The skills that make engineers and scientists successful in a technical role are not the same as those required by leadership positions. To be effective leaders, technical experts must expand their skillset to manage time efficiently, communicate clearly, and overcome conflict.
This article is based on the AIChE-Wiley book Leadership by Engineers and Scientists: Professional Skills Needed to Succeed in a Changing World.
Engineers and scientists often ascend to leadership and management positions after establishing a track record of success in a technical role. Despite technical competency and good intentions, feelings of frustration and anxiety may confront these individuals as they adapt to the new job. They generally find that the traits and mindsets that led to success in the past are no longer as relevant to their present leadership role, where soft skills may take precedence over engineering know-how.
Technical experts are trained in fundamental principles and methods to solve complex technical problems where simple and exact answers are not always available. While this is challenging, engineers in leadership positions are faced with even more complexity. They must oversee the solving of the same issues while also considering the intersection of technical and personnel problems (i.e., sociotechnical problems).
This article addresses the transition engineers and scientists must undergo to achieve success in technical leadership and management roles. To be effective leaders, technical experts must first look to expand their skillset to manage time and efforts under stressful conditions, communicate clearly, and handle conflict.
At the intersection of technical and personal
Engineers need to be well-organized, methodical, and rational to allow them to dissect complex problems, execute experiments, perform calculations, and quantitatively evaluate results and observations. While these skills are beneficial to the leadership positions they assume, it is not enough to simply show interest in others’ technical abilities and accomplishments. Leaders must transition their mindset to manage personnel with different motivations, abilities, priorities, biases, and experiences. This is particularly challenging because team leaders must address differences and conflict among personalities that can confound reasonable approaches to technical problems.
In addition to the technical skills learned in degree programs, engineers in leadership positions must manage time efficiently, communicate effectively, behave ethically, manage change, take risks, make decisions, influence others, display resilience, build teams, and handle conflict. These leadership skills are not typically emphasized in formal degree programs, although students who have had co-ops or internships generally recognize the need for these attributes.
Leaders can approach unfamiliar situations by viewing them as problems to be solved. By gathering data, analyzing the problems, and drawing conclusions, engineers can mitigate some of the discomfort they feel in solving sociotechnical problems. However, these problems may remain opaque because they do not have a correct (or even good) answer due to conflicting goals, such as time, yields, profits, and safety. To overcome this roadblock, consider the background of the individuals involved (e.g., values, priorities, biases, culture, personality, experiences) to interpret and assess their behaviors and responses. Individuals often rely on emotions and past experiences to make difficult decisions, and these are different for each person, which can challenge your patience and fortitude. To complicate matters, new technical leaders may feel they must prove their technical prowess and credibility by vehemently defending their conclusions, and perhaps overlooking counter arguments.
To be an effective leader, technical individuals must become servant leaders and develop emotional intelligence (1–3). Servant leaders put the needs of others before their own, share power, and focus on the growth and well-being of others. Because engineers are taught to be independent and strongly defend their views, this approach may require reorientation and transition. The highest level of maturity is not independence, but interdependence, where members of a team, family, or functional unit depend on and trust each other to take responsibility and show accountability (1).
Being a servant leader does not imply that you should not hold strong opinions, defend your views, and override others’ opinions and requests if necessary. Rather, effective servant leaders with emotional intelligence remain open to alternative views, build relationships, and display empathy, but demand performance and accountability from others and themselves. Emotional intelligence encompasses self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management (4, 5).
If you are a new leader, assess and recognize your own emotions, strengths, and weaknesses, and control your behavior, especially in stressful situations. From this vantage, you can better understand the emotions and needs of the team and avoid the frustration, anxiety, and discontentment experienced by early-career leaders.
Time management and organization
Engineers who assume leadership positions must shift priorities from solely technical problem solving to time management, as time is typically a manager’s most limited resource. Effective time management improves efficiency and productivity, helping to meet deadlines and reduce stress.
To improve your time management skills, keep a spreadsheet and record the activities you perform at 30-min intervals for one week. Then review the spreadsheet to identify the time you spent productively and thus the most productive parts of your day. Activities can be categorized as (1):
- urgent and important
- urgent but not important, or not urgent but important
- or neither urgent nor important.
Although urgent and important activities (e.g., crises, deadlines, equipment malfunctions) require immediate attention, if these events become your sole focus, you are practicing reactive management, which indicates you need to improve your planning and anticipation strategies. Reactive management causes teams to become frustrated, dissatisfied, and confused, as well as lose confidence in leaders. Be conscious of emails, phone calls, or meetings that seem urgent but are not important, and practice personal discipline to remain on task.
Significant time is often wasted on activities that are neither urgent nor important, such as surfing the web and browsing social media, as well as long phone conversations or meetings that do not resolve issues or establish priorities. This time could be better spent on tasks that are important but not urgent and, as a result, are often ignored, such as building relationships, setting goals, planning, and strategizing (1). These efforts require discipline and control, but can reduce the frequency of crises and enhance leader credibility.
A to-do list can help you prioritize tasks, but avoid the impulse to complete the easiest or most urgent task first. Assign priorities by identifying the tasks that are limiting and need to be completed to effectively tackle other items on the list. Limit procrastination by breaking tasks into smaller segments, and schedule a fixed amount of time to complete each task. Resist the urge to take ownership over every item and delegate as liberally as possible. Delegation also improves team morale because it shows team members you trust them and are invested in their professional development.
While leaders often stress multitasking, this approach has its limits and can degrade overall focus. When you switch between projects, you need to reorient yourself, which wastes time. It is generally more effective to complete one project at the expense of making less progress on the other, lower-priority tasks.
No matter how much time you spend planning and anticipating outcomes, you will likely experience a crisis. Remain calm and gather advice and input from others to address the problem. Do not allow reactions and emotions to control your behavior and actions. An inappropriate response can have dire consequences for your current and/or future employment, leadership opportunities, and personal relationships.
Use your emotional intelligence to recognize the tenor of the team, and allow those who need a break to step away to diffuse egos and emotions. Relieve stress in the short term through breathing exercises and by taking a break with a colleague to discuss other interests. Manage stress in the long term through exercise, healthy eating, sleep, etc. (6–8).
Stress caused by lack of resources (e.g., people, facilities, or funds) requires a discussion with your boss to clearly present the implications of proceeding at the present capacity. Offer alternative approaches to achieve the primary goal. Even if you are left with the same resources, it is important to express possible implications and alternative plans.
Leaders often overcommit. However, it is important to find time for yourself. Find downtime to refresh, decompress, and relax. You are an important role model to the rest of team, and they can benefit from a healthy display of work-life balance. Sometimes you must decline appeals for your time. Evaluate the pros and cons of accepting invitations, and only engage in activities that help your organization achieve its strategic objectives. Similarly, regularly assess whether some projects or current efforts should be terminated. Cancelling a project can be a difficult decision, but doing so ensures that time is used effectively.
Effective communication can be elusive, as background, personality, age, and other factors can affect the communication style that works best between two parties. Miscommunication can cause misunderstandings about priorities, directions, operations, and timetables. A common error new leaders make is to use the communication style that suits themselves rather than the recipient. Adjusting communications to individuals can improve relationships, lessen frustration, expedite accomplishments, and minimize mistakes.
Engineers tend to communicate in terms of numerous details, data, and facts, which may be useful when communicating with peers of similar backgrounds. However, engineers in leadership positions should recognize that others may have different backgrounds, which may or may not be technical. In conversations with high-level administrators, technicians and operators, and the public, for example, avoid significant detail and jargon and focus on intent and outcomes.
Speaking at a level that is mutually understandable ensures interactions are a two-way discussion and not individual monologues. Parties must listen without interruption (other than for clarification) and understand the other’s viewpoint and content before offering an interpretation or assessment. This process is enriched if the speaker asks questions, which helps to avoid miscommunication by ensuring the listener provides input and alternative views and is clear on the speaker’s focus or position (9–11). The speaker receives valuable feedback in these answers if an open, safe, and accepting culture that values divergent opinions is established. It is the leader’s responsibility to establish and promote this culture.
Part of establishing a culture of open communication is setting the right tone by being an assertive communicator, and not aggressive or passive-aggressive. An assertive communicator respects themselves and others and displays openness, directness, and honesty in personal and professional interactions. These traits help you earn the trust of others and bolster your credibility as a speaker, as well as assure others that they can voice concerns without repercussions and that these issues will be addressed and resolved.
It is not advisable to use aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive communication styles. Aggressive communicators display confidence, motivation, and excitement, but are typically loud, blunt, abrasive, and confrontational, which signals arrogance and an intent to dominate interactions. Recipients of this delivery style and attitude are often intimidated or become defensive. When another person has a similar personality and is confident, this style may be effective, but generally it is counterproductive.
Passive communicators prefer to avoid problems and conflict; they seek to please others and are good listeners. They generally make those around them feel comfortable, but can also cause some to become frustrated by their indecisive nature. If others are somewhat passive, this type of communicator may be effective. However, passive communicators tend to avoid difficult but necessary conversations.
Passive-aggressive communicators appear passive and innocent with a charming tone of voice, but are sarcastic, devious, and subtly aggressive. These traits cause others to question the veracity and authenticity of the speaker and thereby inhibit the establishment of trust and credibility up and down the hierarchical structure.
Conflict arises when opinions differ, and often can be linked to poor communication, lack of resources, opposing methods or approaches, unaligned priorities or beliefs, or contrasting personalities.
Perceived disagreements can be overcome through discussion to clarify opposing views, especially when technical approaches and opinions are at odds. In fact, technical teams should welcome some level of conflict, because evaluation of alternative approaches enhances team engagement and enables high-impact solutions. It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure discussions remain respectful and collegial.
It is more challenging to resolve conflicts when individual priorities are not aligned with those of the team or organization. In such situations, facilitate resolutions by attempting to understand each party’s motivation. Determine whether differences are due to strategic issues, personal goals, or beliefs.
Disagreements relating to values, beliefs, and personalities are out of the control of the leader. Understand, acknowledge, and appreciate differences among team members, and try to exploit these distinctions to gain the broadest view possible of a situation. However, personal differences can also lead to challenging conflicts. When this happens, refocus discussion on the primary goals and make efforts to bring the opposing parties into harmony. Mitigating this discord often involves individual and group meetings where the leader acts as the mediator. If a reasonable resolution cannot be reached, take a more direct and dictatorial approach, defining carefully the consequences of continuing disputes.
Attempt to diffuse conflicts as soon as possible. Remain calm, and even if you disagree with one of the views expressed, show respect and attempt to understand the individual. Do not allow discussions to become personal, and keep the conversation limited to factual issues and concepts.
Sometimes conflicts require leaders to confront an individual, which should always be done in a one-on-one meeting. The meeting should take place in the other person’s office or a neutral spot rather than your office. This will generally put them at ease, as well as allow you to leave if the discussion gets out of control. Rather than open with an accusatory statement, begin with a question to give the individual an opportunity to explain and discuss their actions. Focus the conversation on issues, rather than people, and attempt to modify behaviors and implement changes. At the end of the discussion, reiterate final conclusions and decisions and discuss next steps. Follow up with a memo summarizing the discussion, and give them a chance to confirm its contents.
Leaders build and maintain relationships and guide their teams toward success in achieving organizational, professional, and personal goals. For engineers to be successful in these leadership roles, they must develop soft skills, sharpen their emotional intelligence, and practice a servant leadership style. In addition, leaders must be effective and adaptable communicators to bridge team divides and ensure project success, especially as modern teams become increasingly distributed. A quote attributed to Charles Darwin summarizes the need for adaptability best: “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, neither is it the most intelligent that survives. It is the most adaptable to change.”
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- Manning, G., et al., “Stress: Living and Working in a Changing World,” Savant Learning Systems, Martin, TN (2016).
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