Leadership Challenges within Technical Teams

Scientists, engineers, programmers and other technical experts have a difficult time letting go of their work product because they start as a lone expert in a lab or cubicle assigned to solving a specific problem.  Their efforts are rewarded when the problem is solved and often the solution does not require a team effort.

Are you a leader who has the challenge of leading a team of SMEs (subject matter experts)? If you are, then you may be experiencing one or many of the following challenges which if not addressed may hold your team back from becoming a highly effective and productive team.

The “I” Syndrome

How many times do you hear the word “I” from your team members in a meeting? Excess use of the “I” word is a red flag that your team is not a team but a group of individual contributors, all of whom believe they have the answer to the solution. Too many individuals with the “I” will limit the creativity, collaboration, and innovation of the group.

Coaching Tip: Look for the outliers in the group, who have less of this tendency and who understand that a cohesive team can accomplish more than a group of individuals. Pair these individuals with your “I” people so they can learn how to move from “I” to “We”.

Indecision Prevails

When they are put into teams where there is no one right solution, the ability to come to a timely decision can be a challenge.  When launching a team with an abundance of technical experts, make sure to develop team norms.  These are the rules of engagement, what behaviors are expected and what will not be tolerated. Be proactive and set guidelines of how decisions will be made otherwise you will get stuck in “no decision land”.

Coaching Tip: As the leader you need to communicate the strategic vision of the company and translate it to the people you are leading so the team doesn’t develop a better mouse trap that the market doesn’t want or need.

The Need to be Smarter

Often times you will be dealing with very smart people and some of them want to continually demonstrate how smart they are.  The most blatant behavior is the guy who invariably will respond, “I knew that”.  This bad behavior can ultimately create an environment where other team members don’t want to deal with the person and will shut down in meetings.

Executive coaching tip: work with these individuals to ask themselves the question: What will saying “I knew that” gain for me other than showing others how smart I am? Overtime you will know that there has been improvement because other team members won’t look for ways to avoid the person.

Inability to Let Go

Many experts dread giving up tasks and activities for fear that it may be viewed by others that they aren’t the experts. Or they don’t trust the capabilities of the people they are working with on the team. They become the roadblock to meeting project deadlines because they take on most of the workload and won’t delegate.

Coaching Tip: When working with technical experts who struggle with letting go and delegating, explore what holds them back. Explore how they can remain an expert by mentoring others while delegating. If there is a trust issue, discuss with them the data they have to back up their lack of trust.  Ask for specifics.

Not sharing Information

Technical experts often are introverts and thus not ones who share their thoughts and opinions. It is important that for a team to function cohesively that everyone practice open and honest communications.

Coaching Tip:  When forming a new group or integrating a new team member lay out the guidelines of what information needs to be shared.  Encourage members to share their opinions as well as facts. Be the first one to share your opinions and recognize and highlight when others do the same.

Being a coach to your subject matter experts can increase their performance as well as the team’s performance. And if you don’t feel comfortable in a coaching role, get some executive coaching training or hire a coach.

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Beth Miller

Beth Armknecht Miller, CMC, of Atlanta, Georgia, is a Vistage Chair and President of Executive Velocity, a leadership development and coaching firm accelerating the leadership success of CEOs and business leaders from emerging to midsize com…

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  1. This post really speaks to the challenges of working with really smart technical people. Every challenge mentioned can lead to huge roadblocks in productivity. Do you have any specific tips on how to get people to stop with the ego and recognize the importance of team work? Almost every time, two heads are better than one.

  2. Lee Gregory

    January 14, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    I really liked this post too. As an engineer by training, for way too long my mindset was that smart ideas should win. Things like decorum, real listening, and authentic respect were nice to have if achievable, but ultimately extraneous to getting to the goal. Took me a long time to realize the value of what Goleman coined as “emotional intelligence”. But since I’ve gained some awareness in that area, I believe I’m a lot more effective.

    Mary, one specific suggestion to getting ego out of the way that I’ve seen put to good use is to introduce the idea of a “for the sake of what …” litmus test to group conversations. Everyone is asked to check before speaking “for the sake of what am I about to say what I’m about to say?” If it’s ego gratification, then participants are expected not to distract from the conversation with their comments. (One note that the post made me aware of is not to let this act as a further deterrent to those reticent to share opinions not to speak up.)

    While this tactic doesn’t work every time, it does give the rest of the group permission to gently inquire about the “for the sake of what …” nature of comments they sense are ego-motivated. That after-the-fact creation of awareness can sometimes be the first step in altering behavior. For what it’s worth …

  3. Damien Wilpitz

    January 14, 2013 at 6:32 pm

    In this day and age of knowledge workers (technical, SME, or otherwise), its critical to be able to manage these type of teams. A key understanding lies in being able recognize the emotional dedication of their work. Once you’ve connected to that emotional side, you may be able to motivate them toward a shared vision. Communicate how their contribution is important to the team’s goals. We all have a desire to belong, whether some of us say it or not. Using Beth Miller’s suggestions can facilitate team building, which can translate into stronger bonds and better results.

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