Guidance for Technical Leadership

A brief exploration of evidence-based approaches to Technical Leadership and Performance Evaluations.
Matt Skillman Featured
Matt Skillman | Oct 17 2023
5 min read


Believe it or not, AWS issues prescriptive guidance that relates not only to technical disciplines but also to some of the “soft” sciences such as psychology. You may have heard of ideas such as “Two-Pizza Teams” or read through this page of guidance concerning team organization for large migrations onto AWS, which mentions concepts such as creating several RACI matrices to define roles/responsibilities for any large projects. Industrial and organizational psychology (I-O psychology) is a discipline that is concerned with these sorts of topics. I-O psychology seeks to identify evidence-based approaches to optimize performance and fulfillment in the workplace. My gripe with the guidance provided by AWS is a lack of references to any authoritative I-O psychology texts. In this post, I’ll attempt to add to the guidance provided by AWS. Specifically, I’ll cover what I consider the most relevant workplace-related concepts while also providing citations to an I-O psychology textbook that itself cites primary literature.


I think it is clear that the most important element of the delivery of a successful project is competent leadership. I have wondered in the past “What differentiates a good leader from a bad one?” Luckily, I-O psychology provides us with the answer to this question. These differences in leadership quality are primarily explained via two dimensions: “Person-Orientation” and “Task-Orientation.” Person-Orientation describes a managerial approach in which leaders are highly considerate of subordinates and “act in a warm and supportive manner” (Aamodt, 2022, p. 427). To elaborate on this approach a bit further, we might expect a Person-Oriented leader to avoid micromanaging subordinates and praise them for their work frequently. In contrast, a Task-Oriented leader will enforce structure by explicitly issuing commands/orders to subordinates, setting goals for the team, and paying attention to both the quality and quantity of work being produced by each team member (Aamodt, 2022, p. 427).

The first question that comes to mind here would be “Well, which approach is better?” The answer is: both approaches when used in tandem, lead to optimal results (Aamodt, 2022, p. 428). Put another way, to achieve optimal performance/satisfaction within your team it is necessary to fully incorporate both approaches into your leadership style. However, caution should be taken for the Task-Oriented approach as, when taken to the extreme, there is evidence to suggest that this approach starts to cause irritation in subordinates and therefore reduces group performance.

All of this theory, however, does not necessarily offer any concrete suggestions on how to be a competent leader. In all honesty, it is doubtful that reading a single blog post will have any significant impact on anyone’s leadership ability. My recommendation would be to enroll in a hands-on training course on the subject or receive coaching from successful leadership figures within your organization. Given that leadership ability is primarily learned behavior and only minimally correlated with innate characteristics such as certain personality traits (Aamodt, 2022, p. 423), it is reasonable and worthwhile for organizations to incorporate leadership training into their ongoing employee training programs. If your organization does not offer such programs, I encourage you to seek out these materials on your own, as leadership skills can in fact be learned or improved with deliberate practice.

Feedback, or “Performance Evaluation”

Evaluating employee performance is not only of paramount importance for an organization as a whole but also is crucial to facilitation of career development/growth for your team. Put simply, it is necessary to provide your team members with frequent feedback on what they are doing right and wrong. Emphasis should be placed here on the “frequent” part, as in fact, feedback is so important that a large number of organizations opt for a daily feedback policy instead of a yearly performance review.

A variety of questions immediately come to mind here such as “Am I the only one who should be evaluating team members’ performance?” as well as “How do I objectively measure employee performance to provide accurate feedback?” The first problem to address here is that research strongly suggests there is only a moderate correlation between ratings given by any two separate individuals when evaluating the same employee (Aamodt, 2022, p. 232). The most commonly known buzzword in this space, which aims to combat the problem of conflicting evaluations, is “360-degree-feedback.” This feedback approach, which is intended primarily to facilitate employee growth, entails each employee receiving feedback from peers, subordinates, and supervisors. This multisource feedback approach improves employee performance to a greater extent than single-source feedback (Aamodt, 2022, p. 233). It should be noted that reliance on self-appraisal approaches in which the employee evaluates their own performance [and nobody else provides any feedback] results in a small detrimental impact (Aamodt, 2022, p. 234).

Fundamentally, a large part of how people learn involves getting feedback from others. As a technical lead, it is important that you provide specific and well-explained feedback concerning your team’s delivery of work at every stage of the project. If the team is not building a component correctly, as a technical lead it is critical that you are vocal in communicating this fact. Conversely, praising team members for excellent work helps them to identify what the standards/ideals are for the project. Compliments/praise for good work serves as a signal that “yes, this is the right way to do things.” Additionally, as mentioned earlier, ideally all team members should be providing feedback both to one another as well as directly to you concerning their thoughts on the project. You should establish a working environment in which it is safe to voice criticism and you should also set the tone for providing positive feedback by pointing out the team’s successes on a regular basis.

What’s Next?

If you function as a technical lead in your organization, I would strongly recommend exploring the textbook referenced in this post. Specifically, chapters seven, nine, eleven, twelve, and thirteen all contain invaluable information. Additionally, as previously mentioned, I would recommend enrolling in a course that teaches leadership skills. Unfortunately, I do not have any specific recommendations to provide for that, but I would advise you to seek out courses that have a strong basis in science i.e. courses in which the instructor has at least some background in I-O psychology. It is my belief that even non-technical subjects such as those that involve the “soft” sciences should be given the same amount of care and consideration that we apply to our technical work. Because of this, I would again strongly recommend seeking out materials that have a firm foundation in I-O psychology principles when attempting to improve either leadership skills or communication skills such as providing feedback to team members.


Aamodt, M. G. (2022). Industrial/Organizational Psychology: An Applied Approach (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Matt Skillman Featured
Matt Skillman