Daniel Salvagni — Yet another software engineer

Everyday Leadership

Foundations of Everyday Leadership is the very first course of Strategic Leadership and Management Specialization from the University of Illinois on Coursera. It’s taught by professor Gregory Northcraft which also teaches the following course Applications of Everyday Leadership.

This first course really gives you a ground base of leadership and its challenges. The most important thing from this first classes was to get an overview of different types of leadership, how to make individual and group decisions and how to manage motivation. I’d like to share my notes about it.


Things happen quickly. So does change at the same pace. This fast-changing environment brings threats and opportunities which we need to react quickly and effectively.

Technology has effectively shrunk the world, which allows your competitors to come from anywhere. Besides, technology not only changed the breadth of competition but also the speed. Since it makes it faster to connect to people around the world, it can also bring customers and competitors from almost anywhere to your business market very quickly. That’s why being an agile organization is mandatory these days.

By being an agile organization I mean that it has to respond quickly to those threats and opportunities. Agility means managing the workforce effectively and the best way to achieve agility is by influencing people to work together efficiently. This is the very basic definition of the idea of leadership.

Leadership is about getting people to work together effectively.

On a list of popular leaders that we are familiar, it might contain leaders such as Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and Martin Luther King. They have displayed exceptional leadership and they come from variety industries and ways of life. It’s not one that list, but we might have leaders of a very strong authoritarian position and others without any. That’s actually the distinction between leaders and managers.

Managers and Leaders

Managers are going to rely on their authority to implement things, to get things done. In effect, they can implicitly coerce people around them. When authority figures ask you to do things, you often do them because if you don’t, you might lose your position.

Leaders, on the other hand, rely on persuasion to implement. They try to convince you that what they want you to do is something that will make you better off, is something that you should want to do. Leaders can accomplish this in different ways.

Transformational leaders achieve this by making the goal, the reward. So whatever the goal they are trying to achieve, they make you feel that’s in your best interest for you to achieve it as well. Transactional leaders, on the other hand, would reward you in exchange for achieving the goal that they are intending.

At the end of the day, it means that the leader gets followers to want to do what the leaders need them to do. And that’s really the essence of good leadership. You don’t have to rely on authority, you get people to want to do the things that you need them to do.

The tasks

Leadership really involves two critical tasks. The first critical task is to make decisions. Leaders have to make decisions about where to go and how to get there.

The second critical task for leaders is to implement those decisions. Where they want to go is something that we might think as the vision of the organisation. Setting the direction, target. One of the biggest levers that leaders have is inclusiveness.

Inclusiveness is about getting other people involved in a leader’s decision making.

Inclusiveness means participation basically. Leaders open up the channels of communication asking other people to get involved in the decision that leaders have to make. This has some immediate benefits: information and motivation.

One of the best and manageable ways of being inclusive is what’s know as representative inclusiveness. It means getting a subset of the individuals involved. People who reflect or represent everyone in a way that allows the leader to get the benefits of talking to everyone without necessarily having to talk to everyone.

Information benefits are the head and motivation benefits are the heart of effective leadership.

The clear benefit of inclusiveness is that leaders often overestimate their ability to make higher quality decisions without the input of others. Sometimes they fear that their job requires making decisions without help. Also, they feel like asking for help is a sign of weakness.

However, inclusiveness provides more information and we assume that more information leads to better decisions.

Besides, everyone sees the world a bit differently and we all bring to the table our unique constellation of experience and perspectives. That way we can all look at the same problem and see different solutions to it.

Nevertheless, we need to keep in mind that the quality of a decision is always limited by your ability to implement it. No matter how good is a decision, if the targets of implementation will not implement your decision, you might have not made a decision at all because your decision will not solve the problem.

The success of a decision is extremely related to the enthusiasm and knowledge of the implementors. They need to know what to do — information; and they have to want to do it — motivation

Inclusiveness increases the understanding of people that are involved in a decision. They will understand why a decision is being made but also what’s their role and how to implement that decision successfully.

Ownership by participating in the decision-making process thrives enthusiasms. When we allow the people that are going to implement a decision are invited to shape the decision, it’s more likely that the decision that was made is going to reflect their concerns. Therefore, they are more likely to support it during the implementation processes.

The levers

When we don’t allow people to participate, those people often fall o a vicious circle of despair and over time become a little alienated from the organization.

From day 1, people are feeling energized, motivated, engaged and committed. They want to belong and they want to contribute.

However, when they feel that their legit expectations are not fulfilled and they don’t really feel a sense of partnership, they get frustrated, confused, forgotten and might feel powerless. This can lead to apathy eventually. In such cases, people tune out. This sometimes is the reason of stress, turnover, and absenteeism.

The key here is that getting people involved in the process not only gives the leader more information and helps build a sense of ownership but also prevents alienation. It helps people to stay engaged and committed, which is critical.

Individual Decision-Making

As we just saw, the two big levers that leaders have are managing the information and managing the motivation and, they are critical to make and implement decisions. Making decisions is about selecting the best available option to achieve the desired goal. Thus, we can consider making a decision involving goals as the outcome, and, the options, as the actions to achieve this goal. In a previous post where I shared the notes from Managerial Decision Making, I mentioned that the making decisions is hard and what makes it hard is uncertainty.

Fostering Creativity in Decision-Making

During this course, there was a series of interviews and this one specifically is about creativity and it was done by professor Gregory Northcraft interviewing the professor Jeff Loewenstein.

Creativity is important for effective leadership because leaders usually face very complex problems and they don’t have an immediate answer or solution, and they need to think flexibly and creatively to generate answers and solutions. Besides that, it’s easy to fall in common sense, on typical answers, solutions, and response and that’s when creativity helps you to “think outside the box” — it unlocks you from the box. It’s the key to generate additional options that otherwise you may never consider and therefore, may lose an opportunity.

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, we are living in fast-changing environments which means that we also face new problems. The question is, how would we solve those new problems by using old solutions? Creativity comes to help to generate new solutions to new problems.

Although, habit and hast are the most enemies of creativity. We do several things the same way multiple times and we often need to solve problems under time pressure. Whenever we have to find a solution in a hurry, we might fall in a typical answer. Both habit and hast will block as to take an opportunity to be creative.

As a leader to foster creativity, the first thing is not to rush to a solution. It’s common that when we face a decision or a problem we start to think about answers immediately, however, the first thing it should be done is really analyse what the problem or decision is about. What is the problem we are trying to solve? So, instead of rushing to find answers, we move towards the problem finding, if it’s a useful way of thinking it.

The second thing while we are thinking about a problem, decision or even a solution someone gives us, is to analyse it broadly. We often think about our goals locked in very specific criteria and we evaluate also on the basis of old criteria.

Creativity is not a finite asset in the world.

During the interview, the question about personality being a role of creativity, professor Jeff explains that although there are several studies about it, the creativity it’s all about thinking differently. Since we all think differently, we can always improve and get better at it. Creativity is not a finite asset in the world.

Thus, to foster creativity we really need to change our common environment. It’s really about getting out of our comfort zone, our habits, and taking our time to think both about the problem and the goals broadly.

Group Decision-Making

It’s great to get a lot of different perspectives and experiences in a room to discuss a decision and/or problem, but it also changes often the outcome of it. There a couple of challenges to be faced during group decision-making such as the composition of the group, the participation, and the influence.

We can use several methods and practices to help us to make better decisions but whenever we have subjectivity and uncertainty, it’s impossible to make objective and unbiased effective decisions.

We often use groups to help us during these processes not only because no one knows everything, but because groups offer two critical benefits to the process: less biases and more information. The more decision-makers you have, the more information you will have. The more perspectives you have, the less biased the outcome becomes. That’s the ideal.

The whole idea of using groups for decision-making is to gather unique information and perspectives. A leader must be able to identify the processes loss during the decision-making and mitigate them.

The composition problem

We compose groups of people that are more similar to us.

Unfortunately, it’s not always like that. Usually, we invite groups of people that we are more comfortable with and similar to us. In fact, there’s a psychological theory called similarity-attraction that says we spend more of our time with people who are most like us.

That way, unintentionally we compose groups that lack the diversity of information and perspective that groups promise. It creates a process loss, where the group cannot take advantage of all the information and perspectives that a group should bring to the table.

How to overcome the composition problem?

Leaders must select decision making groups for diversity. They should avoid the usual suspects, look for people out of their comfort zone and bring to the table also people that are not going to agree with them. Actually, usually, people that honestly disagree with you are the ones that you are going to learn more. It requires a bit of courage to invite these people to the decision-making processes because, of course, they are going to disagree with you. And that’s the whole point. They are going to think differently and bring their unique perspectives to the table.

The participation problem

Now that we have a diverse group of decision-makers composed, we can only benefit from their unique information and perspectives if they share it within the group. Professor Greg says that in a group of six people, probably two of them are going to want to talk all the time, two of them are going to talk occasionally and the last two of them are going to watch the other four talking — they are the spectators.

Spectators are not going to help during the process of decision-making because they don’t share their unique information and perspectives, which creates another source of process loss. Leaders should encourage people to participate, giving them a safe space so they can share their ideas without. Leaders also must identify why the spectators’ phenomenons occur. It might be a cultural thing as well.

How to overcome the participation problem?

One of the first things leaders can do is to break big groups in smaller groups where people might feel more comfortable to talk to. It’s called buzz groups. A group of ten, twenty people sometimes don’t really allow everyone to share their ideas. After the small groups discuss their ideas within the group, the leader can bring the whole group together and ask them to share what they discussed in the smaller groups. This approach gives the leader two advantages. First, in a group of twenty people, a person that wants to share an idea must “fight for time” against other nineteen persons. In a group of three, for example, this fight is unnoticeable. Second, in a large group, nobody’s going to notice if one or two persons don’t share their ideas. In a small group, somebody’s going to notice and re-engage that person in the conversation.

People that don’t talk get used to not talking, they get used being spectators.

Another method to foster participation is to start the meeting by making everyone to talk, like a basic small-talk or an introduction round. What happens is that people that don’t talk get used to not talking, they get used being spectators. The opposite is also true. If you get people to start talking, they are going to continue to talk during the meeting.

Finally, leaders must be vigilant about spectators. They should always try to re-engage them in the conversation in a comfortable way and try to understand why they are not participating. For instance, on an international group, people might feel uncomfortable with their English skills, let’s say — although they wouldn’t mind sending their thoughts in a written form. It’s good to provide a safe space so everyone feels included to participate.

The influence problem

It’s a paradoxical problem in group-decision making because when we compose groups to make decisions, we do it because we are uncertain. When we are uncertain, we want to be influenced by others. What happens is that we want to be influenced but that influence might cause a process loss. As soon as someone starts talking in a group, others start to get influenced. It also means that the last person that’s going to talk is not going to share his or her unique information, but one information that is already influenced by the previous information that he or she heard from others. How can we get everyone to talk first?

How to overcome the influence problem?

This is a real problem in organisations. Group decisions may be influenced by group pressure of by vertical group pressures as well. Vertical group pressures happen when a group is composed of different levels of hierarchy and, well, no one would like to disagree with their bosses, right?

When someone disagrees with the group, it makes more comfortable for others to disagree as well.

In a group composed of a distinct hierarchy level, it’s always a good idea to have lower-level status people to talk first. That’s because the leader can find out their ideas before they heard some of the upper levels and get influenced by them.

Another approach to overcome the influence problem is to make disagreement comfortable. When someone disagrees with the group, it makes more comfortable for others to disagree as well. That’s the role that the Devil’s Advocate plays. It’s a good idea to have someone to play this role in such cases to break the consensus and create a disagreement.

Managing Motivation

It’s not enough for people to know what to do, they also have to want to do it. Besides managing the information, managing motivation is a critical task for leaders to manage.

The Law of Effect

Most of what we know about motivation is based on the Law of Effect, which says that motivation is about two things: contingencies and consequences. Consequences are what we get and contingencies are the cause/effect relationship that determines when we get it.

“Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation.” Gray, Peter. Psychology, Worth, NY. 6th ed. pp 108–109

Besides, intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are two important topics to be considered. They both refer to the consequences that we might receive, but they are slightly different.

Rewards that we receive in exchange for the outcome, are known as extrinsic rewards. On the other hand, intrinsic rewards are rewards that are the outcome.

Most people prefer to work with intrinsically motivated leaders, which means a leader who believes and loves what he or she is doing, or because he or she likes the to work with people towards a goal. This is a simple definition. Extrinsically motivated leaders, most likely, are doing their work for the money or just because it’s their job. Again, a simple definition.

It seems obvious the preference to be led by someone passionate about what he or she does, instead of someone doing for the money.

Expectancy Theory

This theory says it’s not just consequences and contingencies that control the effort that motivates and engage people in the behaviors a leader needs them to be engaged in. It’s also about what people think about it. People must be certain that their effort would impact in the reward or, let’s say, punishment. Motivation is a function of what consequences you think you control.

When you work hard and you put more effort into a contingent reward, you create an expectancy of being capable enough to perform well to be rewarded. If you don’t think you are capable of achieving that performance, you might think that there’s really not much point in trying hard. It’s also true that you would put more effort if you think good performance is going to be rewarded. Moreover, you would put more effort if you value the reward that’s offered.

These three points are called expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.

Thereby, leaders can motivate their team members when 1) they believe they have the training and the skill necessary to perform well enough to be rewarded (expectancy); 2) they believe the best team’s performer is going to be rewarded, without any other hidden criteria (instrumentality); and 3) they value the reward offered (valence).

Managing Perceptions and Social Dilemmas

The perception of how likely one is capable of performing the required efforts to be rewarded is something to be managed by the leader as well. Motivation is also about managing perceptions.

People have to believe they are capable of performing their tasks and, this belief or perception, is a critical one to be managed by the leader. That’s why, sometimes, some training and qualification are required. Mostly because training play two critical roles: 1) it provides individuals the skills they need to perform a particular task and, 2) they provide individuals the confidence to perform it. In other words, training help individuals to believe they are capable of a rewardable performance and, therefore, give them the motivation to try harder.

However, in organisations people work interdependently and, as we know, no one is really capable of achieving the best results by themselves only. People must work together and performance in organisations is also interdependent. Although, since we don’t have control of others, people deal with uncertainty to translate their own efforts into reward.

This is actually what makes it a social dilemma. It happens when a choice of behavior that is best for the individual results in an undesirable outcome for the group. This is about selfish behavior and it will definitely affect the organisation’s performance.

When people think or perceive that others are not working as hard as they are, or that people are “free-riding” or social loafing, that may decrease their motivation. Whether this happens, people would stop investing in the common goal, common good. In other words, it means that they won’t work together towards creating value for the organisation.

How to overcome these social dilemmas?

The most important action that leaders should take is to manage the teams believes and motivations. Setting the values, missions, and rules of engagement are actions that are going to help to understand their roles and other people roles as well.

Besides, qualifying the team will increase both the confidence and their abilities to perform better. Finally, being transparent about what the team members are working on is a way to create the feeling of partnership, the feeling that everyone is in the same boat, rowing in the same direction.

TL; DR; Leaders have to deal with two critical tasks: manage decisions and implement decisions, which means that they must be able not only to clarify about what should be done but also motivate the team so they want to have it done. These tasks can also be translated as managing the information and managing the motivation.