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Why It's Hard to Manage Technical People

Thursday, March 19, 2020
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If you understand why it is hard to manage technical people, then you can get better at managing technical people. Technical people are those who have a STEM degree or a degree in technology, engineering, mathematics, or a lab-based science. People who are attracted to and earn STEM degrees share a set of traits. But the traits that make for a good technologist, engineer, mathematician, or scientist tend to run counter to the traits that make for an ideal subordinate. This post explores how the traits needed to get a STEM degree run counter to the five universal traits for an ideal subordinate.

The first of five universal traits for an ideal subordinate is performing at maximum capability. High performers focus on delivering benefits to others in an efficient and effective manner, according to a recent study of 5,000 business professionals as described by Morten Hansen in Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More (2018, Simon and Schuster). Technical people are motivated to seek and solve technical problems that are challenging, but the intellectual challenges that they seek are not the ones that bring the most benefit to others in the organization. Technical people don’t perform at maximum capability when they focus on technical problems that don’t bring benefits to others in the organization.

The second of five universal traits for an ideal subordinate is having no or minimal interpersonal issues in the workplace. Technical people are well-trained in logical thinking, which works great for solving technical problems but not for solving people problems. Neuroscientists and behavioral scientists have identified many examples that show that people do not behave according to logic. In fact, the brain has a network for social thinking needed to solve people problems, which is distinct from the network for logical thinking needed to solve technical problems. The more you use a brain network, the stronger and better that network functions. Likewise, the less you use a brain network, the weaker and poorer that network functions. Consequently, technical people have a highly developed logical-thinking brain network and an underdeveloped social-thinking brain network. Technical people have interpersonal issues because they have stronger brain capacity for solving technical problems than for solving people problems.

The third of five universal traits for an ideal subordinate is commitment to the organization’s success. Technical people have no problem committing to a goal that is supported by logic or by a proven process like the scientific method. They may be skeptical of organizational goals that can’t be explained with logic or supported by a proven process. In fact, the scientific method starts with asking a question then constructing a hypothesis based on the gap between the question and the available evidence. A technical person questions an organizational goal as the first step toward commitment using the scientific method. But a technical person who questions an organizational goal can be perceived as lacking commitment to the organization’s success.

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The fourth of five universal traits for an ideal subordinate is engaging others when needed regardless of the personality or traits of the other person. Technical people are curious about how things work or why things happen and expect others to be engaged by this curiosity. Technical people also place priority on truth-seeking and applied creativity or finding a practical application for technical knowledge. A difference in natural curiosity and priorities can cause technical people’s behavior to look strange to others. What a technical person finds interesting and worthwhile can be quite different compared to what other people find interesting and worthwhile. A technical person will find it difficult to engage another person who does not share their interests and priorities.

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The fifth universal trait of an ideal subordinate is learning and obeying the organization’s rules for safety, compliance, and professionalism in the workplace. The detail-orientation of technical people can turn them into integrity police. No one likes to be called out by a colleague for violating a safety, compliance, or professional rule in the workplace. Technical people also tend to seek the truth, which taken to the extreme looks like the need to be right. If you have been around someone who is like a dog to a bone when it comes to defending their point of view, then you understand the unpleasantness of such an interaction. There is science at work. When we are right, we activate the reward circuitry in our brain, which involves the release of neurotransmitters including dopamine. Dopamine in the right amount causes a sensation of pleasure—it feels good to be right. The natural inclination is to repeat the behavior that caused us to feel good. Technical people who apply their detail-orientation and truth-seeking to the behavior of others can take integrity expectations to an extreme that annoys work colleagues.

Technical people find success using the traits that made them successful in pursuing their STEM degree to navigate their technical world. But they encounter obstacles when they try to apply these same traits to navigate the social world of workplaces.

To learn how you can work with technical employees and make them more successful, join me at ATD 2020 International Conference & EXPO.

About the Author

Valerie Patrick, a Ph.D. chemical engineer and President of Fulcrum Connection LLC, is a facilitator, trainer, coach and professional speaker that specializes in leadership of and by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professionals. Dr. Patrick has 25 years of corporate experience leading technical and strategic initiatives to identify and deliver new sources of business value at Bayer and Monsanto. For example, Dr. Patrick delivered millions of dollars in business impact as Head of Sustainability for Bayer’s North America operations reporting to CEO Mr. Greg Babe. Dr. Patrick also has over 10,000 hours of experience leading teams and is a Certified Professional Facilitator with the International Association of Facilitators and a trained Creative Problem Solving Facilitator through the Creative Problem Solving Group of Buffalo. In 2018, Dr. Patrick got certified with distinction in the foundations of neuroleadership by the NeuroLeadership Institute.

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