Charm School for Engineers
Updated: Oct 12
Engineers have awesome critical thinking skills that identify and solve problems. The key word here is “critical”. Engineers tend to have a highly developed left brain which is responsible for analytical thinking. This gives engineers the ability to follow symptoms of a problem to its cause by understanding how physics works. Through this same process they quickly solve problems.
The challenge with this critical thinking process is that it creates emotional damage to others if it’s not managed properly.
I’ve been an engineer most of my life. Even though I’m now a coach, I still consider myself an engineer. The one difference with how I deal with people today is that I’m fully aware of the role emotions play in communication and problem-solving.
A Lesson in Civility
Let’s create a hypothetical scenario. A building owner wants to get proposals from three engineering firms to inspect and make repairs to their building’s mechanical and electrical systems. They invite three companies to send their engineers along on a walk-through with their maintenance person, George.
George walks through the building with three different engineers from the three different companies: 1) Silent Sam; 2) Curious Charley; and 3) Alarmist Alice. All three engineers notice that a relief valve drainpipe in the boiler room is not piped to the floor drain. In fact, there is no pipe at all.
Alice notices the code violation right away. She announces, “Wow! That’s stupid. How could someone forget to install the drainpipe on the relief valve? Don’t they know that hot water or steam could spray someone in the room and kill them?”
Silent Sam notices the problem with the relief valve and chooses to write it down in his notes. He’s not sure if this matters at all. He shares his findings back in his office with other engineers and decides he’ll write this in his report he’ll give to the building owner.
Curious Charley also notices the problem. Charley asks, “I’m curious about this relief valve. The code says that these pipes are supposed to be piped six inches from the floor. What can we do to help with these kinds of challenges?” George and Charley discuss the problem. Charley assures George that the relief valve issue will stay between the two of them. He does say that he will comment in his report that he will say that George and Charley’s firm will work together to address any code violations.
In each case, the problem is noticed as a problem that must be dealt with at some point. The only difference is the nature of the conversation from each engineer.
Let’s get on the other side of this conversation. What is the building maintenance person thinking?
Alice: George feels embarrassed because he was the “stupid person” who installed the relief valve. He’s also feeling defensive. He thinks that if Alice is hired by his boss, she’ll make him look bad. He makes up a reason to avoid hiring Alice’s company.
Sam: George is unaware of his problem because Sam says nothing in his walk through. When the report is handed to George’s boss, he’s called into his office and threatened with his job. Sam’s firm is not hired because the building owner is convinced George can’t work with them.
Charley: George is relieved that Charley won’t embarrass him in front of his boss. He’s also looking forward to learning from Charley’s firm on how to better care for the building. He plans on giving a recommendation for Charley’s company to his boss.
While this is a fictional story, I’ve watched these same scenarios play out multiple times. It’s important for you to believe that “people” are more important than “machines”. Those “people” have thoughts, emotions, and feelings. While this is counterintuitive to critical thinkers, the most important tool that you have at your disposal is relationships with the people.
Critical Thinking – Thought Process
The critical thinker…
…looks for problems;
…desires to showcase their superiority; and
…condescends to lesser intelligence.
Critical thinkers believe that proving their superiority will win business based purely on their intellect. They have an “I win, you lose” belief system which rarely wins business.
The only difference between Silent Sam and Alarmist Alice in my hypothetical example is Alice is an extrovert and Sam is an introvert. Both Sam and Alice subscribe to the “I win, you lose” mentality. The only difference is that Alice’s motives are immediately obvious, while Sam’s are exposed later in the process.
The People First Approach
Business and technical decisions are made by people, not machines. Important decisions are often made by a collection of decision makers. In the case of building technology decisions, building occupants, building maintenance personnel, business managers, real estate investors, and a board of directors can be involved in a single decision to hire a company.
When you understand the dynamics between these people, you can get better results by being a communication catalyst rather than a communication disrupter. Disrupters are critical thinkers who diminish the human element and think that if they have the right solutions, it doesn’t matter what others think or feel. As we’ve shown in our example, these feelings, thoughts and emotions matter a great deal.
Here's how you take a people-first approach in problem solving:
Use framed empowering questions, not statements.
Promote personal agendas.
Strive for win/win communication.
An open-ended question cannot be answered with a yes or a no. By asking such a question, you are giving the power to the other person. Hence, the name “empowering questions”. The advantage for you is that they will give you answers that educate and inform. It is important that you create some framework around your questions so that the answers you’re given are relevant to your discussion in the problem-solving process. In the case of Curious Charley, his framing statement was about the problem with the relief valve followed by his open-ended question asking what they can do to help.
All people have hopes and fears. Critical thinkers dismiss these as immaterial in a problem-solving process. When you use a people-first approach you understand that these hopes and fears are central to how other people will act and react to problem identification and solution development. If the people you work with are defensive or protective because of the way you talk, you will not understand enough information to properly identify the problem or come up with a fully vetted solution. Instead, you will constantly be battling resistance of those who you need to help.
Be aware of what is motivating the people participating in the problem-solving process at every level of the decision-making process. Treat all people with respect and listen to what they want… even if those wants to have nothing to do with the problem at hand.
As you can imagine, you may be dealing with “critical thinkers” on the other side of your conversation. In other words, they want to “win” and want you to “lose”. To turn critical discussions into win/win, it’s important not to engage in a fight. The best way to do this is to acknowledge and validate their position. Acknowledging and validating is restating the other person’s position, and then saying why their position is perfectly understandable. This doesn’t mean that their position is “right” or “wrong”. It only means that a rational person understands their position.
In our hypothetical example, George the maintenance person could have made some excuse for the relief valve code violation. He could have become defensive and said, “I tried to tell my boss, but he was too cheap to buy the extra pipe.” You can then respond, “That’s a bummer. I know how hard it is when money is tight.” You then follow up with a win/win solution.
In my experience, most everyone is open to an alternative idea that positively impacts their personal agenda. If George can win by looking good in front of his boss; you win by gaining a customer; and the boss wins by hiring a company who can work well with George… you have a win/win/win scenario that creates success for everyone.
I hope that you’ve learned how engineers can turn their knowledge into problem-solving gold by ditching some of the habits that come from “critical thinking”. I’m an engineer, and I’m a critical thinker. It’s the way God made me. However, I’ve learned to temper my critical thinking with a people-first approach. This transition has been a great help in my engineering, sales, and business coaching practice. I hope that these tips can do the same for you.
About me. I have been actively engaged in the energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy conservation industry all my professional career from 1987 until now. I was a licensed Professional Engineering in six states and a Certified Energy Manager (CEM). I worked as a sales executive, energy engineer, sales manager, and entrepreneur. I started, grew and sold my own Energy Service Company (ESCo) called Ennovate Corporation (1997 to 2013). I now coach business owners, engineers, and business development executives in the energy efficiency industry.