick-start a turnaround, problem employees Negative
Authoritative Mobilize people toward a vision, "Come with me." When changes require a new vision or clear direction is needed Most strongly positive
Affiliative Creates harmony and builds emotional bonds, "People come first." Heal rifts in a team or motivate people during stressful circumstances Positive
Democratic Forge consensus through participation, "What do you think?" Build buy in or consensus, or to get input from valuable team members Positive
Pacesetting Set high performance standards, "Do as I do, now." Get quick results from a highly motivated, competent team Negative
Coaching Develop people for the future, "Try this." Help team members improve performance or develop long-term strengths Positive

As it turns out, I started with the right idea by using an authoritative style of leadership even though I didn’t know the name for it. I failed with this style because the team wasn’t ready for it yet. We didn’t have a clear vision or clear goals. We weren’t yet working well together. There was little buy-in to my leadership or the few goals the team did have. We were a full-fledged dysfunctional team. Switching to a pacesetting style was just about the worst possible thing I could have done. If I had gone on for too long I am fully confident that I would have destroyed the team and we wouldn’t have gotten anything done during our first semester. With my new found knowledge of the different leadership styles I now had new options. I immediately put three styles to use: affiliative, coaching, and coercive.

The team was clearly broken. My hope was that affiliative leadership might help build trust and better bonds among teammates. Being a programmer I tend to be a little more logical than emotional so trying to tune in more to how people felt was tough. I found that affiliative leadership goes hand in hand with vulnerability and trust and that individually thanking someone for their hard work, even if it’s relatively small, and meaning it is one of the most important things you can do as a leader.

In addition to team harmony, it was obvious that some team members were struggling with the tasks they had been given. Rather than taking over those tasks as I had been doing, I decided to try taking on more of a coaching role. In some cases I would help team members directly, other times I encouraged other team members to work together on tasks. The end result was a team better able to work together to accomplish tasks.

In spite of all this, I had the feeling that if we didn’t do something immediately, the entire semester would be a wash. To prevent this from happening I used coercive leadership in an attempt to get us back on track quickly even though the overall impact could be negative in the long term. In a sense, I was willing to be a bad guy so the team had a chance of meeting its goals. The gamble paid off and the way the team operated turned around almost instantly.

About two months after I had been blindsided by unseen communication problems, my team seemed to be working together much better. Problems were being flushed out into the open more quickly and everyone on the team seemed to enjoy working with one another on the project. I am not going to take full credit for the change but I will take credit for being the catalyst that put the change into motion. All because I changed how I led the team.

There is a small downside to the changes, but it’s only really a downside because I enjoy doing technical work. The leadership role on my team has evolved. By the end of the semester I found myself directly responsible for almost no work but rather, I was the go to guy for all problems the team was facing. I had my hands in everything but I wasn’t able to really sink my teeth into anything. If this is what management is like and I ever do become a project manager I will need to find ways to remain technically involved in something or I think I’d eventually go insane.

The biggest lesson I’m taking away from this experiences is that sometimes the team’s needs and my needs aren’t going to line up. Recognizing when this is occurring and finding a balance between these conflicting needs is critical to team success.

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