How ChE Prepared Me for Business (and How It Didn’t): Human Behavior

Being part of the College of Engineering is like being part of the armed services; we all had clever stereotypes for each other:

Civil & Mechanical Eng: Frat boys of engineering (from the frequent departmental keggers--the rest of us were just jealous)
Electrical Eng: gEEks (taken verbatim from a departmental t-shirt)
Industrial Eng: Imaginary Engineers (for taking more econ than thermo)
Aeronautical Eng: Astronaut hopefuls (from being called "rocket scientist" too many times)
Chemical & Bio Eng: Know-it-all walking dead (from our hubris & lack of sleep)

Despite the departmental ribbing, we all had one thing in common: a desire to understand how the natural world worked. This desire to understand cause and effect is what makes the first deficiency in our background so interesting. The one type of cause and effect that is not mandatory in our curricula affects us everyday in our professional setting and, I would argue, plays more of a role in our ability to effect change: the cause and effect of human behavior.

Why people behave the way they do affects our daily lives. Human behavior and motivations drive the reasoning behind why some projects are funded and supported and why others, despite sound scientific basis, are not. There is certainly some randomness behind our behavior, but stochastic processes and dealing with the gray are nothing new to engineering. Given that human behavior can mean the difference between project success and failure, it is important to ask why the study of motivation is not part of our core training. Perhaps it's in how it's sold.

My MS thesis had to do with applied math and cognition. The psychology grad students used to joke, "Psychology is about the study of rats & dreams." Good luck getting a practical application-minded engineer to get too excited about that! But any self-aware engineer will quickly discover upon graduation that a one-size-fits-all to professional engagement doesn't yield good results. It wasn't until being exposed to technical communication and consumer behavior that I felt I had the tools to address this.

Persuasion & Motivation

The most useful course I took in all of undergrad was Technical Communication I & II, where I learned two mantras:

  1. "Know & speak to your audience"
  2. "Managers have 6th grade reading levels & 3rd grade attention spans - communicate accordingly"

The importance of these two quotes leads to why we communicate at the workplace: to convey ideas in order to influence others and ultimately achieve goals. These two quotes were my introduction to performing an analysis of my stakeholders before approaching them. Tailoring your message to your audience based on their background, education, and hobbies is about a powerful influence tactic of likeness (link here). Studies have shown that if someone is like you, you tend to like them more: "You speak like me and think like me, so I like you too." The one-two combination to using likeness is motivation. Understanding stakeholder motivation is imperative in influence because you are trying to create a mutually beneficial situation for two parties: "You understand my needs, and you're trying to meet them - I like you even more."

I recently presented some organizational change tactics, which included influence methods, to a group, and I was asked the question: "Does it seem manipulative to use psychological persuasion techniques to drive change?" My reply, "It depends on your motivation and the delivery." People have a good sense of when they are being used. I used to work with some direct sales staff who would pull out all the stops for a new client: send birthday cards, ask about all of their children by name, send them small gifts. And as soon as they close the sale...silence. You can image how the client felt when we showed up on site - something similar to a jilted lover. You can respectfully motivate by really studying behavior.

Consumer Behavior

Rats and dreams were my first exposures to traditional psychology, and given the nature of our exposure to introductory undergrad courses, it's not too far off. It's not until you get to grad level social science courses that you really get exposed to the applied. If we could summarize some key social science courses:

  • Psychology = I drive my behavior
  • Sociology = Culture drives behavior
  • Econ = Only incentives drive behavior
  • Ecology = Only survival drives behavior
  • Social Work = Doing the right thing should drive behavior

So who's right? Taken separately these aren't holistic approaches and it's certainly not practical for an engineer to be an expert in all of these concepts. If you take a 30K foot perspective, all of these social sciences are right: many things drive our behavior and they are predicated by

  • who we are
  • our background, and
  • our access to resources.

A nice way to look at what drives us from a motivational perspective is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:

Without our basic needs being met, like food and shelter, it's hard to focus on self-actualization. A basic question engineers tend to ask when exposed to new concepts is: "How do I use this?" This is why consumer (and corporate) behavior (marketing research & strategy) resonated with me personally. The corporate equivalent of using Maslow's Hierarchy is: "If I'm worried about getting fired, why should I care about doing the right thing for our customers?"

Consumer behavior marries many of these concepts by acknowledging that many things drive us, and it is up to the marketer to use (ideally) the scientific method to determine what tactics to use to drive behavior:

  • Marketing = acquiring and retaining profitable customers
  • I need these customers to buy my products & services, but how?
    • Slash prices
    • Figure out the needs of the consumer and address them in a relevant way
    • How do I keep customers coming back? -> Solicit feedback

There is a framework for how people go through decision making before making a purchase, or deciding to change behavior: AIDA

  • Awareness: before I buy a product I need to be made aware of it
  • Interest: now that I know about a product, why should I care?
  • Desire: how do I go about getting this product?
  • Action: purchase

Your job as a marketing strategist is to lead people through this process. What makes people interested or excited about an idea? It depends on who they are and what their needs are. The same AIDA framework can be applied to project proposals or implementing any process improvement, not just for sales, as they aren't buying a product, but rather into your proposal. You can't lead a person through AIDA unless you understand them, their needs, and their desires & motivation. And so we're back to human behavior. So let's say you do your homework and you understand your client's needs more than your own. What's next? How do I lead people through AIDA? The short answer: sales, and that's what we'll cover next.

When have you seen corporate survival (vs. analysis) drive behavior in your workplace?

Photo: Robert J.Pennington,
(C)2011 Arkan Kayihan, used with permission


Robert S's picture

What a great primer for this topic, nice job summarizing different perspectives. I wish we had covered some of this in school, it would have been greatly beneficial. Though it probably would have been one of those classes where I cursed it the whole way through and then would have been thankful for it for the next 10 years.