The Art of Tough Talk: Leading Difficult Conversations in the Video Game Industry

Jun 30, 2023 | Blog

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Leveling Up Your Communication Skills: A Guide for Leaders to Navigate Hard Talks in the Game Development Arena

Everyone who’s spent any time with a gaming controller in hand knows the frustration of seeing ‘Game Over’ flash across the screen – especially when you were just getting into the groove. In the high-stakes, high-speed world of the video game industry, similar scenarios often play out beyond the screen, in the real world. Projects get cancelled, deals fall through, layoffs happen, or even worse, the studio might have to close its doors. These are moments no one wants, but they’re as integral to the industry as boss battles in video games. Being the bearer of such news, though, is a task that’s in a league of its own.

As a leader, these difficult conversations are an inevitable part of your role. So, how do you, as a captain in the video game industry, navigate these tough talks without losing lives, metaphorically speaking? How do you bring down the ‘Game Over’ screen without demotivating your team? Let’s power-up your communication skills and explore the quest.

Part 1: The Importance of Transparency

In the world of gaming, everyone detests that hidden trap or concealed enemy that suddenly jumps out and ends the game. Unexpected surprises might make a game thrilling, but in the professional sphere, especially when it involves potentially life-altering news, it can be a recipe for disaster. Ambushing your team with bad news or hiding significant changes can lead to mistrust, create anxiety, and lower morale, effectively crashing your team’s productivity and commitment levels.

Whether it’s a deal that’s fallen through, a project cancellation, or the unfortunate occurrence of layoffs, being open and honest with your team is a crucial leadership skill. There might be a temptation to sugarcoat the situation, to soften the blow, or even to withhold information in an attempt to protect your team. But doing so can have a boomerang effect, eroding trust and damaging your credibility as a leader in the long run. When the team can’t trust their leader to communicate important information, particularly negative news, their commitment and loyalty to the organization can take a serious hit.

Instead, it is important to share the news in an honest, straightforward, and factual manner, providing as much information as you can about the situation. Explain the reasons behind the decision transparently – was it due to financial constraints? Or perhaps a shift in the strategic direction of the organization? Be upfront about the impact that the decision will have on the team, their projects, and their roles. This way, you’re respecting your team’s ability to handle difficult situations while promoting a culture of transparency and mutual respect.

Part 2: Showing Empathy and Understanding

Every skilled game developer knows that creating a game that resonates with players, one that keeps them coming back for more, requires understanding their players’ emotions, motivations, and expectations. The same principle applies when leading difficult conversations. When you’re delivering news that’s likely to disappoint, worry, or upset your team, showing empathy and understanding towards their feelings can make a significant difference.

Empathy, in this context, means acknowledging and validating the emotions your team members might be experiencing in response to the news. It’s natural and expected for them to feel a range of emotions – from shock and denial to anger and worry. Encourage them to share their feelings and thoughts about the situation. Create a safe space where they can express their concerns and fears without judgment or repercussions.

Active listening is a key component of empathy. When your team members are sharing their feelings, listen to understand, not just to respond. Avoid interrupting or jumping in with solutions. Instead, acknowledge their emotions, let them know that it’s okay to feel the way they do, and assure them that their feelings are valid and important. Respond with understanding and empathy, without minimizing their feelings or concerns.

This empathetic approach shows your team that you care about their well-being and not just the bottom line. It makes them feel valued and respected, which can go a long way in maintaining their loyalty and commitment during tough times.

Part 3: Providing Clear Information and Future Steps

In any complex video game level, a clear strategy and understanding of the next steps can often mean the difference between getting to the next level or seeing the dreaded ‘Game Over’ screen. When delivering tough news, particularly news that could significantly alter your team’s work or their employment status, providing clear information about what’s going to happen next can help your team navigate through the uncertainty and anxiety.

Once you’ve delivered the news and empathized with your team’s feelings, the next crucial step is to provide clear and specific information about what they can expect moving forward. If there are any measures in place to mitigate the situation or next steps that have already been decided, share those with your team. This might include things like timelines for project wrap-ups, details about severance packages in case of layoffs, or potential opportunities for transfers or reassignments.

If you don’t have all the answers, which is often the case in these situations, be honest about that as well. Let them know that you’re still figuring things out and that you’ll keep them updated as soon as you have more information. This openness not only keeps the lines of communication open but also helps manage your team’s expectations and reduces the chances of rumors or misinformation spreading within the team.

Part 4: Open to Questions and Support 

In the world of gaming, we all know the importance of a good player guide. When it comes to navigating tough conversations, being open to questions and providing support can make the journey less daunting for your team.

Encourage your team members to ask questions. They might have concerns or doubts about various aspects of the situation – from immediate next steps and job security to project handovers and client communication. Be prepared for these questions and answer them as clearly and directly as you can. If you don’t have the answer to a question, don’t bluff or make up information. Instead, assure them that you’ll find out the answer and get back to them.

Also, understand that not everyone processes information in the same way or at the same pace. Some team members might need a little more time to process the news before they can think of questions or decide how they feel about it. Respect their need for time and space, and reassure them that you’re available to talk or answer questions whenever they’re ready.

Where possible, offer your support and reassurance. This might be in the form of career counseling or job search assistance in case of layoffs, or additional resources and support to handle project transitions. Let them know that they’re not alone in this, and that you, as their leader, are there to support them in any way you can.

Final Thoughts 

Like the most challenging levels in a video game, having difficult conversations is an inevitable part of leadership in the video game industry. However, with the right approach – one that involves transparency, empathy, clear communication, and support – you can navigate these tough talks and help your team emerge on the other side feeling respected, supported, and valued. After all, every ‘Game Over’ screen is not the end, but an opportunity for a ‘Continue?’ or even a ‘New Game’ – a fresh start with new opportunities.

Thank you for reading this article to the end. I hope it has been informative and helpful. If you’d like to learn more about the topics we covered, I invite you to check out my podcast and my YouTube channel where I delve into these subjects in more depth.

Additionally, I would love to stay in touch and keep you updated on all the latest developments and insights in the world of leadership. That’s why I encourage you to sign up for my newsletter. Not only will you receive regular updates, but as a thank you for joining, I will also send you my free eBook, “5 Heroic Leadership Skills.” This eBook is packed with practical tips and strategies that will help you take your leadership skills to the next level.

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