Forget About Team Building: The Six Most Important Skills For Managing Knowledge Workers

You are managing a team of innovative knowledge workers: highly educated professionals who are engaged in developing new products and services. Your organisation is operating in a dynamic and complex environment.


Its future depends on innovation and developing the right products and services for the changing markets and demands of your customers.


As a manager, you feel responsible for your employees’ well-being and development. You read management books on how to improve team spirit, you follow management courses about improving cooperation and communication and you organise team building sessions. Your key management tasks are aimed at improving the internal organisation: to get happy and productive employees.

But the truth is, that is not what you should be focussing on when you are managing innovative knowledge workers. 

Your main focus should be aimed externally: at the customer and the future. Too much emphasis on the internal organisation may lead to neglecting the management roles that are most important.

Now take a minute to answer the following questions:

Right now, as a manager, what percentage of your time are you spending encouraging your people to keep up with the development of products and services? How much time are you working on the future of the organisation? And how much time on what the customer wants, both now and in the future? Do you spend enough time and attention at maintaining contacts with external parties, at developing vision and at encouraging innovation within your team?


Is the main focus of your management style internally or externally?


It is, of course, important that people enjoy working with each other and that they work together as a successful team. But the key here is to realise that, with knowledge workers, you actually achieve that through developing an external focus. Knowledge workers thrive through being innovative and by working on an overarching goal that they feel connected with. Focussing on the future, stimulating innovation and giving them a common goal will lead to increased employee engagement and more successful and productive teams. 


Working together on projects and developing something new is ultimately the best team building activity for knowledge workers you can imagine.


Focusing more on clients and the future will not only lead to happier employees but it will also lead to achieving your companies’ objectives. To achieve long-term success it is important that your organisation is entrepreneurial, innovative and risk-taking.

Your management style should be stimulating this behaviour. Another important role as a manager is to be the linking pin between your organisation and the outside world.


The most important skills


In the Competing Values Model of Robert Quinn, organisations like yours are placed in the “Open System” quadrant.


The management roles connected with the Open System are the innovator and the broker:


  • the innovator focuses on enabling change. He recognises changes in the environment and important trends in the market. He handles uncertainty and risk with ease. Innovators are people with vision, they observe the ever-changing demands of the market and they find a way to fulfil those needs.


  • the broker is mainly concerned with the relationship between an organisation and the outside world. Image, presentation and reputation are important elements. He effectively negotiates agreements and knows how to present new concepts and ideas.


Competing Values Leadership Styles

Cameron and Quinn – Competing Values Framework including Leadership Styles

Both management roles have three, most important, management skills:


• Living with change
• Thinking creatively
• Creating and Managing change


• Building and maintaining a Power Base
• Negotiating agreement and commitment
• Presenting ideas

To be able to manage knowledge workers in the most efficient way, managers will have to adopt these two management roles as their primary roles. This does not mean that the other roles are non-present, of course they are, but they should not be dominant.

Managers should develop both the six skills and have an external focus. Doing that can make all the difference for organisations: they will increase both customer satisfaction and employee engagement.

(This article was first published in Dutch in July 2013 and later in English on as part of a seven article series about the Six Key Skills For Managing Knowledge Workers.

Download the complete series as an e-book