Are You an Effective Team Leader? Even on a Lousy Team?

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No one doubts that the interest of the individual is not the same interest of the group the individual is part of.  Stars on teams, athletic or management, have special troubles aligning their interest with the team's goal.  Even more so, when their team is unlikely to succeed at its own goal.  

The star may, despite being nominated as the leader, put his own goals ahead of the team's goal -bringing about a poor team performance.  Seeing how "lousy" the team is, the leader may be even more emboldened to put his interests ahead of the teams because team performance is so lousy.  Soon, team performance completely unravels.

Can you tell in advance which leader will fail to be effective?  Fail not because they are not talented, but fail because his followers don't believe that the leader believes that he can effectively discipline the "lousy" group to act as a unit?

Here is a short exercise to determine how effective a leader is when confronting this problem - how to form coalitions when trust is needed to overcome skepticism.

This is a simple Simon Says task. The team and individuals gets points for following you. You win by getting the most points. But people also get more points if they accurately predict that the small group will not form a coalition, and ignore you. (This exercise is based on an exercise by Gerald Williams, the "Win as Much as You Can Game."  Thomas Schelling analyzed a similar problem with his multi-person social dilemma games.)

The task is easy to describe.  You have to get people, 3 on your team,  to follow your commands, but your interests are not completely aligned with your team's interests.

You can utter one of two commands, "Left" or "Right".  If you say "Left", the team wins if they all follow and say  "Left".  The entire team, including the Leader, wins one point. But, if you say "Left" and some other people say "Right", then you are penalized, along with your followers who also said "Left".

If you say "Right", however, only those who say "Right" win and those who say "Left" lose.  But there is a catch: this time, if the entire team says "Right", then they all lose, including you. 

To allow for learning, cooperation, and communication, play ten rounds of the game. Have a 5 minute discussion at round 3, 6, and 9. Otherwise, play in without overt communication.  Limit the time in each of these rounds to 30 seconds.

The individual with the highest highest score wins the game, whether the team leader has the highest score doesn't matter.

Here is a chart which summarizes the exercise in terms of outcomes and pay-offs.


Are You an Effective Team Leader?


Outcomes Payoffs
4 Rights Everyone -1
3 Rights 1 Left Rights +1 Left -3
2 Rights 2 Lefts Rights +2 Lefts -2
1 Right 3 Lefts Right +3 Lefts -1
4 Lefts Everyone +1


(As an exercise, play a couple hands, using ordinary playing cards to get  feel for what happens.  Pick 4 red cards, for "Right", and 4 black cards for "Left".)

The game starts off with everyone making a guess about what you and the others will do.

How can you be an effective team leader in this simple game?  You want a high or the highest score - but how can you achieve this? 

A good and effective leader will get everyone to say "Left", even though some people will be better off by saying "Right".  Can you hold your group together?  Or will some just pretend to follow?

How would you turn this group of individuals into a disciplined group that would play only four Lefts?  

Suppose that you started out by saying "Left" yet not everyone guessed this. How would you persuade those in the Right to give up their gains?  How could they credibly commit to giving up future gains on future plays?  How could they do this before the communication round?

What if you started with saying "Right" and found out that one other person guessed "Right" and two others guessed wrong.  You would get 2, the other Right person would get 2, while each of the players who guessed "Left" would lose 2.

What would you expect on Round 2? Likely, those who lost would switch their strategy.  It is reasonable that everyone would now play "Right" and each team member would lose 1.  

It is reasonable, but if as team leader you could coordinate everyone on 4 Lefts, then each person would win 1.  Can you do that?  Can you do that after winning 2 from each Left on the first round? Can you do it without communicating with them, until the third round?

Now, let's make it harder - reward the team leader with an big bonus at the selected times, rounds, 3, 6, and 9,  if he or she can get the group to say "Left" while he or she alone says "Right".   Increase the size of that bonus - to reflect the "talent" of the team leader on the bonus round. 

Will the group stay disciplined, or will it grow resentful?  Will your followers expect you to eventually say "Right" and so "protect" themselves by guessing "Right" before you do?  If everyone says "Right" on one round,  who is going to say "Left" on the next round?  

Try this exercise at your next franchise convention - see who can and who cannot effectively discipline the group.  You might be surprised with the results.  It would be very telling if none of the franchisor's C-Suite were effective leaders in this simple discipline game.  

If your franchisor executives cannot lead in this simple game, then how are they doing in the real world?

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Those type of questions remind me of civil procedure class. Strategy is a lot of fun in real situations, but I have never been that able to translate that into abstract "game theory" exercises.

So if I were in a group, I would probably be one of those random responders that screw up the results; my actions would not be based on any deep analysis.

Hmm... not good when I start to sound like Snooki.

But there you have it.

Thanks, my plan was to select a franchisor executive as a team leader and see if they could lead franchisees, even in this simple case.

The last several Nobel Prize winners in Economics have all studied and wrote on these social dilemmas - but from a very empirical point of view.

Thanks for taking a look.

I like the article - it lays out the points nicely. Only challenge is if you've given away the value of the exercise in the article itself?

In the program, you may need to go with something completely different or run the risk that those who read the article already know the strategy...but it's a good hook.

Stephen, even if the goal is explicitly laid out, if people like Paul pick at random, then we may never get out of the Nash equilibrium trap. (I always think of economists who recommend Nash equilibrium plays as people who would recommend that you go to a party that you know you will hate now, on the grounds that when you get there - even though it is as bad as you thought- you now don't have a better choice!)

I have thought about your remarks more - there are probably a number of people who would simply throw up their hands when presented with the description of the problem this way and play randomly.

Does it help you any if the play is described this way:


I agree with you that people don't recognize the dynamic when they're in it.

I think it'll be interesting to debrief with them that you even primed them! I remember that I used to shy away from the main goal of doing well for oneself, as if that would skew the results.

Eventually I used to have fun with it and make it as explicit as possible saying "You don't even care about the other side. If they do well, great. If they do poorly, great. You are totally indifferent to their success and outcome."

They still behaved the exact same way!

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Webster published on August 22, 2011 8:07 PM.

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