Tips for managing technical people – Is burnout a management problem?


24 July 2015, by

The following is an excerpt from my new book, “Galvanizing the Geeks – Tips for Managing Technical People”. You can buy the full book on my website, here.

Galvanizing the geeksAs a rule, you should set goals and let people choose their own path towards hitting those goals.  This implies a certain level of trust that they will go about these in the way that they believe is best.

Looking at it this way, it seems that, if an individual chooses to overwork in order to hit their goals, then this is their choice. Most company reward systems means that working all hours of the day will earn you more money. So should an individual be allowed to choose this path?

I can understand the argument that says yes, they should be free to choose. Personally, however, I think that there’s a very good reason to cut off this particular choice. If your incentives are set out to reward people who work harder, it’s fair for people working to those incentives to assume that all-out, non-stop hard work is what you would most like from them.

But as a manager, that’s not what I want. I want productive, happy individuals who are hitting their short-term productivity goals and long-term career goals by doing a decent weeks’ work.

Some people will enjoy their job more if they work a few extra hours to hit their goals. No problem! In fact, I applaud this attitude. Some people will achieve their career goals sooner by taking an interest in technology and reading around the subject at the weekend. Again, I see this as a positive step that will make them happier as well as more productive.

But routinely working 14-hour days and weekends hardly ever makes people happier. And it doesn’t always make them more productive. It’s not what I personally want for my colleagues.

Telling people that you’d rather they didn’t do something while paying them more for doing it is not always a very effective message. So I intervene quite strongly if I feel that people are overworking. I’m not prepared to remove personal choice, but I can make it clear what we as an organisation consider to be a reasonable effort, and what we consider to be beyond the call of duty.

It sounds like a contradiction, but I believe in trying to curb people’s choice slightly in such cases. The unpalatable alternative is that they think you’d like them to be taking a certain course of action, when in fact that isn’t how you’ll be measuring them.

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