Technical Systems Development Risk Factors: The Role of Empowering Leadership in Lowering Developers’ Stress

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The success of information systems development (ISD) projects depends on the developers who deliver them. However, developers face many challenges in bringing an ISD project to successful completion. These projects are often large and highly complex, with volatile targets, creating a stressful environment for developers. Although prior literature has considered how technical ISD risk factors, such as project size, complexity, and target volatility, affect team- and project-level outcomes, their effects on developers have received limited attention. This gap in the literature is problematic for two reasons: (1) the interplay between developers and project characteristics are unaccounted for, resulting in an incomplete picture of ISD; and (2) developer stress has been shown to reduce team performance. In this research, we examine the role of empowering leadership in reducing developer stress in ISD. We develop a multilevel model of the effect of empowering leadership on the relationship between technical ISD risk factors and developers’ role perceptions, and explore the consequences for developers’ stress. The model was tested in a field study of 350 developers in 73 ISD teams from a large U.S.-based firm. Results showed that empowering leadership ameliorated the negative effects of project size and target volatility on role ambiguity as well as the negative effects of project size, complexity, and target volatility on role conflict and stress. We also found that empowering leadership reduced role ambiguity, role conflict, and stress directly, and that role ambiguity and role conflict increased stress. Project size, complexity, and target volatility were found to increase empowering leadership behaviors. We conclude that empowering leadership can be an effective means of helping developers cope with technical ISD risk factors and discuss the implications of our findings for research and practice.

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