How to Get the Best from Technical Workers

When John Rouda interviewed me for Geek Leaders, a
podcast geared toward IT and tech people, we chatted about a generally under-discussed
topic: leadership’s responsibility to integrate tech people into the larger
, not just “onboard” them to the tech team.

Many leaders assume they can plug-and-play tech people, as
if they’ll fit anywhere and work perfectly because they’re proficient coders, designers,
or engineers. But there isn’t a perfect correspondence between tech jobs, because
each industry and each organization is different. So, no matter how technically
skilled employees are, if they lack sufficient understanding of the
business, their work can go off course.

Context Is Clarifying

Company history and cultural guidelines aren’t necessarily
self-explanatory to new employees, no matter how intelligent or gifted they
are. And people who don’t know how the money’s being made often propose
solutions that seasoned leaders dismiss out of hand. Standard onboarding usually
explains functional details, yet rarely the conceptual ones that may determine
success. New tech employees need to learn a business’s fundamentals so they
can make accurate decisions in context
and understand their coworkers’ requests
and critiques.

I’ve seen too many skilled employees become stymied and
confused about why no one agrees with their views, they’re left out of crucial
decision-making, or their decisions are actually countermanded. These employees
may throw their weight around, demanding or forcing solutions and approaches
that worked for them elsewhere but don’t fit their current employer’s business
model or culture — just because no one taught them the necessary basics in the

Dynamics Can Be Determinative

Here’s another potential downfall of lack of integration: Users
believe their needs are understood, but tech staff is more familiar with how
to do things than with what needs to be done. Just “getting the work done” is never
as successful a strategy as trying to create relationships with respectful,
curious give-and-take. There are crucial differences between the work and
the people, and it’s hard to be terrific at the former when you’re bombing with
the latter.

The impact of social dynamics — not who goes out drinking
with whom, but how we get our work done together — can lead to projects that
come in on time, on budget, and to rave reviews. Or it can result in work
that’s badly botched, time and cost overruns, and even a loss of reputation.

When tech employees don’t understand their clients’ needs,
constraints, and styles, they can perceive these non-tech users to be behaving
irrationally, and ignore clients’ input. Once the relationships break down,
it’s almost impossible to ensure good work on anyone’s part.

Fast Feedback

To prevent this kind of failure, leaders need to check in
frequently and provide more detailed feedback than might feel natural. Everyone
misreads situational dynamics from time to time, but you never want to let a
difficult situation with a new tech employee reach a point where the leader hears
from multiple team members, “Xerxes just doesn’t get it.”

In the normal course (or immediately if something’s going badly),
a leader can have a conversation with Xerxes: “You’ve been with us now for
10/30/45 days, and it’s time for us to look at how things are going.” This
normalizes the idea of feedback, because it’s about how length of time on the
job rather than any particular thing Xerxes did or didn’t do.

If Xerxes doesn’t raise the concerns the leader has heard
about, the leader can ask specifically about the relevant projects or
. It may feel uncomfortable, but it’s much more supportive and
less threatening than telling Xerxes, “I hear your colleagues are having
problems with you.”

Smooth the Path and the Edges

When leaders hold these conversations sooner rather than
later, it’s both easier and more compelling to explain to new employees the established
facts: They might be structural, like cost factors, or stylistic, like “Our daily
standups are casual, but we dress and behave more formally in meetings with
clients and project owners.”

Being in touch frequently and providing information about
organizational norms helps leaders explain why it works this way here, be on
the lookout to help nudge new employees when necessary, and uncover gaps in their
expectations based on the way things worked at their old company.  

The outcome is a more successful experience for the employees, and helps ensure the operation gets the best of the employees’ talents. And if you’re a new team member, and your leaders haven’t explained the ways of the business or given you feedback, ask for it!

Onward and upward —


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