Social Power and Team Dynamics

One of the most frustrating things I dealt with while running a team was potential leaders with unrefined notions of power.  The childish version of power is informed by the parent-child relationship: someone tells you what to do, and you have to do it because they said so.  Not only is that a terribly over-simplified model of power, it’s not even true; our parents kept trying to give us reasons, we just couldn’t process why they were important.

Uncorrected personality traits that seem whimsical in a child can prove to be ugly in a fully grown adult.  The industry is rife with horror stories about ego-driven leadership, where one person drove development (and more often than not drove developers crazy) according to their one, true vision.  This is part of the myth of the rock-star game designer that informs so much of the fantasy of game development – that game designers are so brilliant that they tell people what their latest crazy idea is, and then the people go to their desks and build it.  It goes hand-in-hand with the notion that what game designers really do is come up with ideas.

The reality is that teams work best when every member of the team is being creative and problem-solving within their area of expertise.  Leaders give direction, set goals, establish consensus, get commitments, and hold people accountable, but they don’t tell people what to do.  At least, good ones don’t.  Healthy teams bubble up improvements all the time from the implementation level; if they waited for someone to tell them what to do or how to do it, it would just slow things down.  With a solid team, it is better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.  Good leaders know this, stay informed, and only course-correct when necessary.

This is social power at work.  It’s not quite as simple as the mandate to govern coming from the willingness of the governed to be led, but it’s related.  It’s a bottom-up dynamic, where you’re building on the engagement of the individual with the work.  Yes, someone has to lead and set the agenda; someone has to prioritize and set constraints; there are too many potential things that could be made, and if you don’t pick one and stick to it, you get lost in the myriad possibilities.  But, power in this sense reaches only as far as one’s ability to convince others to go along with the plan.

Not to get too philosophical here, but humans are herd animals.  We like it better when we feel like someone is in charge; it is reassuring to us to think that someone knows all the things that we don’t (certainly better than the frightening possibility that no one might really know).  Anarchy always devolves into order, because we like it that way.  In any group, leaders will emerge.

So, back to the original problem.  When the reality on the ground is that game development is a team sport, and you need everyone on the team to be bringing their A game every day – not just their programming or art skills, but their problem-solving, optimization, and drive for excellence – you need people who can rally and orient and guide a team.  It makes everyone happier when the right person plays that role.  You can spot the people who are good candidates for this.  In any group of people, they are going to be listened to, acknowledged.  They may not win the argument (good leaders know when to let it go), but their perspective is taken seriously by the others; it has a logic, a compelling presentation, a force, and it promotes the engagement of the other people.  Seriously, the next time you’re in a casual group conversation, sit back and just watch the participants; after a few rounds, it becomes obvious who leads and who follows.

The other side of the coin is “juridical power”, a phrase I’m borrowing from Foucault.  It’s that primitive, childlike model of absolute, top-down hierarchy.  The monarchy, a dictatorship, a totalitarian government, the leadership comes from above and it tells you exactly what is going to happen, and you go along with it or you are punished.  It’s just like that child’s perspective: there are reasons, but they are either meaningless (at the local level), incomprehensible, or inaccessible.  All that matters is that you do as you are told.

This model isn’t just a personal model.  It’s built into all kinds of institutions and legal relationships.  For example, in a publishing model, the publisher generally holds the vast imbalance of power.  They pay the bills, they get to dictate things like release dates and feature sets.  How many stories have you heard about publishers (usually “suits”) asking for something and developers doing it – against their best instincts – because the publisher holds all the cards?

When I worked at a publisher, though, one of the things I discovered was how different the reality is from the theory.  Yes, in theory the publisher has all the power because they can stop payment.  However, that is a tool (a weapon, really) that you can only use once.  Once you stop paying the dev team, they are either going to collapse (small to medium teams often can’t absorb the burn rate for even a few months on their own) and you get no product out of them ever, or you are going to re-establish your working relationship, but that relationship will always be damaged.  Think about it.  The same thing applies to employees you are managing; once you threaten to fire someone (seriously threaten), your relationship will never be the same. In many ways, juridical power is an overlay on social power.  You have to convince someone that they have to follow the model before they will actually follow it.  When the illusion breaks down, so does the power dynamic.

So, I’ve had a few people that I’ve managed over the last 14 years who got caught in this duality.  It’s always kind of maddening.  When someone insists that they need a title, a role, or some other version of the orb and the scepter to do a job – give me the title of lead designer and I’ll take ownership over the design – it’s a sure sign that they’re not ready for that kind of responsibility.  If the only tool that you have in your toolset for convincing people to go along with your plan is “because I said so”, you’re not ready to lead adults.  You’re certainly not prepared to lead creative, bright, experts in their fields, which is what you’re pretty much always working with if you’re building your teams effectively.

If you’re looking at a problem and the only solution you’re seeing is to enforce juridical power, you’re wrong 95% of the time (sometimes you do just have to fire someone).  Ask yourself, what other ways you could use to achieve the same ends.  Instead of asking for the title before taking on the responsibility, see what happens when you take the responsibility; after all, you have a much better argument for the title bump if you can show that you’ve been doing the work.  If people aren’t taking to your ideas, look at the ideas themselves and then your presentation of them.  Don’t assume that other people are wrong when they see things differently; only when you can understand why they are right in their own minds can you hope to change their perspective.

Power is a tricky topic; it gets loaded with all kinds of baggage about value and identity.  But, power structures exist in every group, certainly in every team.  Building and exercising your power within a group is not a problem, but doing it the right way can be.  An unrefined notion of power leads to unnecessary damage to the team dynamic.  And, as someone who has spent years building and managing teams, the last thing that is going to get you additional power from me is telling me that you deserve it.  There is no “deserving” power, any more than it is the crown that makes you divine.

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