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Do You Have THE Best Leaders in the Industry?

What standard does your studio use to judge leadership? What should you focus on to improve your leadership skills? How do two Nobel prize winners fit in?

Keith Fuller, Blogger

June 4, 2013

4 Min Read

[reposted from the Journal page on my company website]

On the face of it this appears to be a lame rhetorical question. But bear with me. This is the beginning of an exercise where every answer is important.

“Yes, we have THE best leaders.”

I’ll be honest here…you sounded a little prideful just then. I’m not saying that to be harsh. It’s tough love.

It’s possible you do have the best leaders, though, so please allow some follow up: How do you know? Do you have an explicit list of qualities that leaders in your company must possess? Do you have a clear standard against which you judge them? Does your company exhibit the best possible accountability to make sure your leaders are consistently measured against that standard?

When asked, 87% of Stanford MBA students rated their academic performance as above average. This is an example of a well-known cognitive bias often referred to as Illusory Superiority, or the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Essentially, people tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities, mainly because lack of ability robs you of the skills needed to properly assess that ability. You’ll see signs of this bias in all corners of our lives and there’s a good chance it’s having an impact on your assessment of the quality of leadership at your company.

One of the best ways to determine if you’re being affected by this bias is to establish objective baselines. This is what Dunning and Kruger did in their experiments that led to their Nobel prize-winning paper on the subject in 1999. Based on my own experience as a developer and consultant, as well as the vast amount of research done by the Gallup organization, game companies tend to use the wrong information as a baseline for leadership (if they actively use any baseline at all).

For instance, here’s one you’ve probably heard: “He’s shipped games on time so he’s a good leader.” What’s the gauge for success there? Merely hitting a deadline? What about the cost to your overworked staff that got you there? Or the drop in quality because the team was too stressed to be creative? If you run your people ragged and drive them off your team or even out of your company, does that really mean you led them well?

Here are some suggestions for establishing a good standard for quality leadership. Ask yourself: Can I put myself in a team member’s place and feel what they’re feeling? Do they hold the same opinion of my leadership abilities as I do? Are my team members happy? Does each person on my team know that I care about them? The ability to empathize and forge relationships with coworkers has been proven to be a critical driver of company success, much more than technical expertise or years of experience.

“No, we don’t have the best leaders.”

There are several follow up questions that spring from this response, too. Is your studio actively working to improve leadership skills and it’s just taking a while? Are you a startup or a smaller company where you just don’t have many people to choose from to fill a leadership position? Have you been “getting by” with the current selection of leaders so you aren’t putting any time or energy into training them? Or do you just not feel that your developers deserve to be led well? (I certainly hope that last one isn’t true, but if you aren’t actively trying to improve your leadership, the rest of your studio could easily get that impression)

Here are a few facts that have been borne out by multiple sources of scientific and corporate research (and I’ve seen all of this proven true in my time as a studio developer):

1)      Employees – especially knowledge workers called upon to be creative – are more productive when they’re happier.

2)      The single most impactful aspect of an employee’s work life is the quality of their relationship with their immediate supervisor.

3)      Empathy has a noteworthy positive effect on a person’s ability to connect with and lead someone else.

Add all of this together and you’ve derived both a clear need and a course of action: improve the performance of your company by ensuring that your leaders are forging meaningful relationships with their teams by respecting them as people, understanding them, and making their happiness an obvious goal.

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