Situational Leadership

This is a little bit different than the normal kinds of topics I write about, but I found it pretty interesting so wanted to share with you guys. (Thanks for sharing the idea with me Paul!)

This is a “theory of management” type of thing that helps explain why people act certain ways in specific situations, and what sort of management style they need to be successful. I might butcher the details a little bit, but if you want to read about it in more depth, you might start with this wikipedia page: Wikipedia: Situation Leadership.

Let’s kick things off with a diagram:

The idea is that basically, when someone is put into a new situation, they will generally progress from 1 to 4(*). This can be either hiring a programmer fresh out of college, or taking an experienced programmer from one team and putting him onto another team, or presumably could also refer to an entire team tackling a new type of problem.

(*) I sort of hate generalizing about how people act, and cookie-cutter-ing people and situations, but I take this as a sort of general guideline, instead of a hard and fast rule for every person and every situation.

Step 1

At step 1, a person is overly confident and think that they know what needs to be done, but in reality they don’t have the skills and/or information needed to actually do what is needed – but they don’t know it yet. A person at this stage needs guidance or pairing with another person to keep from doing reckless things and to keep them on the path towards success.

Step 2

At step 2, a person has learned a bit more about things and realizes it’s a bit more challenging than they thought. There is some drop in morale at this stage, and is where people might contemplate giving up, switching teams, switching companies, or switching careers. At this stage, a person needs “beer and hugs” I’m told. Maybe they also need some smaller, isolated tasks, to give them a sense of accomplishment. Maybe tasks drawing on their passions or previous experience to give them some victories to help them get over the hump.

How often have you found yourself in the mindset? Maybe on a new team, at a new company, working with new technology, and feeling completely overwhelmed, thinking things are too difficult and maybe even wanting to give up, or feeling like you are not preforming well enough?

Chances are, everyone’s felt that way. I know I have! I’ve worked at something like 7 companies in 13 years and early in my career i felt that way A LOT, and OFTEN. It happens less as the years go on, and I find that more skills carry over than in previous days, but it still happens from time to time. That’s a good thing though, because if it didn’t, it would mean I wasn’t learning and growing, and stagnation is no good.

The good news is that this feeling is normal, it’s typical, and if you have a good manager, they’ve seen it many times before and expect it. No, you aren’t under-performing, you aren’t under-qualified, and you aren’t a slacker. But keep working hard anyways so you can get out of this stage!

Step 3

At step 3, a person has begun learning more and is getting more proficient, and starting to feel better about things. Keep on trucking!

Step 4

At step 4, a person has mastery over the subject matter and is feeling good about things. At this point they know what they are doing and are confident, and need a bit of a longer leash to be able to go out into the weeds a little bit to feel good about their work, even if it seems a bit silly. People who are truly passionate about what they do want to be trusted to do the right thing, and they want the freedom to pursue their interests. They’ve worked hard, through challenges both with the work and psychological, and now they are effective and hopefully pleasant – so hopefully they’ve deserved a little bit of diversion time hehe.

Plus! if you’ve done any programming in the areas of genetic algorithms, or training neural networks, you may remember that if you only let the winners reproduce (in genetic algorithms), or you only activate the winning neurons while training (for neural networks), you will likely end up in a local minima, instead of the global minimum. That “longer leash” time of letting people wander into the woods a little bit is kind of like mutation, or letting some of the losers reproduce. They may very well come back with something way better than you ever considered.

Super tangent – someone recently told me that path finding has the same “local minima” problem, and that if you pursue some of the “not so great” paths while searching a pathing space, you can get better results.

Outside of the Box


While this may be a useful tool for helping to understand people’s motivations, and helping to give them what they need to succeed and be happy and effective, this isn’t the whole story of course. Just like there is no such thing as a straight line in nature (AFAIK, but not sure what happens below the plank scale!), this doesn’t exactly match reality. It’s just a useful guideline.

You might also find this interesting, as a different take on the transition from step 1 to step 2: Wikipedia: Dunning-Kruger Effect

Recently I’ve been thinking about a few topics like this that are game dev related, but not about specific algorithms. You’ll probably see some more of this sort of thing smattered in amongst the cool algorithms I stumble on going forward (: