August 16, 2000, Wednesday

New SearchOverviewQpassHelp

LIFE'S WORK; A Meeting of the Mind-Sets


Of all the dizzying transformations of the workplace, the one that pleases me most is how the nerds have taken charge. My parents (bookworms themselves) always promised that this would happen, and that promise kept me going during the years when I sat with the debate squad in the high school cafeteria, pretending not to notice the snubs from the cheerleaders and the football team.  As it turns out, however, I am the wrong kind of nerd. It seems there are subgroups, and I'm the type who kept her nose buried in a social studies book, not a math text; who hung out in the yearbook office, not the computer lab; who actually completed her college education, rather than dropping out and creating a software giant.  Since the working world is really just high school with paychecks, it still matters what group you are in, and it's still striking that we don't know how to talk to one another.

Unlike high school, however, co-workers have to talk. And because we now have those paychecks, there are specialists, like Arline Golden, who are there to coach us. Her company, Goldenwords Management Communications, does what no guidance counselor ever managed to do -- teach the cheerleaders how to deal with the debaters and the class clowns how to chat with the nerds.  Not that she phrases it exactly that way. There are four personality types in any office, she explains. The ''expressive'' likes to be the center of attention and communicates through emotion and feeling. Salesmen, for example, or actors and lawyers. (She didn't mention journalists, but I plead guilty here.) The ''driver,'' in turn, needs to be in control, which is why business executives often fall into this category. The ''amiable'' is most interested in getting along with other people, so he is likely to choose fields like human resources. And the ''analytic'' -- the computer geek, the engineer, the medical researcher, the technical nerd -- focuses on data and research.

Suppose you are expressive, Ms. Golden says, and you want to bring an idea to your boss, who is analytic. ''You can't go running in saying, 'Bill, Bill, I'm so excited about this,' '' she warns, ''because that excitement will backfire. Presenting things in terms of emotion will turn an analytic off. Use concrete examples. Back up your data with more data. You can't have too much detail.''  Or suppose you are an analytic, making a presentation to just about anybody else. If you act from instinct, you will probably assume that your company's sales team or your audience of potential investors is actually interested in every tiny project detail. You will be wrong.  ''Until recently,'' Ms. Golden says, ''technical people didn't have to do a lot of interacting with anyone other than technical people, and they were all quite happy about that.'' But now that technical people are off founding dot-coms and testifying in antitrust trials, that's no longer possible. So Ms. Golden spends ''a lot of time teaching them how to summarize.''

Carl Selinger, himself an engineering nerd, does, too. The average member of the marketing department ''probably doesn't care what the drag coefficient of the wing is,'' he says. But the average engineer doesn't believe that, so Mr. Selinger has developed a seminar called ''Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School,'' which aims to undo ingrained personality traits that have been reinforced by years of technical training.

Engineering schools require students to tinker endlessly, until nut and bolt is perfect, Mr. Selinger says, resulting in graduates who are ''often reluctant decision makers.''  ''They go berserk with too many options,'' he says.  His first exercise, therefore, is to require the group to decide quickly where to advise the university's president to take an influential trustee for lunch. The task is theoretical, but the students don't know that. The message? ''That being decisive is often more important than the decision itself,'' Mr. Selinger says.

Similarly, because engineering students have spent years penned up in labs and study carrels ''they aren't as innately political as liberal arts majors,'' he believes. He tells of one student in his seminar who was confused by the ''Copy To'' line on an interoffice memo, so she called every listed recipient of that memo and asked why their name appeared. As a result, ''Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School'' includes advice on when to ''CC'' an e-mail memo and when to ''BC'' it.

Mr. Selinger is constantly struck by the fact that his students, who understand the most complicated things, still need to be taught the simplest ones. He instructs them, for instance, to proofread all e-mail messages before sending them, to say thank you to co-workers for a job well done and to eat their lunch in the office cafeteria, where they can see and be seen, rather than scurrying back to their cubicles.

I'll bet they get the cool table. The one in the front of the room. Closest to the cheerleaders and the stock options.

Aviation | Transportation | Strategy | Technology | Development
Solutions | Seminars | Ideas | Home | About Carl