Managing engineers and other technical professionals is not a job for those who are insecure or those who get their feelings hurt easily. It can be a rewarding career for the manager who is willing to make an effort to understand people who think differently and value action and ideas over words and paperwork. If you are up to the challenge, I shall give you the essential information about those you wish to lead.
First, understand that the engineer knows far more than you about the area of his/her expertise. Unless you are an engineer as well, those you manage will in some ways be much smarter than you are. If they were not so intelligent, after all, they would not be as useful to the company. Respect their expertise and command their respect by managing in a manner that maximizes their potential for productivity and innovation. The “geeks” you manage are accustomed to being misunderstood and even ridiculed by peers in school, so they will embrace (not literally, but mentally!) a manager who appreciates their differences and recognizes them as assets. While many other professionals want words of affirmation and pats on the back, engineers want the time and tools they need to solve complex problems; so show your support by helping them maximize their productivity. They find their reward in a job well done. One of the greatest perks of managing engineers is that they are typically hard workers–no need to jump start their work ethic, just focus it on the right goals.
Second, use your own expertise to complement the weaknesses of your technical team. While engineers excel at physics, troubleshooting equipment problems, and assimilating new scientific information, they also have some weaknesses. Typically these weaknesses involve: communication with non-scientific people, sensitivity to others’ feelings and moods, and tolerance for “busy work” that appears to be unnecessary. Technical professionals want to design stuff and fix stuff—not fill out financial forms and attend company pep rallies and parties. When they realize you have gifts in their areas of weakness, they will appreciate you as much as you appreciate them. You can explain to others, for example, that the engineers are not ignoring them—they are just thinking very deeply at the moment! At the same time, gently remind your technical professionals that most people think differently than they do. Like Spock in Star Trek, they must try to incorporate some emotional sensitivity into their interactions with “non-Vulcans” at work.
Finally, promote a team atmosphere. I must never be “us against them.” Instead, say, “We need each other. Together, we are an unbeatable team.” Enjoy an exponential increase in your department’s success as you learn to manage your engineers and other “geeks.”
For further reading: Building Real Teams