Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 12/04/2003
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Herding Cats: Management Challenges
Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [email@example.com]
e-Newsletter is the third in my continuing “Herding Cats” series
(see also eN-031106 – Herding Cats: The Art of
“Managing” Engineers, and eN-031120
– Herding Cats: Management Challenges 1) that addresses some
management challenges in the form of specific engineer personality types, and
approaches that may be helpful in “managing” them.
Clearly, every engineer is an individual, with characteristics that are
personality types that are described here are purposely more extreme than will
normally be the case, and will emphasize one specific set of characteristics,
whereas most people have a variety of personality characteristics.
Every situation is unique, and should be treated in a unique fashion.
Further, every manager has his or her own approach, and what I describe
is just one person’s view, mine.
The Boss Wannabe:
The Challenge: While
he/she does not have the responsibility or the authority, the Boss Wannabe
tries to tell everyone else what to do, and what is wrong or right about what
they are doing.
He/she may act this way out of noble motives of trying to help the team
by providing motivation or showing leadership that may be otherwise lacking
and is needed.
He/she may be taking on a natural leadership position that has been
earned by demonstrating superior knowledge, judgment, and expertise.
Or, he/she may be on a power trip that makes him/her feel superior and
more powerful than peers and coworkers.
In any case, without the blessings and specific authorization of the
manager, this can foster resentment and frustration; the Boss Wannabe
can make others feel that they now have to answer to two bosses, their real
boss and a pretend boss.
In the long run, this usually won’t work well (unless the real boss
is so dysfunctional that people are starved for leadership and welcome the
leadership of a pretend boss).
The Management Approach:
You must first get a gauge of the Boss Wannabe from
him/her directly and from others in the group.
Is this person’s behavior welcome or resented?
Does the Boss Wannabe help or disrupt smooth operations.
Are others in the group saying, “You’re not the Boss of me!”
If the Boss Wannabe is viewed as a net positive, then you may
want to formalize this person’s position as a Project Leader or
similar title and publicly acknowledge that role.
Before taking this step, you should gather info regarding concerns and
issues that such a role may create.
It is critical that you state the limits of this new role (e.g. this
person can provide technical leadership and guidance, but not administrative
or management leadership or guidance), and make sure that this person and
others in the group understand the new role and its limitations.
If the Boss Wannabe is viewed as a net negative, then you need
to sit down with this person in a private one-on-one session to discuss the
the problem is mild, then only mild action is required, which generally
consists of letting the person know what problems his/her behavior is causing,
and what he/she must do to correct them (e.g. this person must be careful
about trying to impose his/her will on others in the group without advance
clearance from you).
If the problem is indeed mild, this should be all that’s required.
If the problem is severe, then more forceful action is required.
The Boss Wannabe must be told that his/her behavior is
unacceptable and disruptive and must be corrected immediately.
This person must understand that he/she is not the boss and does not
have the responsibility or authority to lead or manage the group.
You should tell this person that this behavior will be monitored, and
if it does not change immediately, there will be severe consequences up to and
The Social Butterfly:
The Social Butterfly flits from place to place checking on
what’s going on socially in the organization, making arrangements for
birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, holidays, luncheons, celebrations, and any
and all other social activities.
Arranging the social calendar of the organization often becomes the
primary goal of the Social Butterfly; ahead of the work he or she (and
it is usually a she) has been hired to carry out.
While such activities can be helpful and even morale boosting, they
often come at the expense of that person’s assigned work responsibilities,
leaving that work undone, poorly done, or shifted to others who shouldn’t
have to do it.
This can delay critical work, or adversely impact the quality of the
work, or put undue burdens on others, and that is simply unfair.
The Management Approach:
You need to sit down with this person in a private one-on-one session
to discuss the problem.
The Social Butterfly needs to understand that she was not hired
to arrange the social calendar of the organization, but to carry out the
assignments she has been given.
While this activity can be of value to the organization, it cannot come
at the expense of her work.
She will be judged in her performance review on performance against the
goals of the job, not for the social arrangements made.
Further, she must understand that her performance or non-performance
directly affects others’ performance as well as her own; she surely does not
want to negatively impact the performance of others.
If such activities can be carried out without impact on the work, then
that is fine; you don’t want to suppress this person’s desire to help
others and you recognize the benefit such activities can bring.
BUT, this cannot be done at the expense of the work.
This person must understand that you will be monitoring her work, and
if her performance is affected by such social activities, then you will
immediately bring this to her attention.
If corrective action is not taken, then it will have consequences
during performance and salary review.
This is usually enough to temper this behavior without snuffing out a
These are just two more of many personality types that you will come across in
engineering (and other) organizations.
I will get into more in subsequent e-Newsletters.
The key is to recognize the various personality types as early as
possible, and work to address the problems or opportunities that they may
don’t want to destroy individuality or mold everyone into an automaton.
At the same time, you don’t want certain individual behaviors to
destroy team morale.
You must walk a fine line, and find what works best for your
organization using a style that fits you.
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