Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
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David Wagner
David Wagner
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Pizza & Leadership: 4 Lessons

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.

[IT admins aren't happy with their jobs. Read IT Pros Stressed Out, Looking To Jump Ship.]

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

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at 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
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IW Pick
User Rank: Moderator
5/30/2014 | 1:11:42 PM
"thank you"
One of the interesting things I've noticed -- especially in contrasting the experience at large organizations versus small -- is how much more common it is in larger organizations to get a "thank you" occasionally in the course of your work and how much that does for morale.

Sure, people prize salary/rate, benefits if they're getting them and other tangible things chiefly because those help keep a roof over your head. But once you're there, one of the things that can keep you going the most costs the company nothing -- it's a simple "thank you" and comes primarily from picking people for management-level positions that aren't only successful in handling the tactical aspects of their job, but are also people you actually like working for.
User Rank: Ninja
5/30/2014 | 12:30:59 PM
Re: Nice comparison, but ...
Agreed, RobPreston. The higher up in the organization that leader is, the more she/he has to evaluate tough decisions from a holistic organizational perspective rather than based upon their direct workgroup. Sometimes what appears best for my people in the short run ends up hurting the organization (and then my people as it trickles down) over the long run.
IW Pick
User Rank: Author
5/30/2014 | 12:17:56 PM
Re: Nice comparison, but ...
My quibble is with "Be One Of The Gang." Yes, leaders must build a rapport with their people. They musn't lead from on-high. But leaders must make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions, so the "be one of the gang" metaphor goes only so far. They need to command respect and project authority.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
5/30/2014 | 10:58:56 AM
Nice comparison, but ...
I like the way you translate the findings of the study into those a project manager or other leader applies. Just as long as you don't forget one important principle: when projects run late, it should be the boss (or the company) that buys the pizza.

Yes, I know I'm missing the point of your essay. I just wanted to get that on the record.
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