It's a well-worn cliché that technologists have difficulty communicating with the rest of humanity. But the truth is not that IT pros can't talk to normal people -- it's that they often prefer different modes of communication.
Geeks may be reluctant to speak up in group meetings (because they've been told all their lives they're bad at communicating), or they may talk too much, getting bogged down in technical details, simply because the minutiae are important to their work. Worse, they can at times be savagely blunt, skewering the opinions and/or egos of coworkers, thereby unfortunately fueling communication stereotypes.
"Many 'geeks' score higher on analytical intelligence than conceptual or social intelligence," says business coach Nora N. Simpson, principal of Simpson Strategic Solutions. "The analytical thinker craves knowledge and assumes everyone else does too. To prove their worth to a manager, they will often demonstrate their knowledge by providing too many details, which can confuse the issues at hand."
For techs who are shy about talking in front of others, the solution is to meet with them one-on-one on a regular basis, says Rothman. Another good idea is to use multiple channels of communication -- email, chat, IM, texting, intranets, wikis, and so on -- which tech pros find less disruptive and more conducive to their skill sets.
"Geeks are excellent communicators; they just don't use traditional communication channels," says Chris Kelly, developer evangelist for New Relic, a Web app performance management firm. "They prefer to communicate asynchronously using tools like instant messaging, group chat systems, and email. Phone calls, meetings, and 'stopping by' are very disruptive to the process of writing software. When a geek appears to be noncommunicative or antisocial, she's just trying to focus on the task at hand."
Just because someone takes an analytical approach to problem solving doesn't mean they're not creative. Organizations that put "creatives" on one side of the table and engineers on the other need to invest in a new table -- preferably a round one where all parties can all collaborate.
"Most managers assume engineers are solely linear thinkers and only looking for the next high-paying job," says Meredith Munger, principal of small-business consultants Munger & Co. "You'll have much better success by thinking of and treating your engineers as artists who love creating beautiful things and are proud of their work. That in turn helps managers understand how criticizing an engineer's work hurts him and damages their working relationship."
The key is to avoid being too prescriptive in your requirements. Describe where you want your company to be and what the limitations are, then let your engineers figure out whether it makes more sense to build a train, a plane, or a time machine to get you there.
"An old geek management saying goes, 'Don't try to herd the cats. Just put them where the mice are, and let nature take its course'," says Brian Jones, CTO at email marketing software company Aweber. "Rather than force-feeding the engineering team the specific tasks they'll perform, give them the tools to efficiently self-organize around an issue and eradicate it, because that's what they want to do."