Understanding People You Manage
By Michael Maccoby
A large part of your job as a research technology manager is understanding people, not just evaluating how well
they have performed. Evaluation is easy part; much harder is predicting how people will perform in new roles.
Here are some of the questions you probably have to answer: What's her potential? Can he lead a big project?
Will this person be able to adapt to a rapidly changing market? Can I get these two people to work together?
Although understanding people is a crucial part of your role, it's not likely you have had much training for it.
That's partly because you concentrated on studying science and engineering. Maybe you took management
courses, possibly even an M.B.A. But even so, you didn't learn a great deal about understanding people.
Sure, you signed up for leadership training where you listened to someone sell one or another personality
theory. You probably took a personality test; corporations spend $400 million dollars a year on them. But if you
stopped to think about it, you wondered why there were so many different personality theories. You don't find
umpteen different theories about how computers function or what happens if you mix certain chemicals. There's
been steady progress in science and engineering, understanding the physical world. Yet, psychologists still argue
over what Freud wrote a century ago. Why so little progress in understanding people?
When I asked a physicist friend this question, he suggested that the reason was that we can't do controlled
experiments on people the way we do in the natural sciences. Furthermore, he said, even if we could do the
experiments, there are too many variables involved, and like the complementary principle of Quantum
mechanics when you have measured one variable, you can't measure others.
There is an even more important difference between understanding people vs. the physical world. Scientists and
engineers can detach themselves from their emotions. In fact, many people choose the fields of science and
engineering partly for this reason, to avoid messy emotions. But understanding people requires using emotions
as well as intellect, a listening heart together with an educated head. Knowing whether a person is caring,
conscientious, anxious, hostile, angry, defensive, open, unsure or confident is a matter of experiencing that
person, free of your own distorting emotions like competitiveness, anger, anxiety or suspiciousness. It means