Armored vs. Daring Leadership in Game Development

At this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC 2023), I gave a micro-talk as part of a leadership seminar. My talk was about moving from Armored Leadership to Daring Leadership, a concept that comes from the great Brené Brown in her book Dare To Lead.

In the talk, I looked at some common problems in game development and tried to contrast what an armored approach and a daring approach would look like for each problem.

Quick primer:

Armored leadership is motivated by shame and fear. Great leaders feel fear all the time, but it’s the armor we put on when we feel fear that is the problem. Armored leadership is closed off, emotionally unavailable, defensive, cynical, keeps up an illusion of control, and uses our power over others to get things done. Where armored leadership shows up, shame and fear are almost always hiding close by.

Daring leadership is where we bring vulnerability and human emotion to the forefront of our leadership strategy. It’s open, emotionally available, meets people at eye level, encouraging, realistic and compassionate. It uses our power to help others rise up and help us tackle challenges together as a team.

So why is this useful for game development? From Dare to Lead: “Vulnerability is the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. …Without vulnerability there is no creativity or innovation. Why? Because there is nothing more uncertain than the creative process.”

Game development is inherently creative, risky and uncertain:

Gamedev (Creative) → Uncertainty → Vulnerability

It’s our choice whether we lean into this vulnerability and learn how to work with it or if we armor up and avoid those feelings, pushing others away.

The problems I talked about in the talk are typical for leaders in game development but are not often talked about publicly. After reiterating those three (in more detail, for those of you who saw the talk and want more), I’ll talk about other common game development issues as well and apply this lens to them. Throughout these examples, you should also come to understand more about armored and daring leadership and hopefully you’ll be able to use this framework for your own issues in your teams. And, of course, I’ll leave you with homework. Let me know how it goes!

If ever you’re feeling short on time, feel free to read the first couple of examples and skip to the takeaways/homework section. Let’s go!

Running into a huge roadblock and direction shift in a project

We all run into issues while making games. Some of those issues are huge, unexpected, and put us at a crossroads where we need to shift direction in a major way. This is scary. A common armored response to this is to pretend that everything is okay, despite the obvious concerns about upcoming milestones, funding, etc.

Part of this pretending often includes fostering a culture of toxic positivity. Nobody on your team is going to bring up their concerns to a leader who is always smiling ear to ear even in the face of of obvious problems, and people see through the veil very quickly when you put on a face in order to keep up the appearance of control. Another armored strategy is to hole up and try to do it yourself, coming out of your hole with what you think are all of the solutions (spoiler alert: the solutions are worse than if you shared them with your team for feedback).

The fear shows up here because we’re worried about the project failing, running out of money, or failing our employees. As I said earlier, the fear is okay on its own. But the shame comes from concern about what our team will think of us as leaders, what the industry will think of us if we fail, what our families and friends will think of us, and if we will live up to our own (often unrealistic) expectations of ourselves*. We control these feelings of shame and fear by putting on armor (the appearance of control) and in the end, push others away.

*Small tangent here: perfectionism, a condition that plagues a lot of leaders and hurts their teams, is almost always a function of shame. This could be its own article but I would recommend reading Brené Brown’s work on this.

The daring flipside to this is acknowledging, naming, and normalizing collective fear and uncertainty. It requires opening up, sitting down with your team and expressing your fears and concerns about the situation from a place of grounded confidence but also a place of vulnerability. An example of how this might look: “I really want to ship this game on time because I’m worried that if we miss this deadline, Sony won’t take us seriously for our next project”. This can even include talking about the things underlying the shame you feel when concerned that you won’t live up to your own expectations: “I’ve always gotten things done on time and one of my favourite traits about myself is how dependable I can be. I feel like if I miss this deadline it will be a personal failure and that scares me.” While you don’t need to be asking your team for a full-blown therapy session, it can be humanizing and bring a sense of calm to know that even leaders have these feelings.

So instead of hiding that uncertainty, we can encourage the team to rally around the challenges. Leading from this place of shared commitment to overcome challenges—”I’m here with you, we’re going to get this done as a team”—will result in more buy-in from the team, as opposed to leading with compliance and control.

Employees not bringing up company-wide issues until it’s too late

We’ve all experienced issues within our teams, whether as a regular team member or a lead. And we’ve all experienced issues that are swept under the surface, only to bubble up to later, twice as powerful and noxious. How does this happen?

First, we can foster a fear of failure by treating mistakes as, well, failure. If we publicly shame people, including ourselves (note: owning your mistakes is not shaming yourself!), this shows that we fear failure and we teach others to fear that failure too, as well as its downstream consequences. If your team fears mistakes and failure then they won’t bring up company-wide issues, until the problem becomes unbearable and outweighs the fear your culture has helped to instill in them. Another way we run into this problem is by listening to individuals when they bring up problems (which is great) and then placating them in ways that are inconsistent or insincere (which is not so great). We’re afraid of failure too in this case, we’re afraid that if we make promises to make changes to help these people we won’t be able to live up to them. Or we dismiss the feedback or problem as being “just in someone’s head” because we’re concerned with how it will reflect on us (shame) if our company has these issues in it. Responding to concerns in a way that is placating, dismissive, or avoidant will lead to different people on the team having different stories about what’s going on, which will cause tension and build-up over time.

The daring approach to this would be to see failure as an opportunity for learning, and to applaud and reward team members for bringing up potential issues before it’s too late. A culture of psychological safety will help with this of course, and one way to try to ensure that is through vulnerability. Admitting that you didn’t know about a problem before a team member brings it up, admitting that the problem may have been caused by you as a leader, and taking the time and effort to truly sit down and listen to your people requires a great deal of both vulnerability and emotional availability. We can reward team members not only by showing that we’re trying to deal proactively with the problems that they’re bringing up, but also by thanking them either in one-on-one meetings or in team-wide meetings (if they’re okay with that).

Lastly, and most vulnerably of all, we can set up company-wide or team-wide conversations where everyone talks openly about what they’re feeling. In her book, Brené calls these “rumbles”—a directed and emotion-forward conversation about addressing problems with communication, between team members, etc. The key here is setting the stage—making it very known that this is an open, non-judgmental space where people are discussing ideas and improvements to the team dynamic, not blaming and shaming each other. This requires already having a team dynamic of psychological safety and open communication, and can take a while to really do well—I don’t think my team has ever truly had a “rumble” as vulnerable as Brené talks about having on her team in her book, but we’re working on getting there.

Keeping an employee on board or staying with partners for too long

One of the most common issues I hear from other leaders, and this was even more common during the pandemic, is about keeping an employee or partner on board for too long. Both parties feel a huge relief when they finally let the person go or split up.

The armored approach, driven by fear, is one of avoiding conflict and holding on to feedback in the hopes that things will change. We’re afraid of hurting the person, we’re afraid of the conflict if they push back, and we’re afraid that if they’re failing it must be our fault as their leader—this is the shame aspect that fuels this armored behaviour.

Another armored behaviour is creating a culture of passiveness, which allows us to avoid conflict, avoid the possibility of hurting another person, and avoid committing to hard and uncertain conversations. From Dare to Lead: “More than half [of the leaders in the data] talked about a cultural norm of “nice and polite” that’s leveraged as an excuse to avoid tough conversations.” This was one of the biggest issues in my studio and is something that I’m actively working on this time around after we underwent some major organizational changes. This time around, we’re ensuring a culture of candor and open conversation at all times. This could be another entire article (or three?) but I’ll leave it there for now.

In the situation of keeping an employee on board for too long or staying with partners for too long, we might blame ourselves for things that are out of our control. For example, while we play a role in an employee’s work performance, we might not be the primary cause of poor work performance (I’ve found this very hard to admit in my experience). This ties into the culture of passiveness because we hold on to that shame, that feeling that we must be failing, and avoid the hard conversation that we need to have. So this passiveness not only loads us up with emotional burden, but also allows behaviour to continue which might run counter to the culture we’re trying to build at our studio.

It also allows us to dismiss bad behaviour as a one-off event, every time it happens, as opposed to calling it out and having the necessary conversation as soon as it happens. If part of your culture includes the idea that you communicate openly with your team, so that failing is on you as much as anyone else.

The daring approach is to give regular, concise feedback, and be assertive while doing it. This is vulnerable in that it opens us up to all of the possible conflict we were avoiding, and it leads to difficult conversations with uncertain outcomes. (One of the best resources I’ve ever encountered on feedback is this 4-part Manager Tools podcast on effective feedback).

We need to get to the point and tell the employee what isn’t working, what we need from them, and ask for change that in a time-specific and measurable way. Specifically: “Here’s what isn’t working, and here’s why.” Ideally we can encourage the employee to come up with a solution on their own, and define it together. “By X date, this will be delivered in Y format.” Then, crucially, we need to ask them what they need to feel fully supported by us and work towards providing that for them.

One thing that I’ve been personally working on as a leader is being more assertive with this kind of conversation. Being more assertive and acting more quickly to give quick, small feedback has really helped me to face the small (perceived) conflict of these conversations but avoid the large-scale “we need to talk” conversations, and will hopefully help to do so in the future. I’ve historically struggled with the “being the boss” aspect and telling people what to do, thinking that it was somehow tyrannical even if it was delivered in a nice way, helps employees to achieve their goals, and works for the betterment of the project and company. If that last sentence resonates with you, then it’s important to undersand that, as Brené says, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” By avoiding conflict and armoring up in this way, it feels like we’re being nice and good and proper but we’re really leading from a place of armor, fear and shame. Time to move past that, if I haven’t convinced you yet.

Receiving feedback too late (or not at all)

We not only have to work on giving feedback, but on asking for it and receiving it too. Sometimes devs will ask me for feedback on a trailer that’s already fully edited with sound and a week away from launching. The feedback is often “had you showed me this two months ago, in storyboard, I would have had feedback”. Same with game pitches, a few days out from GDC. And folks will often work on a game for 8 months (10 months? 18 months?) without ever having it properly playtested, only to conclude that despite the problems, it’s too late to cancel it now. Three weeks in would have been a good time to start talking.

How is this armored behaviour?

We’re worried our ideas might be judged, that we might be judged based on the quality of our early work, that we might have to restart, etc. And of course the longer we wait, the worse this fear becomes because there’s more at stake—more money invested, more of our colleagues’ time invested, more attachment to the project. And how will this reflect on us as leaders, as creators? (Hear the shame voice talking yet?) What will our team think of us if our ideas aren’t perfect? What will our peers think of us if we share unpolished work? We need to have all the answers if we’re going to lead, right?

So we armor up. We become more concerned about being a knower and being right than we are with being a learner and getting it right. We need to be the person who has the answers, rather than be the person who is open to finding the answers. The daring flipside to this is to position yourself very clearly as a learner, as someone who is looking to improve, and someone who is going to get it right through feedback and learning. This can only happen if you take it seriously, you schedule regular feedback into your plans and you give it focused time and energy. It takes a great deal of vulnerability to do this, because it admits that you’re not perfect, and that you can improve with feedback (which is awesome!).

Another armored approach is to design in a black box (and this could extend to the team), without letting others into the process. “We (the individual or the team) have all the answers and know what we’re doing.”

At this point you’re like “but wait a second, I do ask for feedback!” Great. There are a few armored approaches that show up once we’ve received some feedback too.

Sometimes we’ll put role power before good ideas—”I’m the creative lead here, we’re making my game, so this is how it’s going to be.” It doesn’t always sound so malicious and evil, but this kind of thing happens all the time in games. Often, you can see the result of that in games that are poorly designed and have obvious problems that could have been fixed months or even years ago.

Alternatively, we’ve heard the feedback but we resist it because we know that it gets at something deeper, a weakness of ours or even a personality flaw that we’re afraid to confront. “Your project plan doesn’t leave any time for things to go wrong” gets at the same problem that caused you to be late for your best friend’s wedding, something which you’re deeply ashamed of to this day. (For the record this didn’t happen to me, but it probably could have).

We can try to disconnect our egos from our work, but at the end of the day this external feedback requires you to put your ego in the line of fire. So I wouldn’t say that disconnecting your ego from your work is a daring approach per se, but it is necessary if we want to be leaders, especially good ones. I think that, more importantly, we need to create a psychologically safe culture where people speak openly and focus on giving feedback on the work product and not the person creating the work product, but that’s a large topic which is covered elsewhere.

Another daring approach, other than positioning yourself as a learner, is to explicitly seek out management-specific feedback. It’s not always easy to get this feedback honestly from your team as the leader, especially if they know that you’re the one reading the feedback directly, but seeking it out explicitly means that your team at least knows that you want to improve and want to hear from them. Ideally, if the organization is large enough, you can have this feedback run through a third party, which also allows the data to become anonymized. Harder to do on my team of 4, easier to do if you have 12 people or lead a department at a larger organization.

Overwork and not respecting hours

If you’re not from the games industry, you might not know how big of a problem crunch—unpaid overtime and overworking people before major deadlines—can be in our field. If you are from the games industry, you’ve almost surely heard talk of crunch and I hope that you’ve done your best to implement a no-crunch policy in your workplace. Regardless of whether or not you experience crunch leading up to deadlines, there can still be problems of having a culture of overwork, pressure to stay later because of other team members or leaders, and a glorification of hours clocked in.

An armored leadership approach which leads to overwork and crunch is one where we work from scarcity. A mentality that there’s always too much to do and there’s never enough time will cause, even without explicitly asking for it, people to work overtime. Maybe it’s because they care about us and want to help (optimistic reading) or it’s because there’s pressure to perform and people know they will be treated worse for “leaving before the boss” (pessimistic reading). In either case it’s a problem and it’s normally the leaders’ fear or inability to manage their lives that cause this stress to be passed down to the rest of the team.

Shame inspires this armored behaviour by attaching productivity to self-worth. I bring up shame here because if one feels like they’re nothing without being hugely productive in their work then it means that they don’t believe the rest of them is very worthy on its own. If our organizations treat people who put more hours in as being more worthy, then the logical conclusion is rewarding overwork and exhaustion. This can be especially true because many leaders are “over-achievers”; if we deal with our over-achievement issues by modeling and rewarding exhaustion, that makes things worse for everyone in the organization (including ourselves, I’d argue).

The daring answer is, of course, to model and support rest and recovery as valuable parts of the working culture. This is vulnerable as it can leave us feeling like we’ll be taken advantage of, for example if we give people unlimited personal days. Rest, in Western society at least, is often perceived as “weakness” and as something to overcome, not promote. The human emotion comes in here because, especially to make change in an organization that already has a culture of overwork, we need to set the example. This will open us up to criticism and perceptions of others that go against the culture—”oh well if she’s leaving on time then she must not be a good leader”. Another daring technique is to be vulnerable and open about how the overwork has caused us harm in our own lives outside of work.

Another daring behaviour is to set boundaries. This can be especially challenging in the era of remote work and misaligned work schedules, but there are many tools and tricks you can use to make the most of your time at work and the most of your time outside of it. Just a couple of weeks before this talk was given I sat down with my team and we hashed out exactly: when we check in and check out on our communication channels, when you can ping someone directly, how you should leave them information when they’re outside of working hours, when our work schedules overlap and when meetings are to be planned, etc. This communication chat really helped me to set my own boundaries and make sure I wasn’t responding to non-urgent messages from work late at night, when I like to be off. Setting boundaries is easier to do in a work environment than, say, a family environment since at its core, work is expected to have clear boundaries. That said, it often doesn’t and it’s much easier to be proactive about this and bring it up with your team as a leader before someone on the team has to overcome the risk of starting that conversation with you and try to force your hand.

Employees feeling uncertain about the project and their futures

In several one-on-one conversations with employees over the years, I’ve seen cases where they feel uncertain about the project and consequentially, about their futures. This is not always easy to read and is not always offered up directly, so in my experience it’s worth bringing up to make sure to present the opportunity to your team to talk about it.

The armored approach is very similar to the approach talked about in the first section (Running into a huge roadblock and direction shift), so I won’t go over them again here except to say that it involves avoiding the conversation, avoiding conflict, pretending, and toxic positivity.

One daring approach to combat this is to check in regularly with your team and talk regularly about long-term goals with your employees. If they’re feeling uncertain about the project, these regular check-ins combined with an ability to listen, empathize and share our own insecurities, will lead them to open up and give us the information we need to improve the situation. This also ties into the section about dealing with problems before they become major issues, and helps us to avoid that happening. A scarier and even more vulnerable strategy is to be more transparent with your team about the situation you’re in, the company finances and budget, and plans for the future. There is, of course, a time and place and context in which to do this. It would be a bad idea to be one week away from a milestone and start freaking out in front of the team, saying that we might not have a budget in three weeks. Certain times ask for calm and grounded confidence, others for providing more information and planning and transparency. It’s easier to lead from a place of shared commitment when we can show the team what we’re working towards, why, and what will be required to get there.

Never actively talking about diversity, equity and inclusion // Feeling tension in the team around conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion

I hope and assume that at this point, we all understand how important diversity is to a team and how wonderful it can be for that team’s development and success. But sometimes, even in well-meaning teams, diversity, equity and inclusion are not talked about. When they are, they’re talked about at a very high-level, in company policies but never between people on the team in regular conversation.

The first armored reason for this is avoidance of conflict, as we’ve talked about already in this article. As a leader who comes from a privileged position (I’m white, a cis-gendered man, straight, and a Canadian living in Canada), the following was very eye-opening to me so I thought I’d share it. If you’re in a leadership position and come from any kind of privilege—that is, you’re not part of a group that is typically marginalized in this industry (gender, race, economic status, sexual orientation, etc.)—then you may never have had to face tough conversations or ever even been confronted with issues at all around equity or inclusion. This is the privilege. Folks who are marginalized in our industry (and society) face these issues every day and the fact that more privileged leaders could simply avoid this conversation is, at its very core, inequitable. The fear here shows up because we’re afraid of making mistakes that show our ignorance or lack of experience with these things, and we might be ashamed of our privilege.

This can lead to hiring people who look, think, and talk like us (whoever we are as leaders). This is pretty obviously rooted in fear—we’re worried we will have to face hard conversations or situations, we’ll have to learn to manage new cultures and ways of interacting, etc. And the shame comes in because we might fear for what others on the team might think, what others in the industry might think if we do something culturally insensitive or say something inappropriate to someone who is different from us on the team.

Good thing there’s a daring approach to this as well! Talk about it. We already mentioned positioning ourselves as a learner, and committing to getting it right through learning and feedback. It’s much more courageous to be open with our teams about things that we don’t know, admit that we’ll make mistakes, and be open to learning. To take a more proactive approach to this, we can get external help to do anti-racism or cultural sensitivity training. We can hire sensitivity readers for our games, and run our job postings and HR practices by diversity consultants. These kinds of things show that we value this kind of learning and gives us opportunities, especially in moderated sessions, to open up and be up front about what we don’t know.

We can also publicly (within the team, or publicly if we’re careful and run it by the person in question) applaud a diversity of thought and experience as a way to show that it’s appreciated. For example, if a team member suggests a game mechanic based on the sport cricket (most Canada-born Canadians like me have very little knowledge of cricket), we could clearly state why that idea would not have come up otherwise: “That’s a really cool idea, I never would have thought of that because I didn’t grow up with cricket here.”

Hiring people who don’t fit your culture

The last issue I want to bring up today is that of hiring people who don’t fit the culture, and all of the issues that can cause. We’ve already talked about keeping people on for too long, but often the issue is not as clear as poor work performance or communication. I’ve spoken to many leaders who talk about having employees who don’t quite fit but they’re not sure why or how, and only many months or years later realize what the problems were.

An armored mistake many of us make—myself included, up until those major organizational changes I mentioned before—is to have a very vague company mission and values. It’s very easy, safe, and useless to say “we inspire play” or “we’re kind”. Being vague enough about this means that we don’t actually have to act on it, and we can’t be held accountable for it, meaning we’re defended from it (read: armor). We might use this to dismiss negative events as being “exceptions”, despite being symptoms of a culture which allows these events to happen. If our employees and the external world can’t hold us accountable for our culture, then we make ourselves invulnerable to their criticism, and invulnerability is the strongest armor (someone’s going to argue with me on that).

That, or we make the mistake that many companies do when starting, which is to believe that the culture is simply something that appears as the result of people working together on a team. This can be especially true when teams start as friends who know each other and already have a rapport, a sort of “friend culture” which was established years ago. The resistance to define a culture can come from several fears—fear of getting it wrong, fear of becoming too corporate, fear of hurting the relationship between friends by establishing work boundaries.

The daring side of this coin would be making our values actionable and behaviour-oriented. Another daring behaviour is to talk about these values early on in our interview process. Talk about why we have this culture or this vision for our studio culture, and even what problems we’ve had in the past that led us to care about these values. This is vulnerable because it opens us up to losing candidates if they’re not aligned with our values (which is a good thing in the end anyway) and forces us to admit mistakes our organization has made in the past. It’s also vulnerable—and I can say this from experience—because we’re admitting the personal mistakes we’ve made to prospective employees. I can also say from experience that people really appreciate this kind of humanity in someone that they’re considering working for.

In order to combat the “friend culture”, we need to get uncomfortable together. These “rumbles” that Brené talks about force us into a room together to talk about what we’re really trying to build. We need to talk authentically and be open about the experiences we’ve had, our personal values, and our perspective on work and the world. It can be uncomfortable but is ultimately really important for leadership to stray from the usual conversations around solving design problems or creating marketing plans and into the forest that is human emotion and core values.

Homework & Take-aways

Before we get to takeaways, let’s do homework! Yay homework.

What is the number one top challenge in your work right now? Write out what an armored vs daring approach would look like for this challenge. For example, for the issue of ‘receiving feedback too late (or not at all)’, this is what my final slide looked like:

For your own issue, try to write it in the same way:

I’d invite you to do this with as many problems as you want to work on, and see if you can learn something from the exercise.

The second homework item would be to read the book Dare to Lead by Brené Brown (available wherever books are sold, try to avoid Amazon if possible), or at least to listen to some episodes of the podcast (a Spotify exclusive, at least at the time of writing).

So the real takeaway is this. If we want to be better leaders, have more fulfilled employees, feel more fulfilled ourselves, make better games, and make the industry a better place to work in for everyone involved, I think we need to put the armor down, open our hearts, and work on moving from armored leadership to daring leadership.

Thank you for reading!
❤ Rich

ps: here are the slides for the talk, in case you were curious.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.