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  • Writer's pictureShannon Mahon

"Technical people are hard to work with."

Throughout my career I've heard versions of: “technical leaders are hard to work with” from cross functional leaders. Whether it’s a Sales leader attempting to convey a customer need, a Legal lead aiming to put a complex agreement in place, or a People Operations leader trying to implement a new performance management process, the reputation is consistent: technical people are difficult.

If you have this experience, here is an approach to engage one of the skills that makes technical leaders so effective: Curiosity.

When working through very complex people challenges with technical leaders, try to think in terms of puzzles rather than solutions. Lead with questions instead of giving in to the pressure to have the right answer. Ask: how can I frame up the challenge as a Rubik's Cube?

Like people challenges, Rubik's Cubes are multidimensional and often nonlinear. Any move you make impacts other possible moves. There are known strategies for solving them, but they can be difficult to execute well. And at the beginning, you are using intuitive approaches to find the base pattern that becomes the reference point for all the subsequent moves you make.

Why does putting a Rubik’s Cube at the center of your interactions with technical leaders work?

  1. It respects the leader’s intelligence and position of choice: rather than handing someone a solution, you acknowledge that they have different context, expertise, and choice over how to proceed.

  2. It respects the complexity of the situation, acknowledging that people, too, are multidimensional and nonlinear. No one framework or solution will work with everyone.

  3. It acknowledges that you don’t have all the information (or answers), and other approaches might be equally effective. Perhaps counterintuitively, this acknowledgement can increase your credibility with a technical leader.

If you are working with a technical leader and want to try this approach with a complex challenge:

  • Try framing the problem together to ensure you are seeing the same parameters and dependencies, rather than offering solutions that may not address the problem as they see it.

  • Be open to unconventional approaches, bringing your expertise to reduce risk and refine the agreed upon direction.

  • For straightforward challenges where there is a right answer, be direct.

  • Bring a point of view: the Rubik's Cube analogy isn't an excuse to withhold your perspective. Technical leaders are typically very open to debate and it's acceptable to engage in robust conversation. There's a difference between debate and conflict.

  • What can read as skepticism to non-technical leaders is actually a sign of engagement. Use that to build the partnership and learn more about what the leader wants to accomplish and what's getting in the way.

And if you are a technical leader who is looking to engage differently with your cross functional leaders:

  • Be upfront about the type of conversation you want to have. Say: let's spend time upfront defining the problem space before we talk about solutions.

  • If you want them to just tell you what to do, say that.

  • If you sense that the other person is shutting down when you ask questions, try being clear that you are really motivated to solve the challenge and want to solve it together.

Being on the same side of the problem, and solving it together, is always my preferred approach when working with technical leaders - or any type of leader. By tapping into curiosity and ensuring high quality inputs, we can all increase engagement and our chances of better outcomes.

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