Leadership, Management and Building a Team Using Digital Technologies: Part One

What is a Leader?

“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?”

Lao Tse, Tao Te Ching

In this new 4-part blog series we are going to probe the idea of leadership improvement using digital technologies. There have been great advances over the past year in our lab in building coaching and leadership skills applications which use simulations, game elements, learning management analytics and other technologies. To begin this series and understand our approach to this new field which I believe that Game and Train in partnership with Essential Impact are developing, let us state our qualifications.

I have served as Assistant Dean, Acting Dean, Program Manager and currently as a Program Coordinator in higher education. Our partners in this development project are Victoria Eastwood and Essential Impact, award-winning experts in professional coaching certification. Our management team expert is Doug Churchill, MBA, whose resume reads like a “whose who” of senior management at a number of quite visible technology companies. Our chief system architect is Klaus Rubba, who holds a masters degree in business administration as well as having expert skill in app coding, game design across platforms and has worked with Fluik Entertainment in Canada who made $3M dollars in one weekend with their last popular game.

I do not provide these names to impress the reader; our peers in this industry have enormous credibility and we learn from them all the time and share our knowledge at conferences such as LearnFest 2017 where we will present on this subject. We do this so you can see we wrestle with leadership issues every day ourselves. Out of this rich ferment we began to look at building management training tools for app distribution across Canada and the US with many partners. There is a real need to address leadership success using advanced technologies.

So when we offer to discuss leadership and management, our credibility in doing so has a basis in our expertise. In this series we want to discuss those things which are new, not just what we are developing in our tech labs. We trust we will provide a view of leadership that is familiar but is something that you can use right away to enable success in your business.

Let us begin with a view of what the experience of leadership is like. We first have to clear away some misconceptions. It is clear that leaders experience much lower levels of stress than those who they lead, for one. No matter how stressful you feel your job might be as a leader, your charges are suffering worse. Gary Sherman and Jooa Lee et al, publishing in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) showed that leaders had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reported levels of anxiety than non-leaders.

In non-human studies such as those with primate groups, earlier results by Brady in 1958 suggested that group leaders had a higher rate of duodenal ulcers was refuted by both Weiss and Sapolsky, the latter publishing most recently in 2011. Studies by Marmot, Lans, Cohen and later by Dowd all provide data confirming this theory, that being in charge brings a higher rate of economic security, control over job functions and better socioeconomic status.

Control clearly shapes stress. The Sherman study demonstrated that when managers had a small team to lead they had lower anxiety and cortisol levels, but when they had large teams to manage their control measures decreased. This is presumably because in large organizations there is more delegation and less direct control. However it remains clear that being in charge of something, managing it, has much greater control-related anxiety reduction. This is key to understand. The leader is in a privileged position because they can control their job actions. The follower has little power and must either comply or face consequences. It is, at the first view of things, rather medieval isn’t it?

Mike Myatt, writing for Forbes in November of 2012, discusses “Span of Control” as a concept. The span of control refers to the number of employees that the leader manages, i.e. they are responsible to them for outcomes in performance. The average number of reports is 7.44 but may be as high as 20 or as low as 5. The most important asset in smaller teams which we see in today’s leadership space is trust, alongside performance related factors. How one can build a coherent collaborative team depends upon being able to coach those members.

Here is where professional coaching enters and where our interest in digitizing this capacity arose. Can we train teams of managers, up to thousands at a time, to be able to coach their reports? As this decentralized model of management establishes itself, it is increasingly important to be able to bring the team members up to a skill base in coaching.

Given that leaders will never suffer as much as any of their reports, creating an engaged team dynamic is key to pass this sense of control along to the team. This is where we encounter our first real control problem; the literature on relinquishing control is damning and compelling. Butler, Rollnick and Stott, publishing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), discuss how patients who do not comply with doctor’s “orders” are not the problem, but the desire the doctor has to being in charge is. They argue that harnessing the patient’s intrinsic motivation to make life changes is vastly superior than pushing harder on outcomes that are practitioner generated.

A meta analysis on “bad leadership” of over 200 studies, of which 57 entered the analysis completed by Birgit Schyns and Jan Schilling in 2013 in the Leadership Quarterly showed that destructive leadership was correlated with counterproductive work behaviour. Positive followers, who experienced supportive leadership had, as expected, good attitudes toward the leader, higher performance and a greater sense of well-being. Destructive leaders showed a higher turnover intention in reports, resistance and other outcomes. What was remarkable in this study was that the highest correlation was between destructive leadership and attitudes, as expected, but that the second highest factor was counterproductive work behaviour.

Colonel David Oberlander concludes in his master’s thesis on Negative Leadership in the US Army that there is a perpetual cycle of this behaviour in the forces. This cycle seems to generate an atmosphere where each leader models the toxic behaviours from their own past and surrounding climate. Colonel Oberlander describes an example of this behaviour…does it sound familiar? If so, you might be caught in a negative leadership cycle in your own business:

“The perpetual cycle of negative leadership has the potential to continually affect the climate of units, the culture of the Army, and the military profession. Stories abound about units that are affected by negative leaders. Consider the following example. The unit’s Quarterly Training Brief (QTB) and Unit Status Report (USR) data is impeccable. The data shows that 100% are qualified on their assigned weapons and on all mandatory training. Training exercises and ranges are conducted to near perfection. In fact, the unit has the best numbers in the Division and has earned many accolades from the senior leadership.

Then something catches your eye on a reenlistment report, the unit’s reenlistment numbers are excellent, but there are a high number of reenlistments for a new duty station. The data is not overwhelming, but it makes you wonder why so many soldiers are opting out of what seems to be a very good unit. A month later, you receive a copy of the units annual Command Climate Survey and your attention is drawn to a number of individual responses that seem to represent low morale and unit discord in the report.”

Numerous other studies exist showing that leaders often fail to see the powerlessness in their report’s situation and respond with greater control and less distribution of power. Studies by Assar Ibn Hur et al showed that not getting involved, avoiding leadership and letting the ship steer itself is correlated with low morale and productivity. So simply stepping back and not caring is not remedial in itself.

Our software simulator of management coaching was designed to have leaders and their teams encounter a series of problems which can refine leadership conversations. This is nested in a theme-based exploration of difficult management problems where the player has to continually coach their reports to achieve progress in the game. The view is that we cannot change a leader’s attitudes, but we can change their behaviours. Attitudinal change is another story and one which we will discuss later in this series. Our focus is now on changing the kind of conversations managers have with staff using a cognitive behavioural approach. There are several outcomes of this approach, and one is a sensitization to the kinds of conversations managers conduct with reports to encourage intrinsic motivation.

In our next post we will explore our management and coaching simulators in more detail and discuss how we can harness a digital workplace simulator to produce change in an efficient and scalable system.

Until then, keep on looking up!