How Much Technical Expertise Do Supervisors Need?

Among the many complaints about supervisors I’ve heard over the years is: “Our supervisor doesn’t know how to do the work we do” or “We know more about how to do the work than our supervisor.” This tends to come up particularly in technical types of work, both blue collar and white. As a consequence, the employees say, they can’t respect the supervisor, he or she can’t effectively supervise them, and so on.

Employees can feel very strongly about this. But I’ve always been skeptical as to whether a supervisor needs to have more than a passable amount of expertise in the relevant areas — except to the extent, of course, that the supervisor is doing some of the technical work him or herself.  

Well, my skepticism has been borne out by none other than Google.  In 2009, Google began analyzing in-house data to figure out what made a good Google manager. The project, named Project Oxygen (not sure I get the metaphor), recently came out with its results and as reported in The New York Times, a Google HR team prioritized the information gathered and found that technical expertise – in Google’s case, e.g., the ability to write computer code – came in last of the eight main qualities of a good manager. 

 The reason for this, I think, is fairly obvious: the skills needed to be a good supervisor or manager have little to do with technical expertise and everything to do with “softer” but equally difficult people and organizational skills. So does this mean that complaints about a supervisor’s lack of technical expertise are all wet? Not necessarily, but it does mean that one has to delve further into the complaint to fully understand the issue and see if it might be a poor articulation of an entirely different problem.

I’d also add that putting technical people in supervisory positions for which they are not qualified is nothing new and is one variant of the well-known Peter Principle which states, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Speaking of which, though written in 1969, the book, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, by Laurence J. Peter, is a great read: short, funny, and piercingly true. You can get it used on Amazon for $.01 if you’re interested.

What are your thoughts about supervisors needing technical expertise at the level of their crew or staff? ~Amy Stephson

5 responses to “How Much Technical Expertise Do Supervisors Need?

  1. I agree that it could be possible to have an effective non-technical supervisor of a technical team. In order for that situation to be successful, there would need to be some acknowledgement by the supervisor that s/he did not possess the technical knowledge and skills of the team members. However, I’ve never encountered that situation.

    What I have seen on multiple occasions:
    • A supervisor with technical knowledge and skills far lower than those of the team members’ believes (or at least pretends to believe) that s/he has technical skills on a par with or superior to members of the team, and the supervisor does not appropriately delegate technical work and/or decisions to the capable team members. This results in a team that’s not functioning anywhere near the level it could be.
    • A supervisor with little or no technical knowledge does not recognize or will not admit that advanced technical knowledge and skill is needed for the team’s work, doesn’t listen to the team members, and makes decisions based on emotion, speculation, wishful thinking, etc. This scenario can be disastrous, especially if the supervisor starts treating senior positions as entry-level positions and hiring new employees who do not have any qualifications to perform the work.

    Perhaps this could be the subject of a future blog entry?

  2. I sure hope a supervisor doesn’t have to know the job of the employee as well as the employee does. I’m planning to open a coffee shop soon. I am looking to hire a very experienced barista. I have never worked as a barista myself. Although I will technically be the barista’s supervisor, I hope to hire patient, competent, dependable, kind baristas who will teach me how to make great coffee. I will gladly defer to them on the question of how to make coffee. I see my supervisory jurisdiction as relating to scheduling, making sure the place is clean, the machine is well maintained, the place is well equipped and stocked, the coffee tastes good. I’ll complain if it doesn’t.

  3. The first level of supervision, whether a working supervisor or a manager who functions entirely at the leadership level, requires enough technical knowledge to assure quality in the work performed. Although a good bs meter can substitute in some cases, and adroit resourcing (knowing which advisor to consult) can also be useful, it’s hard to substitute that for actual knowledge of the work. That said, just having knowledge isn’t enough. Bad knowledge won’t help.

  4. Workplace Insiders

    I agree totally that a supervisor needs enough technical knowledge to effectively supervise. As for the problem of the supervisor who pretends to have such knowledge, I’d ask two questions: (1) why isn’t higher management addressing the problem? and (2) what in the culture or management of the organization, if anything, leads the supervisor to feel he or she has to fake it? Other ideas, Trish? ~Amy

  5. I think that in any situation where a supervisor is pretending to have knowledge s/he doesn’t have, there are much larger organizational issues that allow that situation to exist. I’ve seen a whole range of factors contribute: favoritism, apathy, ignorance, etc.

    As for why the supervisor may feel s/he has to fake it: in general, in my experience it’s a common perception that the supervisor of the team is *supposed to be* the person with the most technical expertise. If the supervisor is insecure and/or doesn’t have a lot of other non-technical strengths, it’s not hard to see why the supervisor might feel the need to pretend, even if pretending goes against the best interests of the organization and the team.

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