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yx OT Yang: Do Geeks Have Three Ears & Eight Fingers?

Yang: Do Geeks Have Three Ears & Eight Fingers?

Do Geeks Have Three Ears & Eight Fingers?
Los Alamos

Go figure. Right after I mentioned in the last column before the holiday that is one of the sites that can generally lift my spirits, I “stumbled upon” an article that impacts me like a particle landing in my eye. 

The title of the article is The Unspoken Truth about Managing Geeks, by J. Ello, “currently managing IT for the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University.” In essence, his view is that geeks in IT are logical beings, always pursuing the “right” answers and solutions, not suffering fools easily, willing to share credit (except with fools or managers), sociable in the right context, and more than willing to help if you don’t abuse their beliefs, skills or talents. Managers need to understand these principles to avoid messing things up. 

Hmmm… Not surprisingly, managers need to understand a lot about human behaviors and emotions, including those associated with all professional backgrounds of all the people reporting to them. Some do this well and a lot don’t. Nothing much new here. In fact, after finishing the article, I feel as if Ello manages to reinforce the stereotypical images of “geeks,” rather than ameliorating them as he intends. 

For instance, “…for IT groups respect is the currency of the realm.” And here I have always thought that respect is the fundamental element in all, all, interpersonal transactions. Further on, he states, “Gaining respect is not a matter of being the boss and has nothing to do with being likeable or sociable.” Isn’t that management 101? However, I take issue with this: “While everyone would like to work for a nice person who is always right; IT pros will prefer a jerk who is always right over a nice person who is always wrong. Wrong creates unnecessary work, impossible situations and major failures. Wrong is evil, and it must be defeated.” 

Yeah, tell that to other professional scientists at National Labs or R&D centers in big companies. And pray tell, how do people defeat these “evil” managers who seem to get things wrong more than 50 percent of the time in the eyes of the “geeks?” Even in geekdom, organizational dynamics still operate under the principle of “socially constructed reality.” Technical solutions however logical do not always converge on one ultimate answer. 

There is more in the article that rubs me in the wrong way, but I’ll hover around these points for now. First of all, it doesn’t matter whether you have PhD or stopped with high school education; all working groups are subject to thorny group dynamics. Scientist, engineers, and the like may pride themselves upon thinking logically (by the way, is there a standard for logic in the human world? countless times and in countless ways humans have proceeded flawlessly logically from flawed premises, with consequences varying from humorous to horrific), yet they are equipped with the same basic emotions as all other human beings. I hope they experience sadness, happiness, joy, hurt, despair, disappointment, etc, just like the rest of us.

Logic alone will not get you out of group and intergroup morasses. Perhaps it’s because the IT people think that their “logic” trumps everything that they fall so unwittingly into the typical patterns of group and intergroup dynamics? Mr. Ello suggests that organizations “actively elicit these stereotypical negative behaviors,” and I contend that there is just as strong a possibility that the geeks dig holes for themselves.

When Mr. Ello uses Dr. House (a fictitious figure of a TV medical drama) as the idol figure for IT people, I just about lost it. Admitting that I have seen only a handful of full episodes of this TV show, that’s been enough for me to understand what Dr. House is about. A brilliant physician with no humility and often with nasty streaks, Dr. House does not represent the kind of personality you want to instill in your children…or, at least, I hope not. So, why do we celebrate a jerk like this – a doctor who’s always convinced he’s right every time, even though in almost every episode he initially inflicts inappropriate treatments on his patients only to stumble upon the right diagnosis and treatment just in the nick of time? (Thank goodness, it’s only a TV drama formula.) And I absolutely reject the notion that we have to choose between being a self-righteous jerk who does eventually get it right vs being a nice person who knows up front that he could be wrong. Dr. House’s medical brilliance would not dim by one molecule if he could be just a little kinder and more considerate.

Now, about geeks and management — and they aren’t mutually exclusive. A possible scenario of the tension between management and geeks is that managers deal with market forces, issues of timing, legal ramifications, etc. that might escape the notice of – or are deemed irrelevant by – the geeks. While it behooves the managers to explain situations clearly to their people, it wouldn’t hurt for their direct reports to occasionally look beyond their own professional horizons. After all, when geeks get involved in their own startup adventures, they succeed in getting and attending to the big pictures. They do have the capacity. 

I have family members in the “geek” categories; I have many friends who are hardcore scientists, and I rarely experience them as the stereotypically narrowly focused geeks whose self-serving logic dominates everything.  Okay, there are a few, but then I also have known plenty of non-geeks who are self-centered and ornery. The majority of the scientists, engineers, and computer analysts in my circle are considerate, generous, kind, with wonderful senses of humor, often creative, quite impressive in their grasp of human nature, and above all, beautiful human beings. And from my management education background, I find their gripes about their managers are pretty standard issues that are found in almost all industries. Managing geeks may require a little tweaks here and there – like managing every other groups – the management fundamentals are still the same. 

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.