If you want to be a good leader, treat your team members in a way that makes them want to buy you a pizza. Allow us to explain.
If you're reading this during lunch, you might find it useful for two reasons: You might get free pizza out of it, and you could learn to improve your leadership skills.
A Stanford research team recently examined social media sites, particularly the Reddit community Random Acts of Pizza, to determine successful strategies for inspiring altruistic behavior in online communities. What does this research have to do with leadership? Leaders in every line of work need to inspire altruistic behavior at times in order to inspire their teams.
According to Harvard Business Review, organizations with a higher level of employee enthusiasm report 22% higher productivity than their less-involved counterparts. Such companies also can be more innovative, more collaborative, and more successful than those that have low employee-morale scores.
Think of it like this: You might have the power to order your team to burn the midnight oil to finish a project, but you know that the project will be more successful if your team is happily participating. Where does the pizza fit in? It doesn't hurt to order some for your team the next time you work late, but it's more than that.
The Random Acts of Pizza community on Reddit is devoted to giving pizza to people in need. People who are struggling, financially or otherwise, tell the community why they need help and hope that a kind community member will send them pizza based on their pitch. The pizza requesters on the site range from students seeking a midnight snack to the long-term unemployed fighting to make ends meet.
The Stanford team examined the posts from various perspectives, including politeness, length of post, wording, gratitude, and time of post, to see which communication strategies worked best. What they found out serves as a primer for more than how to nab free pizza. It's a guide for IT leaders who want to boost morale by appealing to their workers' sense of altruism.
Try incorporating these four lessons next time you need your team to go the extra mile:
1. Show evidence of need. Successful pizza requests usually explain the need in detail (lost jobs, hungry kids, unexpected bills), according to the Stanford study. The longer the request, the more likely it was to be fulfilled. It also helped to add pictures, especially if they were of hungry kids or of cars needing to be fixed.
This shouldn't be surprising, and yet it's easy for leaders to hide behind seemingly arbitrary concepts, such as deadlines, rather than explain
the reason certain work needs to get done by a certain time. For example, "We need to get this done by the end of this week, or a factory will sit idle and people will get laid off," is a much more effective message than telling employees, "We have to get this in next week, because the project is three weeks behind schedule."
2. Show gratitude. The study showed that of 19 types of politeness measured (such as saying "please," greeting people, deference to social standing, and apologies), only one showed a statistical impact on success rates: gratitude. Too many leaders don't bother saying thank you and mistake the paycheck for thanks enough. A little gratitude goes a long way toward making employees feel valued.
3. Be positive. Not surprisingly, posts on a site where people ask for food tend to be negative and sad. Surprisingly, the Stanford study found that the posts that conveyed optimism and a positive attitude were more successful in getting a pizza than the downers. Sometimes, less "needy" individuals (like those asking for pizza for a birthday party, for example) had better results than those expressing great need. When it's time to rally your troops around a project or work event that you know they aren't going to like, try emphasizing the good news instead of the bad.
4. Be one of the gang. The Stanford study showed that members of the Reddit community were more likely to help those who they thought were like them in some way. It's easy for leaders, especially those high up the ladder, to assume a persona that lifts them above the group. If you do that, be prepared to have it backfire at key moments of need unless you can also cultivate some aspect of "sameness." It works even better if you are actually able to relate to your employees. Even if you can't, do your best to cultivate a personality your team can relate to.
It should be easier for a leader to inspire a team than it is for people to get perfect strangers to buy them pizzas. You have the advantage of personal contact, a built-in understanding of why a team member might need to deliver at a given moment, and significantly more access to what makes them likely to get involved. But you also have the handicap that your behavior is monitored 40 hours (or more) a week by your team. If you want to be a good leader, you might want to consider treating your team members as if you always want them to buy you a pizza. Maybe they will. If they don't, at least they'll be more likely to work hard for you.
What inspires you at work? Which leadership traits have you found to be least effective in your IT organization? Tell us all about them in the comments section below.
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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio