At my core, I am an engineer. I recognize this, I accept this, I am proud of this. However, during my career many mentors have been kind enough to hold up that damning mirror of self-vision and have allowed me to see myself as I was: an engineer’s engineer. One key characteristic of this part of an engineer’s personality is that everything in the world is seen as falling into one of two buckets: right or wrong. Oh, and an another characteristic of the engineer’s personality is that we’ll have no problem speaking up and letting you know just exactly where we think something falls. That might be why an engineer’s life is so hard.
It took me 20+ years to develop a “wrapper” to put around my engineering personality. This wrapper helped my career progress, made difficult tasks much easier, and just all around simplified my life. I was reminded just how important this evolution of my personality was today when a younger version of myself asked to talk with me. He’s involved in the electrical power generation industry and he’s been having a tough time of it lately. He told me that he felt that he was just “banging his head against the wall” and that he was finding it really hard to get anything done at work. He described himself as a “guns ‘a blazing” sorta of guy who feared no conversation. Read this as classic engineer talk for “I’ll tell you when you’re wrong.” Clearly this was a social / political career crash that was just waiting to happen. What could I tell him that would help him to save himself?
The first thing that I realized is that I wasn’t going to be able to help him until he wanted to be helped. Right now he just wanted to complain about how wrong everyone else was. I let him vent for awhile and then asked him a few questions. It turns out that he’s had a number of projects (both work and social) that he’s been the leader for. In the past, a number of them have flat out failed. This is classic engineer talk: “they just didn’t get what I wanted them to do!” Recently he did organize a successful gathering and I probed to find out more about why that one worked. It turns out that others helped him out with that one. This was a bit of an eye opener – he had not realized that he had always failed when he tried to do everything by himself.
Next we talked about that whole “guns ‘a blazing” thing. He had just gotten off of a call that had started badly and he’d gone in shooting the meeting leader for not being clear about the purpose of the meeting. After he got a few shots off, he basically tuned out of the whole meeting. Clearly, this had been a showdown in the OK Corral that had turned out badly for everyone. My big challenge here was to find a way to make him see himself as the world sees him. My first try, “what do you think the other person though of you” didn’t go very far – he was too fixated on the fact that the other guy was “wrong” to consider this. I then asked him if the call had been successful – he admitted that it had not been. I then asked him that if it had been his assignment to make sure that the call was a success, while still playing the subordinate role that he had played, what would he have done differently? This question floored him. He didn’t have an answer – an engineer hates it when he doesn’t know the answer.
Having gotten his attention and partially getting him to understand that his actions had not moved the call closer to a successful ending, I then went in for the kill. I suggested that the only way to accomplish his goal of making sure that the call was successful, would have been to understand what the call leader was feeling and then persuade him to move in a direction that would make the call successful. My young friend considered this for a bit and agreed. Hey, it’s sorta like a control system problem back in school. I finished by pointing out the the “guns ‘a blazing” approach would never persuade anyone to move in the direction that you wanted them to move. He agreed. Now all I have to do is teach him how to be successful when interacting with others and I will have changed an engineer into a team player!
Do you have any classic engineering personalities on your team? Do they hurt your ability to solve team problems more than they help? What have you tried to get them to temper their engineering personality in order to create more teamwork? Has it worked? Leave a comment and let me know what you are thinking.