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The Importance of People Skills for Engineers

What comes to your mind when you picture a stereotypical engineer? Most would say engineers have strong technical skills, high intelligence and lots of problem solving experience but typically are social introverts, personally aloof and lack interpersonal skills. For me, I find that stereotype to be terribly ironic. Let me explain.

A little while ago, I published a post titled Do Engineers Have the Broadest Reach within the Enterprise? The short summary is that engineers not only have responsibilities across the product lifecycle but they must provide implicit leadership to many roles in various functional departments to solve product issues. In fact, there is no other role in a manufacturer with as broad a base of influence as the engineer.

While I do strongly believe in those statements, I think there are more implications. Because the engineer needs to act with implicit authority, meaning that the engineer isn’t given explicit command over these other roles, there is no other role that needs more interpersonal skills. And that statement stands diametrically opposed to the traditional stereotype of engineers. But furthermore, I suggest that the most successful engineers, those that can lead cross-departmental teams to resolve product issues most quickly, are the atypical engineer. At least from the perspective of the stereotype. I’ve found a couple references pointing out this indeed might be true, but a research paper titled Integrating Emotional Intelligence in Engineering written by Mark J. Riemer at Monash University in Melbourne Australia summarizes it the best.

For example, a manager at AT&T Bell Labs was asked to rank his top performing engineers. High IQ was not the deciding factor, but instead how the person performed regarding answering e-mails, how good they were at collaborating and networking with colleagues (rather than lone wolf), and their popularity with others (rather than socially awkward) in order to achieve the cooperation required to attain the goals.

In summary, I’m suggesting that the most successful engineers are those with the best interpersonal skills. That’s why they can wield implicit influence to lead roles from various functional departments to resolve product issues most quickly.

Now it’s time for you to weigh in. Does this square with your experience? Are the successful engineers in your company possess more interpersonal skills? Sound off and let me know your thoughts.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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  • Steli

    Yes,
    I am agree that the most successful engineers are those with the best interpersonal skills. At least in my company is this way.

  • Steli

    Yes,
    I am agree that the most successful engineers are those with the best interpersonal skills. At least in my company is this way.

  • Tjsharpe777

    I disagree. Over the past 20 to 30 years, engineers have been dumped on with more and more managerial/administrative responsibilities. This has watered down technical creativity. In exchange for higher social skills we’ve side-stepped the reason for engineering, the creative solution to cutting edge technical problems. For example the Saturn V rocket with some 7 million parts that had to work correctly the first time, went from concept to first firing in 38 months. The goals near that level of problem solving now cost many times more that the moon program since we now have to “socialize” every concept in multiple meetings and are continually confronted by a political appeasement process where much gets said as little is getting done. Like with all things American – the stereotype of the past caused an over reaction that took us away from the values of the past along a pendulous swing that ran without direction just to get away from some minor social problems. We have kids now coming into engineering that think the right amount of collaborative slop in meetings is a sure fire path to CEO in five years or less.

    The industrial revolution that formed the basis for the world’s current wealth was a direct result of engineering (then). The current joblessness in technical fields is a direct result of the hyper-over-socialization watering down the engineering that drives the economy. Who are the emerging nations? The ones that are doing now what we were doing in engineering 25 years ago in engineering. How many home grown engineering industries are we going to have to loose before we wake up and fix the problem that we have caused on ourselves?

    • Anonymous

      Using the Saturn V is a poor example; it was a government-funded project, with an enormous budget guaranteed by the project having been assigned political importance equivalent to that of the Manhattan Project.

      The Cold War is long over. Outside of today’s smaller welfare complex of defense spending, the vast majority of engineers will never work on such a project. They will, instead, toil on products destined for mass consumer markets. This makes it imperative that they be able to collaborate with customer-facing non-engineering personnel.

      The most influential will, themselves, be able to proactively identify market opportunities against which solutions can rapidly be developed; this requires sensitivity to the desires of the masses.

  • Anonymous

    Engineering is a team sport, and those who can lead the team effectively have always offered greater, sustained value than individual contributors. I agree that “hyper-socialization” can, and does, obstruct the mission. However, the command-and-control ways of the past are gone forever. Leaders must now engage the imagination and passions of their team members, but in a way that recognizes merit, and focuses the team on achieving the goal. As long as teams are composed of people, “people skills” will be necessary, and will be rewarded.

    • Thanks for commenting Noel. I think you put it most aptly.

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  • Metal man

    I’ve spent over 30 years in the manufacturing sector, and I can honestly say that the vast majority of engineers I’ve encountered have the human relations skills of a dishrag! The new “young” graduate engineers, especially, are incredibly disrespectful of seasoned and skilled manufacturing people (e.g. machinists, tool & die makers/mold makers, welders, millwrights, maintenance mechanics, etc). Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were both machinists. Other great inventors and innovators were skilled craftsmen, NOT ENGINEERS!
    I’d also like to set the record straight on engineers being highly intelligent or supposedly having problem solving skills. Many enginers lack practical knowledge of manufacturing processes and materials, but are schooled in computers, high powered math and science, and CAD. Most have no desire to learn and develope practical skills. Still yet, most engineers I’ve encountered (and sadly, that’s more than I care to remember) couldn’t pour it out of a boot if you wrote the instructions on the heel!
    My late father was a journeyman tool & die maker, and late in his career he became a non-degreed Manufacturing Engineer. Like me, he took abuse and disrespect from most engineers he worked with, even though he had 2 patents, awards, and practical experience beyond any engineer. Towards the end of his career he told me something he noticed in most of the young engineers coming out of engineering schools. My father was accountable to develope tooling, jigs & fixtures, and specialized machinery for manufacturing processes. These products had to be built from conception, to prototyype, and had to be ready to hit production. Today’s young engineers (and as with my late father, I’ve seen this time and time again) draw up chaotic designs on Auto Cad and then hand it to production and tell them “you make it work”. No accountability! Further, most of these “young” engineers don’t have an original idea in their heads, but are very adept at copying other’s ideas, cutting and pasting, etc. and then claim it as theri own. I think its safe to say that most of the Generation Y folks are this way!

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