How To Lead Geeks The Way Geeks Want To Be Led
In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart issued one of the most heralded quotes in Court history, when he stated he would not attempt to further define obscenity, and said, “But I know it when I see it.”
I feel that way about defining Geeks. Definitions vary and stereotypes abound: smart, egocentric, socially awkward, victim prone, strong-headed – basically the TV show Big Bang Theory.
People feel as if they cannot define a Geek (and how they are different from a Nerd), but we know them when we see them. Or do we?
Before I share some traits to keep in mind, and best practices for managing Geeks, we must remember a vital aspect of the Geek tribe: they are people, which means they share the same common personality traits as those outside their tribe. Whatever personality test you prefer, they score on them too. Geeks aren’t like vampires who cannot be photographed; they fall into the same certain psychological snapshots as any. However, they often function differently than other smart, creative, ego-driven people and professions. I would know, because I am one. Here are some things to keep in mind.
I’m a Geek, not a freak
- Geeks are logical. Analytical thinkers thrive on knowledge. The upside is that they are motivated by problem solving, and the technology and toys that leverage their abilities. Yes, they want money as every other employee, but they are driven to solve stuff. The downside is that Geeks will use knowledge as a defense mechanism. In order to prove their worth, they will often give more detail than is needed; in order to assert themselves, they will use acronyms or technical language to gain neglected attention or ward off premature inspection.
- Geeks value respect. The respect they value is directly tied to their work. They will organize around the knowledge that advances their project. “Right” is a premium, because it saves time, energy and money. Wrong is evil, a chaos monster that creates messes Geeks need to fix. Geeks did not come through educational processes that trained much on dealing with people. As a result, they are often seen as candid to a fault, because they quickly assess if someone they are dealing with is helpful or harmful toward the solution they seek. As well, Geeks appreciate recognition, but are not the credit-hounds they are often made out to be. The exception is if credit is given to someone who is actually detrimental to the process. Then Geeks arise, not out of protest so much as protection to the integrity of what is “right,” effective and efficient.
- Geeks do communicate. But, Geeks prefer forms of communication that allow them to focus rather than suffer disruption. Phone calls, meetings and drop-in visits are curses on their work-flow. Because focus is so important, it’s also why Geeks, more than other professional tribes, do better with flexible schedules that honor their creative flow, and do better with devices. Whereas devices for others can be a distraction, devices for Geeks are friends and stimulants. Geeks have a way of being quick to say “no.” Requests can be judged as threats to their focus and current project. But give them time; the challenge to problem solve often means they will come back to you with a solution.
How Not To Be Weak With a Geek
- Encourage collaboration. Besides the fact that good code and stable networks require collaboration, Geeks more than others self-organize, self-assess and self-correct. Geeks require ideas of knowledgeable others.
- Bring Geeks to the larger, round table. Geeks love knowledge, which means they are interested in understanding more of the business. That understanding serves their problem-solving away from the table. Plus, every decision made that affects IT is a technical decision, inseparable from business decisions. So it pays to have IT knowledge in on decision-making.
- Bring in outside eyes. The IT team knows that the executive who depends on expert advice from the IT leader doesn’t know if he is getting it. And if there is a gulf between the leader and his team, morale and best solutions will erode. Your IT personnel want a skilled leader with technical competence. They need the sounding board.
- Train. Your IT team doesn’t want to be told to figure it out. The knowledge of the field is so expansive and changing, that months, not years, is the difference between effective or irrelevant. Do train on people-skills, but especially against the backdrop of the larger mission. Dealing with people is “problem-solving.”
- Ask. No IT person wants to rehearse Tech 101 with every employee. But they do expect their leaders to want to be informed, and they are usually more than happy to demonstrate their knowledge. Get deep into questions and encourage them to define their terms. They don’t expect you to keep up with them, but they do want you to understand what you need to know (especially what you need to know to further their work and not hinder it).
- No matter your review process, make sure your IT department is engaging in 360 review. They depend on each other to be at their best for the team to produce the best.
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