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The truth about managing geeks, part 1

The truth about managing geeks, part 1

Business delivery by Jeff Ello

I can sum up every article, book and column written by notable management experts about managing IT in two sentences: “Geeks are smart and creative, but they are also egocentric, antisocial, managerially and business-challenged, victim-prone, bullheaded and credit-whoring. To overcome these intractable behavioural deficits you must do X, Y and Z”.

X, Y and Z are variable and usually contradictory between one expert and the next, but the patronising stereotypes remain constant. I’m not entirely sure that is helpful. So, using the familiar brush, allow me to paint a different picture of those IT pros buried somewhere in your organisation.

My career has been stippled with a good bit of disaster recovery consulting, which has led me to deal with dozens of organisations on their worst day, when opinions were pretty raw. The worse shape an organisation is in, the more you hear the stereotypes thrown around.

Recently, though, I have come to realise that perfectly healthy groups with solid, well-adjusted IT pros can and will devolve, slowly and quietly, into the behaviours that give rise to the stereotypes, given the right set of conditions. It turns out that it is the conditions that are stereotypical, and the IT pros tend to react to those conditions in logical ways.

Few people notice this, but for IT groups respect is the currency of the realm. The amount of respect an IT pro pays someone is a measure of how tolerable that person is when it comes to getting things done, including the elegance and practicality of his solutions and suggestions. IT pros always and without fail, quietly self-organise around those who make the work easier, while shunning those who make the work harder, independent of the organisational chart.

This self-ordering behaviour occurs naturally in the IT world because it is populated by people skilled in creative analysis and ordered reasoning. Doctors are a close parallel. The stakes may be higher in medicine, but the work in both fields requires a technical expertise that can’t be faked and a proficiency that can only be measured by qualified peers.

Foundational (bottom-up) respect is not only the largest single determining factor in the success of an IT team, but the most ignored. I believe you can predict success or failure of an IT group simply by assessing the amount of mutual respect within it. ---P---

ELEMENTS OF THE STEREOTYPES

Ego: Similar to what good doctors do, IT pros figure out that the proper projection of ego engenders trust and reduces apprehension. Because IT pros’ education does not emphasise how to deal with people, there are always rough edges. Ego, as it plays out in IT, is an essential confidence combined with a not-so-subtle cynicism. It’s not about being right for the sake of being right but being right for the sake of saving a lot of time, effort, money and credibility. Correctness yields respect, respect builds good teams, and good teams build trust and maintain credibility through a healthy projection of ego.

The victim mentality: IT pros are sensitive to logic – that’s what you pay them for. When things don’t add up, they are prone to express their opinions on the matter. The more things that occur that make no sense, the more cynical IT pros will become. Presuming this is a trait that must be disciplined out of them is a huge management mistake. IT pros complain primarily about logic, and primarily to people they respect. If you are dismissive of complaints, fail to recognise an illogical event or behave deceptively, IT pros will stop complaining to you.

Insubordination: This is a tricky one. Good IT pros are not anti-bureaucracy, as many observers think. They are anti-stupidity. The difference is both subjective and subtle. Good IT pros, whether they are expected to or not, have to operate and make decisions with little supervision. So when the rules are loose and logical and supervision is results-oriented, supportive and helpful to the process, IT pros are loyal, open, engaged and downright sociable. Arbitrary or micro-management, illogical decisions, inconsistent policies, the creation of unnecessary work and exclusionary practices will elicit a quiet, subversive, almost vicious attitude.

Antisocial behaviour: It’s fair to say that there is a large contingent of IT pros who are socially unskilled. However, this doesn’t mean those IT pros are antisocial. If you want to get your IT pros more involved, you should deal with the problems laid out above and then train your other staff how to deal with IT. Users should know IT pros want to help and should keep an open mind.


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