In visiting with various companies over the past few months I’ve been struck by the common occurrence of certain leadership flaws. I won’t whitewash them…these aren’t “tendencies” or “styles” or any easy-to-swallow aphorism. They threaten the stability of your studio, the happiness of your team, and they’re so common that I wanted to bring them to light here, describe the damage they’ll do if allowed to run loose, and talk about what to do about them. Odds are they’ve already risen up out of a sea near you, so let’s talk about awareness and solutions before they make landfall and threaten to eat your Asian metropolis.
The catchphrase here – be it spoken or implied – is, “These are my people and I’ll manage them as I see fit!” I pretend no understanding of the psychology behind such a mindset (not enough hugs as a kid? I don’t know) but the actions of this type of manager are bent on control at all costs. If the studio leadership want to try a new task tracking tool or a new development methodology, too bad. This person won’t allow it on their team.
The downsides to this behavior are fairly clear. The authority of senior leadership is undermined. Peers of the Territorialist are left wondering why they should have to play by the rules when he doesn’t have to. The needs of a single ego are taking precedence over the needs of the company and the team. Often the team members themselves can be caught in the middle, suffering unfairly in an authority battle between “Mom vs. Dad”. When I was a studio developer that happened to me during one spectacularly awful period of senior mismanagement. I can tell you it seriously degrades morale and performance.
I’ve stated elsewhere my opinion that no single person is of such irreplaceable value to your studio that they deserve special treatment. Just as you would with a frontline contributor intent on bucking authority, have the immediate supervisor of this recalcitrant manager step in. Describe the issues, explain that communication is encouraged in light of a clear difference of opinion, but that the decisions of senior leadership aren’t optional. Provide opportunities for mentoring. After all of that, though, hold this person accountable and be prepared to take action if they don’t show improvement. Open disruption in the leadership of your team isn’t something to be taken lightly.
This type of manager shows preferential treatment to team members. He listens to the input of specific peers but not others. To a certain extent this is expected and understandable. Not every idea that’s brought forth will be a good one, and sometimes less-experienced voices won’t carry the weight of those more tenured. But in this particular case we’re talking about a manager who discounts someone’s feedback simply because of who they are, without giving their thoughts due examination. In a highly creative and innovative environment you just can’t afford to have any team member’s communication wantonly tossed out, else why did you even hire them?
What negative effect does this behavior have on your team? Favoritism breeds disengagement. Why should I even try to put thought into my work when I know my input won’t be appreciated? I’ll just do exactly as I’m told. That attitude produces lackluster results, erodes morale, and creates Us vs. Them factions in the workplace. Additionally, the odds are that some good ideas are going to be missed, and most of us have seen the enormous benefits that have been garnered by the addition of that one great piece of input at the right time.
Another point worth mentioning is that absence of trust may be playing more of a role than outright favoritism. Maybe this manager isn’t going to listen to the new coworker because there’s no level of trust between them. To this I would say that propagation of trust as a global aspect of running your studio is the responsibility of everyone in leadership from the top down. If you find someone in your company – such as the flawed manager under discussion – who as a matter of course exhibits lack of trust in one or more team members, you need to do two things: stress with the manager that in this company we trust our coworkers, and make darned sure your hiring process is only allowing the introduction of employees who are trustworthy. If you’ve got someone in house who truly can’t be trusted, either get them some mentoring or help them find a better fit at another company. You can’t afford to not trust each other.
Lock and Key
Be it caused by insecurity or narcissism, there are those who refuse to relinquish the slightest bit of power once it’s acquired. I saw a fair amount of this during my time at Raven Software, particularly as we came to realize the importance of project management in the form of producers. Largely – I believe – as a result of power mongering, the producer was instantiated as lower than the apex of the team pyramid and not even truly on par with department leads on the next level down.
One of the worst results of a situation like this is when someone afraid of subdividing his fiefdom doles out responsibility without power. Half-baked attempts at delegation such as this leave others in a position of being accountable for the performance of team members but without the means to solve problems or empower those team members. In my case as a producer, I was initially “responsible” for the scheduling and communication between art and level design but I had no power to enforce timeliness of deliverables or to modify processes to improve speed or quality. This situation led to many arguments and much passive aggressive behavior that could have been avoided. As a bit of a mea culpa, it didn’t help that I was young and brash, without a mentor, and given no project management training, but those are certainly topics for another time.
How to fix it? Make sure all leaders understand the requirements of their position and get consistent, frequent feedback on their performance. They need to know what’s expected of them and they need to hear how they’re doing to avoid giving rise to insecurity about “losing their power”. Their immediate supervisor needs to be purposefully involved in mentoring and developing. Avoid the trap of thinking leaders don’t need support in their professional growth and behavior. Just because someone’s been put in a position of power doesn’t make them perfect at what they do.
As an additional point on the topic, when assigning new responsibilities or creating new roles on a team, be very open in communicating with the affected parties – both the leadership and frontline contributors. Be clear in stating who’s responsible for what, and ensure that each responsibility brings with it the empowerment to effect change. Don’t make someone accountable for something over which they have no control.
Although there are definitely other common leadership flaws worth mentioning (without trying too hard I came up with an even dozen), these three stand out because I’ve recently seen them at multiple companies. If I’m seeing them this often you probably are, too. Now you’ve got an idea of what to look for and what can be done to address these problems, so make sure you’re taking action to improve the leadership at your studio.