CXO

Look outside conventional techniques to manage 'geeks'

Don't expect to motivate your knowledge workers with traditional management techniques. As Paul Glen explains in his new book, "Leading Geeks," this creative group operates differently from others.

In his book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology, Paul Glen, a principal with C2 Consulting, challenges the conventional thought that leadership methods are universal. He contends that traditional approaches to management won't work with knowledge workers, who are brilliant yet notoriously resistant to being managed.

Glen, a self-described “geek” and longtime manager and coach of tech workers in academic and business environments, describes the common characteristics of geeks, the unique nature of their work, and why they can’t be motivated by the usual means. He offers advice to managers on adapting their leadership style to these realities. To give you a sample of what Glen has to say, TechRepublic is offering chapter 6 ("Nurturing Motivation") as a free download.

We also had the opportunity to ask the author a few questions about his theories:

Q. How do you define a geek? What are some of the common personality traits among geeks?

A. For the purpose of the book, I call anyone working in the technical end of the IT field a geek.

Geeks have a passion for reason and a problem-solution mindset. When confronted with almost any situation, the initial response is to seek out the problem and then find the solution. They almost universally despise status meetings, which they consider a waste of time and a sign of micromanagement, one of the greatest offenses a manager can offer. For geeks, the engagement of knowledge, creativity, and logic is a lifelong pursuit. They are always trying to figure out how something works.

Their judgment is swift and merciless. When geeks perceive that someone in their work environment is ineffective due to incompetence or aberrant behavior, they have a tendency to dismiss that person completely. They also take great pride in their work and take criticism personally. If a manager says a particular interface makes no sense, he has to understand that’s like telling a geek his child is ugly. They put extraordinary effort into the creative solution of a technical or business problem, and they take it personally if that solution is criticized.

Q. Can geeks be managed like any other workers?

A. If you read most management literature, you would think that managing all people is the same. My experience told me that it simply wasn't so. That's why I felt that writing Leading Geeks was necessary. I believe that leading geeks is different from leading anyone else for three reasons:
  • Geeks are different from other people. I think that it is fair to say that there are some common attitudes and values among those who choose to do technical work. Anyone who went to high school will tell you that geeks stand out. As a geek, I definitely did.
  • Technical work is fundamentally different from all other work. Yet most ideas about leadership are universalistic, making no distinction between leading a software development project and leading a nation into war. It seems to me that what you would lead someone to do affects how you would lead them.
  • Power is useless with geeks. Most ideas about leadership are intimately intertwined with notions of power. Power is the ability of one person to affect the behavior of another. But geeks don't deliver their value to the organization through behavior; they deliver most of their value through their thoughts. So power is not a useful basis for leadership. You can't force someone to be creative.

Q. What are the secrets of success in geek management?

A. I don't know of any magic formula, no simple technique that will always work. However, I can offer a few tips to get you started:
  • Focus on goals, not tasks. If you specify what to accomplish, technical experts can figure out what to do to accomplish the goals. When you tell people what to do, you've eliminated their creativity from the process and probably limited the value of their work.
  • Recognize the "knowledge inversion." No matter how technical your background is, once you've stepped into the manager's position, the people you manage will know more about the technology that they are working on than you do. Don't feel compelled to make detailed technical decisions just because your business card says manager. See to it that the best decisions are made rather than trying to make them all yourself.
  • Give up on power. Power is central to most ideas about management, but when dealing with geeks, it will lead you astray. Most managers' notions of their own power get rather wrapped up in their own self-image and become hard to relinquish. Unfortunately, since power is useless when dealing with geeks, managers must dismiss the idea that power comes from being a manager. It's not that there is no power in the geek manager role, but it comes from being in the center of all the activity—from being the hub rather than from being on top of everything, being the dictator.

Q. What motivates geeks?

A. Most of the answers you get about what motivates employees will mislead you. To understand what motivates geeks, you've got to ask the question of what motivates people to be creative, since geeks deliver most of their value through their creativity.

What you find is that incentives and external things do not motivate people to be creative. They must be motivated from within. They are motivated by interest in the work itself, not the incentives to do the work. For example, if I were to offer a $10,000 award to the person writing the best limerick, that would not be an effective motivator. It would engage the minds of the participants in the reward more than it would the limerick.

So the key is to create an environment in which people develop interest in their work and feel that the external rewards are appropriate and fair. Excessive rewards do not help, but inadequate ones can be demotivating.

Q. You say that two of the most important elements of establishing a productive environment are defining and creating community and culture. How do you do this with a department of geeks?

A. As a leader, there are two primary avenues through which you establish community and culture. The first is through the things you say, and the other is through the things you do. When you communicate with your group, you are constantly sending intentional and unintentional signals about the purpose of the organization, the values that you espouse, the expectations that you have of the group, the aspirations that you feel the group should share, and much more. When you display a coherent and consistent set of ideas, they slowly make their way into the culture of the group. When your messages are erratic, inconsistent, or change over time, confusion is the result.

Your actions either reinforce or detract from the power of your statements. If your actions are consistent with the message of your words, it reinforces the message. When your actions contradict your message, you're branded either an idiot or a hypocrite. Clearly, neither is helpful.

By making your messages and actions mutually supportive, you have an opportunity to influence the nature of the community and culture of your organization.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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