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3 Leadership Styles to Improve Your Developer Team’s Performance

by Gábor Zöld
/ May 20, 2020
Leadership Styles Engineering

3 Leadership Styles to Improve Your Developer Team’s Performance (Interview with Shawn Fair, Leadership Coach)

Mastering the basic leadership styles is essential to running a great team. Whatever your leadership level or team size may be, you build everything on this foundation.

Shawn Fair, leadership coach, founder of Fair Consulting Group gives you everything you need to know about the different styles of leadership in this interview hosted by Karolina Toth on the Level-up Engineering podcast.

In this post, you will learn how and when to apply different leadership styles to improve your developer team’s performance.


What are the 3 leadership styles?

Shawn 01

Autocratic leadership

Autocratic leaders believe in discipline and corrective action. They have a "my way or the highway" mentality. They believe people should follow them the way they want to be followed.

They don't like getting feedback from their team members. The only feedback that matters to them is the feedback coming from them. The team members have to follow their direction as an autocratic leader.

Democratic leadership

Democratic leaders care about the team members and their feedback. They want everyone in the team to get along, and they make an effort to be liked.

It's all about relationships and connecting with the team members. This is democratic leadership.

Free rein leadership

You can do this with employees you’ve worked with for a long time. They come to work with the right attitude, care about what they do, and are productive at their job. They put in the right efforts, so you can share your authority with these individuals.

Free rein leaders allow their team members to make decisions within their area of expertise without seeking counsel from them. This is free rein leadership.

You need to mix these styles

No matter which one is your dominant leadership style, you can't use any of these styles exclusively.

How do you determine the best leadership style for an engineering team?

Shawn 02

Adjust it to the individuals

It’s less about the team than it’s about the individual.

Everyone is different, and they come from different backgrounds. People often come from different generations.

There are Millennials, Gen X-ers, Boomers, and now you have Gen Z coming into the workplace. They've all grown up in a different world and operate differently, so you can't manage them the same way.

Some people grew up in a single-parent home. Some people went to private school. People have different levels of education.

We’ve all been shaped differently. To develop a great team, you have to start with the individual, and manage everyone in a way to work at the highest level.

How do you determine the appropriate leadership style for an individual?

Shawn 03

Know your people

You have to know your people. Leaders often don't take the time to get to know their reports.

Everyone is motivated by money to a certain degree because it’s essential to live. I always tell people that money shouldn’t be the focus, but at the same time, it’s as important as air. To be an effective leader, you have to know what makes your people tick beyond money.

Example for autocratic leadership

A new hire is green to the organization and still learning. In this case, I'm not going to demonstrate the free rein leadership style, because they're not on that level yet.

Autocratic leadership is a good choice. I give them direction and make sure to hold them accountable until they're confident to do the job. Once they're confident, I may be able to shift to democratic leadership.

Example for democratic leadership

Once people know and understand the company and their job, I can rely on them to give me valuable feedback. When my report gets to this point, democratic leadership should be the most fitting style.

Example for free rein leadership

If I’ve been working with someone for fifteen years and they’re productive, I’m likely to lead that person through free rein leadership. They have the experience, and they’ve demonstrated that they can do the job at a high level.

Never limit yourself to one style of leadership in any scenario. But in this case, free rein should be the dominant style. Especially if that person proves to be productive in this environment.

What’s the difference between democratic leadership and free rein leadership style?

Shawn 04

Free rein leadership is hands-off

Free rein leadership is like telling your employee, "I trust you." You allow them to make decisions in their position without counseling you. You’re hands-off, and act more like a resource to them, rather than a manager.

Democratic leadership is the hands-on approach

Democratic leadership is different because you’re still managing. You may allow your report to make a decision, but you ask for feedback first, discuss it, and make sure you’re on the same page. Then you let them make that decision.

This interaction is the difference.

With free rein leadership, you say, "I trust you wholeheartedly, just do your job." In democratic leadership you may allow them to make the same decisions, but not without your counsel.

How do you train yourself to use different leadership styles at the right time?

Shawn 05

Pay attention

Firstly, you have to pay attention. You have to listen to and observe your employees frequently. Based on the circumstances, you have to make a conscious effort to pick the best style for any situation.

Prepare for situations

I always tell managers, "Before you bring an employee into your office, think the meeting through first."

Know what questions you want to ask, and expect the two or three different responses you can get from your report. Figure out your replies to these, and make a conscious decision on what style of leadership you should demonstrate.

Managers often don’t prepare for one-on-one conversations or for a discussion on a particular issue with their employees. Naturally in this case, they lean on their dominant leadership style versus what may be best in the particular situation.

You need to practice

Everyone has a dominant leadership style.

Some rely on free rein leadership because they don’t like handling conflicts. But if you want to be a great leader, you need the ability to hold your reports accountable and discipline them, even if it's uncomfortable.

You need practice. You have to continually train yourself to master this skill set.

What common mistakes do leaders make when practicing these leadership styles?

Shawn 06

The mistake is sticking to one style

Most mistakes aren’t made when they practice a style. The mistake is usually not practicing different leadership styles, but sticking to their usual ways.

The idea is to demonstrate the three styles of leadership, whenever they’re necessary. But leaders tend to revert to one that’s most natural for them.

I hold leaders accountable to make a change

I always go into an organization as a neutral figure, so I'm not on the side of leadership and I’m not on the side of the team members. It’s all about making the environment right for everyone.

The team members know that the leaders take part in this training. They know what their leadership is learning, and that it’s for building a better environment. If they don't see results from the training, it causes an issue.

That's how I hold the leaders accountable. When the right hand knows what the left hand is doing, there is accountability.

Switching up styles on unprepared teams

I teach both the leaders and the team members, so I’m preparing everyone.

Around 80% of leaders are democratic in the USA. Another 10-15% are predominantly free rein leaders. Most of them struggle with the autocratic leadership style.

When I train them on autocratic leadership, they learn about discipline and accountability, and they start holding folks accountable. This is an entirely new experience for their teams.

Everyone gets uncomfortable, and conflicts start.

This is why I address this on both sides. If autocratic leadership comes out of the blue, everyone tenses up.

When they understand the reason behind it, the team members can accept it.

If they expect the change, leadership becomes accountable to deliver the changes they learn about. If there is no accountability, there is no growth.

What are your tips for engineering managers to start practicing these leadership styles?

Shawn 07

1. Training

The best thing you can do is go through training.

2. Read these books

You should read these 2 books.

Read 'Lifescripts'

One book is called Lifescripts. It shows you every scenario you'll ever go through with your employee as a manager.

It drafts possible issues and tells you how to address them by giving you actual lines. It also explains when you say these to your employee, what their answers can be. It maps out entire conversations.

Based on this information, you can choose the leadership style you need to demonstrate in every scenario. It tells you the tone that you should use, so you can plan the conversation ahead.

Read 'SPIN Selling'

The other book is SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham. It was developed in 1963 for high-end sales people. It teaches you the art of asking questions.

To become a great manager, you need to go further than addressing a problem; you need to understand the causes. You have to be great at asking the right questions, listening, hearing and addressing what you learn with more questions. This is the way to understand the real issue and to determine what leadership style you need to demonstrate.

How do using different leadership styles improve the performance of the team?

Shawn 08

These leadership styles are motivational.

If I’m experienced, no one around understands my job, and you give me flexibility to do the job the way I see fit; that gives me motivation. I’ll put in more effort on a daily basis, and my productivity goes up.

Many think that being led with autocratic leadership is bad, but it isn’t. If I have a procrastinator on the team, they need autocratic leadership. And they won’t have a problem with this, because it's necessary for them to be productive.

The different styles of leadership are motivational when they're demonstrated with the right people at the right time.

Can these leadership styles help you retain engineers?

Shawn 09

Employee retention rate goes up when leaders demonstrate these styles, but it’s just one of the factors.

You need the core leadership attributes too

You also need to demonstrate the core leadership attributes on a daily basis. These are: leading by example, trustworthiness, mutual respect, praising your employees when they go above and beyond and showing compassion and empathy.

If you demonstrate both the three leadership styles and the five critical leadership attributes, your people will be more productive and more likely to stick around.

A good leader is a rare commodity

If you become a leader doing all this to meet the needs of every individual working for you, you’re a fair boss and a rare commodity. If someone leaves your team, it’s likely they’ll never meet anyone managing like that again.

You'll find one or two of those leaders in your lifetime in corporate America.

Could you explain the core leadership attributes you mentioned?

Shawn 10

1. Lead by example

Lead by example sounds like a cliché. In the corporate world it means that you know your job, and you do your job as a manager at 150% as it pertains to your team members.

Your team members don’t care about the tasks you need to complete; they only care about the parts of your job that affect them.

If there is a person on the team who shouldn’t be there, it affects the other team members. If a person has a bad attitude, is unproductive, and so on, the manager should remove that person.

You can do one-on-one coaching sessions to tell them what they’re supposed to do or not do. But after allowing them to keep going in a bad direction for months, you’re in a bad position to change it with coaching.

You didn't do your job by removing the cancer from the environment, and it’s affecting everyone else on the team.

In this example it's a good idea to use the autocratic leadership style.

2. Trustworthiness

This one is simple. Do what you say you're going to do.

Often, management is so busy that they keep a promise, and many times, the team members just accept that. If you say you’ll do something else instead, and don’t do it, they’ll still accept it. But if this continues to happen, trust starts to break down, and you’ll find yourself in a toxic environment you’ve created.

This is when the gossiping starts.

As soon as you walk out the door, the team members start talking about you. If you can’t keep your word, how can you call me in for a one-on-one coaching session to tell me what I'm doing right or wrong?

If you don’t prove yourself to be trustworthy, you’ll have a hard time being a good manager.

3. Mutual respect

The mutual respect starts when you bring on a new hire.

This question always comes up, “Should you give a new hire respect, or do they have to earn it?”

The answer is, you should give them respect. You had at least two interviews, maybe more before you decided to hire that person. They’ve proven they’re qualified and in line with your values, so there’s no reason not to give them respect.

A manager shows respect to an employee by doing everything to set them up for success.

Showing respect to a new hire

When they come on-board, the manager has an obligation to break down the rules, regulations, policies and procedures. Break down their expectations by giving them 30-, 60- and 90-day goals.

Then you get them to report to you on a daily basis to make sure they're on track to achieving the goals. Then you introduce them to the company's vision, so they understand the value that organization brings to society and the value they bring through their position.

Then you take them through the company's mission statement, so they understand the standard of excellence, and take them through an on-boarding program.

If you're a good manager, you know they're still not going to know everything they should by the time they’re done with all this. So, you create a secondary training agenda, and you partner them up with a person who has been with the company for longer.

Eventually they’ll be confident and competent to do the job. This is the foundation, and you keep going from here.

This is how mutual respect works.

4. Praise

The big question is this: When do you praise your people?

Many people say, "I praise my team every day," or, "I praise them when they do a good job."

You shouldn't give praise in either of these scenarios.

Appreciation is a one-on-one expression. "I noticed over the past weeks that you’ve been doing A, B and C extremely well. It hasn't gone unnoticed. Keep up the good work!" This is appreciation.

Praise is an outward expression. When you give praise, the entire team knows about it. And it doesn’t have to be about something over the top.

Example for giving praise the right way

We work from 9-5, and I ask you to work an additional hour for me on Tuesday. Giving me that extra hour is going above and beyond the job description. We tend to take it for granted, but the entire team should know about it if this happens.

In your next team meeting, you should say, "Last Tuesday, John gave us an extra hour of his life to contribute to the productivity of the organization. During that time, he accomplished A, B, and C, and I want to thank him for a job well done."

Employees go above and beyond the job description all the time, but they don't get praised for it. You call them in for a one-on-one coaching session to talk about what they’re doing or not doing, but when they go above and beyond, you don’t even mention it. You can’t coach them effectively in this environment.

5. Experience in understanding people and empathy

Leading with empathy is crucial.

A lot is going on in corporate America today. 30% of the workforce has ADD. A small percentage is bipolar, others struggle with seasonal affective disorder, and countless people have suffered trauma in their lives.

Everyone is going through something, and you need the ability to see these things.

You shouldn’t start diagnosing people. It’s illegal!

But you should recognize the signs, and try to have conversations with your employees to see if you can get them to open up to you.

When I talk to an employee about this, I would say, "I noticed over the past two weeks that your behavior has changed. I want to know if there’s something going on with you that I can assist with?"

There are times when you have to show compassion and empathy towards your employees. This is where the experience comes into play.

Bonus advice: you need vision

Michael 12

There is one more critical thing: the manager should have a vision for the team.

This means that they have to understand the vision that the company has for the organization.

A vision is a realistic, attainable and credible snapshot of the company's future. When you explain the vision, every employee should see themselves in it. Every manager and every department should develop their vision underneath it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the “I have a dream" speech. He said his dream was deeply rooted in the American dream. So, his quest for equality wasn't his idea; it has always been in the constitution. He took the vision of America and created a vision underneath it to execute the main vision.

Every manager needs to do this.

A real-life example for creating a vision

One of my clients is a dry cleaner with many shops across the country. The CEO called me because many of their franchise owners were struggling to motivate the people who press the clothes.

It's not a glamorous job.

He said, "How do we motivate them to get them to deliver better products?" In this case, it meant avoiding broken buttons, double-pleated pants, and so on.

I asked him, "What value do they bring to society?" He couldn’t answer straight away, so I gave him an example.

I said, "When this person presses a suit, do they know it’s for a son getting ready for a father's funeral? Or if it’s going to the newscaster who’s getting ready to receive an Emmy award? Do they know it’s going to a fresh graduate getting ready for their very first job interview?"

"Do they understand the value they bring to society, or do they work for $9.50 an hour?”

He said, "They come to work for $9.50 an hour."

That was his problem.

Every job brings value, which is a necessary component for the company to be successful. Every employee should understand the weight of their position.

This is why the manager needs to convey their vision, so employees can see themselves in it.

About Shawn Fair

Shawn Fair is a motivational teacher in the realm of leadership, consultative sales and corporate vision. The core of his job is to go into organizations and help the leadership create the right environment for their team members to be the most productive.

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