Case Studies

Closing the Geek Gap

How to Keep Tech Workers Motivated

By Minda Zetlin

November 2006

It can be a challenge for business executives to motivate high-tech employees to meet an organization's strategic goals. It typically doesn't work to focus on traditional status rewards, strict hierarchies, or the bottom line. What is important is to understand the basic differences between those who work in business and those who work in technology.

Recent research reveals that technology workers often identify themselves by the technology work they do rather than the organization they work for. Technology workers also are inspired by intrinsic motivators, which come from enjoying the work itself and having the desire to do it well.

Savvy managers need to understand that instead of attempting to motivate high-tech employees, they should focus on creating an environment where workers can motivate themselves. Read how applying specific principles can help business executives establish an environment that will encourage high-technology employees to thrive.

An IT expert who'd worked on several high-profile space missions was invited to an annual dinner for sales reps. Those who had met their targets that year were seated at elegant tables, elbow to elbow with the company's top executives. Their gourmet meals were served on fine china. Each of their spouses received a lavish present, such as a fine piece of jewelry or a ticket for a cruise.

The salespeople who'd missed their targets were seated on the other side of the room, at picnic tables. Their dinners were served on paper plates. Their spouses gazed enviously across the room at the spouses of the more successful salespeople. One wife turned to her husband. "I don't want to see you home early," she said. "I don't want to see you on weekends. I want you out selling so we can go on that cruise!"

To the IT expert's surprise, the husband nodded. In fact, all the out-of-favor salespeople seemed eager to do better and sit with their more-successful colleagues the following year.

"If you tried that with technology people, they would all quit immediately!" says Stefano Stefan, PhD, assistant director of business, management, legal, and information technology programs, University of California, Irvine Extension, who heard about the dinner from one of the school's instructors.

For many high-tech employees, the ways of the business world, with its strict hierarchies, status rewards, and relentless focus on the bottom line, can seem alien and incomprehensible. Business executives who must interact with these "geeks" and oversee their work can find the relationship equally challenging. How can they get technology workers motivated about meeting their organization's strategic goals? How can they bridge the "geek gap"—the business/technology divide?

Begin by recognizing that there are fundamental differences between those who work with technology and those who work in business. The consulting firm BlessingWhite, in partnership with Stanford University, conducted a three-year study to determine what makes tech employees love their jobs and how they may differ from nontech employees. First and foremost, they found, tech workers identify themselves by the technological work they do, not the organization they work for. That is, ask geeks what they do for work, and you're likelier to hear "I'm a database programmer" than "I work for General Motors."

Photography by Shutterstock