This is my third reflection on leadership in smaller teams. The reflection is intended for beginners who are in a leadership position in a team of no more than ten people. It is based on the work I did at Dead Shark Triplepunch during our time in the Make Something Unreal Live 2013 competition hosted by Epic Games. I realized while writing this part that there was enough content for another post, so in this one I’ll only be covering coaching and feedback.
This is the day-to-day work of the Project Lead. As a leader, you must take time to meet and talk to every member in your team and make sure that they have everything they need to perform their daily tasks. This involves distributing information, as the central node of the team you are responsible for knowing roughly what everyone is working on and what competence your members have. This means that if a member needs help with a particular task, for instance if a programmer needs a basic animation for testing purposes, you should know which Artist he should talk to taking into account the Artists skillset, proficiency with working directly with a programmer and his current time schedule.
Coaching is meant to ease the workflow of each member. The sole goal for a leader while he is doing day-to-day coaching should be to help the member he is coaching to move in the desired direction, giving relevant advice and offering clarity on team goals. Some parts of coaching is better handled in privacy or group sessions, knowing which subjects to discuss when and where is sometimes half the task. Also remember that you are not coaching for your own sake or to keep yourself occupied. Try to spot when a member has entered flow and be sure to not disturb him at those times, keeping effectiveness high.
As the project lead for my team, I tried something completely new for me which ended up working very well. So well in fact I’d say it was one of the largest reasons for me being able to keep the team together during the rough initial months.
I booked one-on-one meetings with each member, where anything could be discussed in privacy and confidence. Most often the meetings were about the relationships between the person and other members, or how he felt about his work/position in the team. Here are some standard questions I prepared for the meetings:
Some of you reading might wonder why I would ask if someone is enjoying his work. He’s getting paid, right? Well, since our work was a private initiative initially made outside of school and corporations, we had no salaries or payments from the work that we did. It is also in my experience that a person who enjoys his work works harder, faster, more focused and effectively produces more at a higher quality. He puts his heart and a piece of his soul into his craft. I’d argue it’s thusly not a bad question to ask even in a corporate setting, since corporations usually prefer a productive employee. If a member doesn’t enjoy his work, try looking into ways to make it more suitable for him, most importantly by asking him what he’d like to work with in a perfect scenario.
The reason to start with standard questions is that the topics you had prepared might come naturally from your discussion, which is preferable. Try to keep a casual attitude both verbally and when choosing locale, I had my meetings in an empty dining room on a couple of couches close to some windows. For these kinds of questions to be answered honestly, there needs to be some amount of trust between the member and the leader. To build this trust, make sure to treat all members equally and avoid favoritism. Make sure that the member knows that nothing said during the meeting will be told to someone else without the member’s explicit consent.
When I had these meetings with our members, I typically prepared one or two topics that I wanted to discuss aside from the three standard ones mentioned above, but usually there were tons of things that came up which I didn’t even know were problems. I chose the two topics based on what I had seen happen during the past weeks and what issues I thought should be discussed and dealt with (most often personal and not work related). When asking a member how he feels about working in the team, be ready for the worst and be prepared to listen. Keep track of what is said during the meetings in a private journal which you keep in a safe place, there is nothing more embarrassing than forgetting something someone has told you in confidence.
If you are at a loss on how to handle a problem between your members, try looking for help from someone more experienced and ask what he would do in your situation. Just as the members need someone to confide in, at times so does the leader. I have been helping another student team at our school to grow and it gives me great joy to see them do well as a team, I know for a fact that there are others like me out there who are willing to share their knowledge with you should you need it.
It is important to organize team meetings where every member receives and gives feedback to another member of the team. I recommend having no more than one feedback meeting each week and no less than twice a month. Feedback is vital for group development and is essential to get the group out of the Storming phase as soon as possible. I will not cover the different phases of group development, if you are interested in reading more look up the work of Bruce Tuckman (1965). If you are in a leadership position, you definitely should. To cut it short, Storming is when almost every member has a problem with another member, not being able to accept the differences between the members of the group. This phase is extremely straining for the leader as his task is to manage and mitigate conflicts. Storming should be entered and exited as quickly as possible with the outcome of every member accepting each other for who they are and willing to focus more attention on the work at hand. For this purpose, personal feedback is key.
When introducing feedback meetings to your group, always remember to start small. It is generally a lot easier to say/hear something appreciative than a negative critique. When I organized our first meetings, I asked everyone to give positive feedback based on something that had happened recently. The meetings were no longer than 30 minutes and every member should be given at least one positive feedback before the meeting ended. During those meetings, trust were built between members. Everyone started to look forward to those Friday meetings, since everyone knew that they would get to hear at least one positive thing about them. Try to keep the feedback personal and not work related. Don’t feedback each other’s work, feedback the person behind it.
After a month or so, when you feel that your team is starting to enjoy the feedback sessions and that feedback start to come naturally within the team, you can try and take it to the next step. Ask members to tell each other what they would want others to do differently. Be sure to lay the rules for how to express such wishes, else your once joyful meetings might turn into a hate-fest.
The core of feedback is to help other people improve themselves. Don’t say something just to “get it off your chest”. Think about how the other person will react, and tailor your message so that it is easier for him to understand your viewpoint and why you want him to change his behavior. You will find that others have it much easier to follow and act on your feedback if you don’t trample all over their feelings while giving it. In general, people don’t want to be mean to others, keep in mind that it might be just as difficult for the person giving the constructive feedback as it is for the person receiving it.
What do you think that you do, which others would want you to alter or completely stop doing? Some of the most valuable and interesting insights can come from meetings where this is discussed. Let each member, in turn and without interruptions, feedback themselves on both positive and negative behavior. After a member is finished, let the other members discuss their take on his feedback. Do they agree or disagree, and why? It is important to get feedback from other members on the feedback you give to yourself, you might find that problems you thought were serious aren’t even considered an issue by the others.
In this part I have discussed coaching, personal meetings and feedback meetings. To me, these are some of the most important parts for a leader to master. Handling feedback can sometimes be rough and painful, but the potential gains are valuable enough to do it. Don’t only see your members as workers, see them as human beings with social needs and you’ll find that their productivity will increase in the process. In the next and probably final part I will discuss important social skills such as communication and how to use different kinds of listening.
Tuckman, B. W. 1965. Developmental sequences in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 348-99.