Get more out of the geeks

If IT leaders understand that motivating geeks is different than motivating other employees they can get a lot more return on what is a company’s biggest investment — its people. That was Paul Glen’s message here today at the Computerworld Premier 100 Conference.

Glen, the author of Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology, said motivating geeks is different because the employees themselves are different, their work is different, and traditional power is useless.

How do they differ? For one thing, Glen said, they are often more loyal to technology than they are to their manager. And they revere the rational. “They have a constant need for things to make sense,” he said. Telling a geek, “Because I said so” is not good enough, he added.

Geeks often ignore official hierarchies and create their own, meaning IT managers had better discover who the real leaders are, he said. Watch the normal interaction among the members of a project team to see where people go for help and whose advice they value.

The work itself is different, too, because failure is frequent and subordinates often know more than their managers about the job — so it’s essential to adjust leadership style accordingly, he said. While IT managers may not be able to fully gauge their workers’ technical skills, they can evaluate the many other ways they add value in their jobs.

Finally, Glen said, traditional leadership starts with power, but since geeks ignore power, a power base won’t help. Instead, IT managers should create an environment that nurtures motivation. His advice: Select people for a project who are motivated to do it. Be clear about the reasons for project goals. Don’t get so caught up in a process that people feel like cogs in a wheel. Keep project teams small and somewhat isolated to encourage group bonding and mutual responsibility. Offer free food, but only occasionally, so it’s seen as a perk and not a “basic human right.”

Although managers can’t create motivation directly, they can destroy it, he said, by inconsistency, excessive monitoring, artificial deadlines, focusing on tasks rather than goals and excluding geeks from decision making.

In response to questions from conference attendees, Glen noted that young geeks have more in common with older geeks than they have with others of their own generation. He also advised that very large project teams be broken into smaller, interlinked groups to maintain the 6- to 10-person team size that seems to work best, and he noted that geeks often respond to different kinds of recognition.

“A pat on the head by a manager will elicit an eye roll,” Glen said. “But give them an opportunity to tell their peers about their work — that’s recognition.”

“I didn’t like everything you said, but everything you said is true,” said member of the audience. “It brought me back to reality.”