Communicating with Einsteins

Workers with exceptional technical skills predominate in many modern work environments. These highly talented and trained specialists can occupy many business niches beyond technology, including accounting, finance, research and development, and others. Our research examines the techniques that the manager can use to better lead, motivate and reward these highly intelligent employees, which our publisher chose to label "Einsteins."

Understanding and using good management skills and approaches are a given. But we've found that tailoring those skills slightly to fit these individuals can aid recruitment, retention and morale. Here are some strategies for effective communications with Einsteins.

Communications Challenges

There are a number of challenges and barriers in communicating with Einsteins. The specialized background of Einsteins means that they may use technical languages that may be quite difficult to master. In conversation, Einsteins are generally unconcerned about any observer's (e.g., a manager's) lack of understanding. They prefer to stay "locked in" with discussion partners who do understand them.

In fact, Einsteins often identify with other Einsteins in a manner that can best be described as tribal. More on Einsteins Communicating is only scratching the surface. We also tell you how to go about Managing Einsteins.

They practice ritualistic behaviors, have unique greetings and respond to "tribal" symbols, icons and images. For example, a manager might not understand the significance of, say, posters of (Albert) Einstein and dart boards with pictures of Bill Gates or Larry Ellison, in their work space However, they understand these artifacts and use them to add comfort and familiarity to their environment. Such cultural "lightning rods" should be tolerated for their team building function.

Einsteins tend to interact and communicate best with one another, probing each other's depth of knowledge. We've found that Einsteins enjoy sparring with each other in a desire to demonstrate who is smarter, more clever or more analytical. Although such sparring matches are not intended to hurt either party, each knows, when the match is over, who is dominant and who is subordinate in the skill areas being tested.

When a non-Einstein manager converses with an Einstein, the interaction usually will not entail this sparring behavior. Einsteins generally do not consider their managers as part of their "tribe" and, thus, will not enter into dominance-determining behavior. Rather, Einsteins regard managers with deference at best --annoyance at worst. Often, the best that you as an Einstein manager can hope to achieve is deference. It is usually a mistake for managers to attempt to become a part of the Einstein tribe's communication rituals and discussion issues. Results can be disastrous.

We've found that communicating with Einsteins requires a greater emphasis on the manner of communication than you might use with the rest of the organization. Einsteins not only need more communication than other employees, they require communication of a different sort.

E=MC2

We have used Albert Einstein's famous equation to help managers understand how to communicate with Einsteins. As we define this equation, E = effort, M = Managerial intervention, and C = communication. In other words, to generate a high level of effort (E) from Einsteins, managers (M) must balance their managerial intervention by an exponentially larger factor of open and honest communication (C).

Einsteins prefer little in the way of directive intervention and far more in the way of open, honest communications about projects, progress and the challenges faced by the organization. However, what they prefer and what they really have to deal with can be two different things. There is a wide range of different communication transactions that you need to engage in with Einsteins, and it's a smart manager who knows how to make the communications in each of the following cases relatively painless --for both sides.

Requesting and Ordering

Making a request or giving an order is something all managers must do from time to time. In most organizations, the chain of command and the reward/discipline system is the basis for determining who can give orders to whom, and how those orders will be enforced. Einsteins understand an organization's chain of command, and will defer to it, but they often do not respond like other employees.

Giving a direct order to Einsteins should only be done in extreme or crisis situations, when time is of the essence. In nearly all other circumstances, you are far more likely to get the results you want by using request behavior and language (in wording and tone) rather than ordering language and behavior. Requesting requires a little more time and patience than a direct order, but you are likely to receive a richer, more fulfilling response.

Then, follow up your requests with careful questioning to elicit feedback. Is everyone "on the same page" when projects begin? You'll get the desired results --as long as the request does not involve trivial or boring work. Einsteins despise boring, repetitive work and tasks, and you'll find that communicating about such tasks goes into the Einstein's "black box" of non-response. For example, many companies have discovered that assigning Einsteins to the help desk because they are the best qualified may seem logical, but it's certain to lead to early exit by those delegated to that role. Einsteins will heed your request to staff the help desk, but they'll use their downtime to search the Web for a better job. You'll want to avoid this.

Coaching

Einsteins are very smart, but they don't know everything and, despite their own opinion, they'll often require coaching to perform at their optimum levels. Handle this delicately. Like any of us, Einsteins would generally rather avoid situations in which they feel uncomfortable.

Recognizing when Einsteins are ready to be coached is a challenge confronting managers. Usually, it'll pay off if you give the Einstein time to warm up to the offer. In fact, you'll find that Einsteins are receptive to good coaching --they love to learn --but they will require unconditional acceptance of progress. Your life will be easier if you just accept this face: Einsteins resent being judged by managers whom they often view as inferior to them in their technical area. You'll have greater success with these employees by placing them in a position to extend their skills in their craft. You can do this by posting notes about upcoming training sessions, technical conferences or notable guest speakers they might want to hear.

Einsteins prefer coaching to be unrelated to their overall performance assessment: The fewer strings attached to an Einstein's progress in a new skill or behavior, the better. They'd prefer to explore new skills in a risk-free environment where trial and error learning can take place free of consequences. Einsteins want to learn their craft the old fashioned way --they like to earn their stripes by making their own mistakes. If they believe that their progress is being monitored, they will feel reluctant to stretch themselves and take on the hardest challenges. In the end, you'll benefit more by allowing them to follow their own natural tendency to achieve at high levels in their discipline.

Praising and Thanking

Everyone responds to gratefulness, praise and recognition and Einsteins are no exception. But they can be the exception in the way praise is handled. If it comes from you, it should be subtle. In general, Einsteins do not want to be singled out in front of their tribe by their manager. In fact, they prefer that any praise or recognition be accorded first to the team. If there is an "MVP" --most valuable programmer --to be singled out, this distinction should come from within the team. Einsteins know who their MVP is, and an award or demonstration of praise that is generated from within the team will be viewed as a true prize by the recipient, solidifying the individual's place among his or her peers. If you want to single out an Einstein for praise, better to do that in private. This will allow them to tell others in their own way.

Disciplining

Again, this should be a private affair and, in general, you should avoid any public discipline or rebuke. Einsteins will be deferential to their manager's position, however, public displays of power by the manager will be resented. You might find that Einsteins will not lose their deference toward an overbearing manager for such an outburst, but they will lose respect.

Within their tribe, Einsteins observe very well structured, behavioral rituals, which establish an informal, but powerful, hierarchy. If you enter this environment and upset the tacit hierarchy that exists by dressing down an Einstein publicly, it upsets the entire team. Not only will your position in the hierarchy be cast into question, but lingering resentment will be a part of future interactions. Once done, such an act cannot be undone, even through apology.

When it is necessary to discipline an Einstein, you should bite your tongue until you can quietly summon the individual to a one-on-one meeting. Disciplining in private should be the rule and should be delivered immediately when needed. Progressive discipline is the approach we recommend, and your company's HR department probably has a set procedure for this. Document all behavioral problems, the agreed upon appropriate behavior and the time frame for compliance. Further non-performance places you in control for additional disciplinary action --including termination if the situation warrants.

Teaching

Teaching differs from coaching in one significant way --you are the expert when you are the teacher. In coaching, you assume a facilitative role to guide individuals to higher levels of performance. As a teacher, you show them how to achieve more.

But being a teacher to an Einstein can be intimidating. Einsteins often exude an attitude of impatience, even arrogance. Just remember that Einsteins want to learn, and they will show respect to teachers they respect.

There are secrets for effectively teaching Einsteins. To start, don't make them sit still for instructions unless you have the following in place:

- A clear lesson.

- A lesson that concerns their craft.

- A technique for measuring effectiveness.

Knowing how Einsteins learn will help you, and there are some very simple, straightforward things to remember. One is that they are goal oriented. Like a laser beam in a fiber-optic cable, Einsteins like to follow a single linear path. If managers are in a teaching position, they should begin by making the lesson's goals clear and unambiguous. Linking the lesson to the craft is the most important element of teaching Einsteins.

Second, their first loyalty is to their craft. They can even be a bit fanatical about this, having little time, patience or understanding for things external to the craft. In some ways, they resemble the grizzled old cowboy Curly from the City Slickers movies. Played by Jack Palance, Curly lectured city slicker cowboy Billy Crystal on the meaning of life: It's only one thing. Everything else, he said, "doesn't mean squat." When asked what that one thing is, Curly replied, "That's what you've got to find out." For Einsteins it's clear. The craft is number one.

You will effect higher levels of performance from Einsteins by recognizing that their first loyalty is to their craft. Einsteins are hot commodities, and they know it. Don't expect them to have the same "company first" mindset as other employees. The best way to retain your Einsteins is to provide them with ever higher levels of skills --which in turn make them more marketable. However, by effectively communicating and giving them a stimulating and engaging environment, you will find that your Einsteins will stay with you longer --and produce their best work.

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