A “Knowledge Worker” can best be described as a person who works more with his/her mind than with his/her hands, uses trained judgment and creativity as part of his/her job, holds a job requiring a high level of education and professional expertise, and uses this acquired knowledge to perform needed tasks. Professions that classically fall into this category are accountants, lawyers, doctors, computer programmers, analysts of all types, economists, consultants, engineers, and other similar job types.
Managing these types of people can be both extremely rewarding and extremely frustrating based on your personal management style and/or the temperament of your knowledge workers.
Regarding the temperament of your knowledge workers, assuming technical competence, their success or failure in a specific job tends to be based on the following factors:
- The relationship with their manager
- Their fit, from a personality perspective, with their coworkers
- Their manager’s ability to keep them mentally stimulated
- The job’s ability to meet their intellectual needs
- The manager’s willingness to allow them to use their expertise to make level-appropriate decisions, creative process improvements, and professional judgments
- Ability to enhance their professional stature, knowledge, and organizational position should they aspire to do so.
Certainly the knowledge worker’s personality and job alignment with their skills and aspirations is a key factor, but don’t underestimate the role you play as their organizational leader. As their manager, when looking at the above list, take note that many of the factors that drive their success, motivation, and job satisfaction is directly related to your ability to manage them.
There are some inherent stresses related to managing knowledge workers including:
- They may know more than you in their specific area of expertise, forcing you to make decisions based on their expertise and not your own.
- Their level of education, expertise and experience enhances their marketability, meaning if they don’t like you, the company, or their peers they are can most likely find new employment.
- Your success as a manager often hinges on your team’s ability to complete a task that you cannot personally perform. For example, if you are managing a group of computer programmers, you may not have personal expertise in the programming language being used. As a result, you have no ability to step in and finish the task yourself if the person on your team can’t do the job.
- Depending on your company’s internal culture and the type of jobs being performed, leading knowledge workers in a specific direction can be a little like herding cats.
So what is a manager to do?
First, you need to understand your personal strengths, weaknesses, management style, and personal insecurities. This is important because before you can truly manage others, you must first understand yourself. Knowing these things about yourself allows you make conscious decisions on when your personal management style works and when it has to be modified for the good of your team, project, and/or company.
Second, like a parent raising children, you must understand the specific strengths, weaknesses, needs, and wants of the people working for you. You certainly want to treat everyone fairly, but you also want everyone on your team to be successful. Some people on your team may need more specific direction, handholding, praise, constructive criticism, and/or additional training than others. Knowing their specific needs, coupled with an understanding of your personal style allows you to customize your message in a way that maximizes the opportunity of each knowledge worker’s success.
Lastly, you must understand your company’s corporate culture as to relative organizational power/relationship between managers and the knowledge workers they employ. In some cultures, for example in universities, hospitals, and asset management, the faculty, physicians, and portfolio managers help define the stature and, as a result, drive the profitability of the institution. Managing knowledge workers in these types of professions has a very different dynamic than managing knowledge workers who are internally focused and not seen by your customers, patients, and clients.
Until next time, lead well, always communicate, and think business first and technology second.