In his eye opening book, “Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus“, John Gray explains some of the friction between men and women based on communication gaps and their overall differences in emotional needs. The lack of understanding of these differences has been a source of frustration between the genders for centuries. In the business world, there is a parallel of equal frustration. It exists between management and technical employees.
Having come up in a technical career path and then transitioning to a role of managing technical employees, I have seen more than my fair share of frustration between technical employees and managers who come from a business background. In order to understand the reasons why this exists and how to better manage a technical employee, we first have to understand the technical employee.
Technical roles in the modern organization range from IT support and software development jobs to engineers and designers. One could even argue that a corporate chef in the R&D department of restaurant company is a technical role. Some typical characteristics of a technical employee include:
- Self identify through awards, certifications, accomplishments, and knowledge.
- Independent workers due to their ability to “simply get the job done”.
- Limited view of the organization and goals.
- Driven by ability to solve problems.
- Desire to be informed.
- High standard of excellence. (their standards)
A key to managing technical employees is to motivate them with currencies with which they resonate. The above list is the basis for currencies that you can use as a manager. I’ll discuss that more in a bit–first we need to understand a little bit more about a typical technical employee.
They Have Something Against Me!
It is not uncommon to find a technical employee at the water cooler complaining about management, the company, and recent decisions that have been made. The root of this behavior is often the fact that most technical employees are individual contributors who have a desire to help through problem solving. Unfortunately, the decisions aimed at solving many organizational problems are made in meetings which only managers attend. For this reason, technical employees typically feel:
- Mistreated or under-valued because of exclusion from the decision making process.
- Upset when their problem solving currency is removed from their job role.
Further compounding this problem, technical roles in non-technical companies have limiting career paths, thus a technical employee struggles to understand how they will eventually be a part of that management based decision making team.
Money Doesn’t Motivate Me
In addition to managing technical employees, I have also managed employees in a sales organization. With sales people, a lot of the employee to manager conversations revolve around compensation plans and quota.Â Technical employees, however, are less motivated by money than they are by other currencies. In my experience the most effective currencies are:
- Problem Solving Opportunities
- Insight into organizational information
- Expression of opinion during decision making process
- Opportunity to gain expert recognition
Though the currencies listed above are not directly tied to money, they do require time which can be costly to an organization. Thus, as a manager you have to ensure what you are getting in exchange for giving. You also have to manage the fact that these opportunities are “in addition to” regular responsibilities and not “in place of”. One management technique used to ensure success is requiring priorities be completed before moving on to additional opportunities. (e.g. if milestones are hit on a current project, the team can attend a free webinar to learn about a new concept)
There are always gaps between business disciplines. Operations thinks legal is being too conservative. Legal thinks that sales and their renegade attitude will get the company in trouble and so forth. For technical employees, the typical gaps are:
- Organizational and Business Drivers
- Concept of Time
- Ability to manage workload
- Desire to engage in organizational issues
A few ways to manage employees around these gaps are to discuss them and get the employee to come to a conclusion that works. For example, most technical employees will feel that just about any task can be completed in a month. As a manager, if you identify a few facts such as the number of actual working days in a month, potential sources of delays, and other responsibilities the employee has, and then re-ask for the time estimate, you will get a more accurate answer. This approach works well for helping them to integrate into the overall business goals. “If I let you go to this class, how is that going to translate to us putting more customers in our restaurants for dinner?”
Advice To Managers
As a manager you need to assess any employee before you pour time into them. The same applies for technical employees. Â If you feel you can improve the performance of an employee within the context of an organization by breaking through to them as a manager, consider putting together a plan for them. This plan should:
- Identify weaknesses.
- Separate weaknesses that are inherent to a technical employee.
- Identify gaps in the organization that need to be shored up with the employee.
- Clearly plan out which currencies you as a manager intend to use in your plan.
I have found technical employees to be some of the most loyal and hardest working in an organization. The managers who “crack the code” for more effectively managing them create a win-win situation for both the employee and the organization.
Derick Schaefer is a guest author for The Private Business Owner. Mr. Schaefer is the founder and managing director of Orangecast Social Media based in Dallas, TX. Prior to founding Orangecast, Mr. Schaefer served in a variety of leadership roles at The Microsoft Corporation during a decade long stint with the company. To follow more of Derick’s writing, you can find him on How-To-Blog.TV where he is an author and social media personality on the site.
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