In a general and swooping categorization, people are quick to label many engineers by nature as bad communicators. The characterization has been prevailing from the earliest of times and continues on through today. As an engineer myself, I have seen the instant stereotype become my identity when I tell someone I am an engineer. The idea that engineers are “smart” in numbers, math, and physics way sets in instantly.
Along with that generalization people assume that any ability at human-like communication goes out the window with engineers. To some extent, I wonder – how are these stereotypes true about myself, yet untrue at the same time? Communication is key in all relationships and especially so in the professional world. This article covers the perception on engineers from the outside world, the truth behind the sterotypes, and some tactics and mindsetshifts to help communication.
The Perception of Engineer’s Communication
The perception of us engineers being bad communicators and numbers people only is a strong one. I like to think that people think of engineers as people that speak machine. Prior to school, everytime I said the word engineer I thought of someone that builds spaceships, racecars, and airplanes. This stereotype also encompeses all the main reasons why I wanted to become one.
While the stereotype of engineers being builders is indeed true, I quickly learned at university that communication was emphasized far more than I expected. Most non-technical people view engineers as solvers of complex problems. Often times, the complex problems we solve require not only skills built in school and through experience, but being able to communicate them. An engineer who quickly calculates an optimal race car design yet can’t build an economical case for doing so limits their career options.
Explaining Things to Non-Engineers
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From an engineering standpoint, the aerodynamic profile of F1 cars is extremely impressive. Building off the principles of fluid dynamics, mechanics, and thermodynamics, F1 cars utilize low and high-pressure zones to manipulate air. This manipulation leads to a car that has massive amounts of downforce. In regards to statics, an increase in downforce means more normal force generation on the chassis. Connecting this principle to material science as it relates to rubber tires means more friction and thus grip for the car. All these ideas work together to create a car that simply performs.
For engineers, that previous paragraph should be fairly easy to understand. In-depth theories when brought together bring innovation. However, sometimes engineers lack awareness that non-technical personnel haven’t had the benefit of in-depth classes and experience that allow such observations to become second nature.
Relating technical concepts to everyday life concepts helps others to better understand a product or concept works. For instance, vacuums help explain pressure differentials and sandpaper informs the behavior of friction. Engineers that intentionally consider how to communicate these principles to others invariably enjoy more rewarding work and shed the “bad communicators” label.
Unfortunately, we as engineers often struggle with this process due to a phenomenon known as cognitive tunneling.
The Truth Behind The Stereotypes
One of the most famous examples of cognitive tunneling occurred on Air France 447, a plane that crash-landed in the Atlantic Ocean. Functionally, the plane operated without issue – rather the pilots made a series of poor decisions based on a small swath of information. Unable to see the bigger picture, they steered the plane into an aerodynamic stall ultimately killing all 228 people on board.
Engineers struggle with cognitive tunneling. By nature, engineering deals with minutiae and detailed facts. These facts and details are frequently unknown to non-technical employees. As such, often engineers focus on the solution and hard data to back up their points. This methodology generally works well. But when personnel and soft skills come into play, engineers should consider the human element of problem-solving to shed the “bad communicators” label.
Communication in University
In recent decades, the importance of human communication has gained more emphasis in engineering school. For instance, in my undergraduate capstone class, vocalizing our process and communication was a key component of our grades. It was clear that how we approached the problem was given more weight than the actual solution. Showing collaboration to identify a possible solution was the key to the entire project. Even if the intent of the solution did not show in the final product, the ability to communicate with one another as engineers to create a solution was key.
Communication in the Workforce
Something I did not realize upon my entry into the workforce was the expectation of a new engineer. I assumed that employers expected me to make a rocket ship on my own, but quickly realized that was not the case. Employers look for new engineers that can communicate. Having the ability to communicate allows for collaboration on that rocket ship.
A focus on communication and subsequently collaboration is something I wish I focused on earlier. A mindset shift in our learning phase is critical to promoting this ability to communicate. Tackling engineering problems with a communication-centric mindset is critical for young engineers to succeed.
And there’s never a shortage of opportunities to build those skills. It might be explaining your job to your young niece. Or ordering a sandwich without a bunch of ummmmmss.
So for those young engineers – grow your communication strength. Show your willingness to fail in tackling engineering problems, but fail forward with wisdom and good communication. Our ability to communicate and fail well will go a long way to banish the “bad communicators” label forever!