One of the most difficult transitions in many professions-especially engineering-is that of moving from a strictly technical job into management. Whether management means supervising one person or overseeing an entire project, significant psychological adjustment is necessary to manage human resources as well as technical ones. This difficulty is nothing new. Long before many of the well-known quality management and coaching principles were developed, firms recognized that technical experts did not necessarily make the best managers. Recently, there have been many comparisons between management and leadership, and an emphasis that they are indeed two different attributes that require different skills.
Like many engineers, I have participated in a handful of seminars sponsored by my employers over the years to examine management and leadership styles. I also have had the opportunity to experience a few personality evaluations. Most of you likely have encountered such things as the Myers-Briggs or DiSC methods, or heard the term "emotional intelligence." For some, these are enlightening explorations into human nature, especially for those of us who may have little or no background in psychology or sociology. They often provide a good benchmark of behavior and habits in others. For others, however, the tests are denounced as psycho-babble and wastes of time.
Whatever your personal opinion, I venture to say that the personality evaluations are a valuable educational tool. They may or may not lead to an accurate portrayal of any given individual’s attributes, and they certainly aren’t comprehensive enough to make one an expert in human behavior. But they definitely highlight a few extremes that are easy to see in many people around you. In particular, stressful situations can bring out certain traits that can overtake one’s personality. Recognizing different human traits and the effects of stress are important management skills. Therefore, the value of exercises taught in management training is providing a frame of reference for managing a human workforce, rather than learning to apply a rigid list of traits to unique individuals.
This being said, and to respond to some who think such classes are a waste of time, I believe that any topic that broadens one’s understanding of behavior is valuable and often necessary to manage other people. Successful engineering and project management stem from one’s ability to operate outside of the technical vacuum that surrounds many designers. A manager’s skills in listening and giving feedback, criticism, and positive reinforcement are irreplaceable. Not only that, they benefit not just the project team, but the client as well.
By understanding that one’s perception of the world is not the only one, mangers are better able to work through conflict and to guide their teams toward individual successes and growth. They also are better equipped to discuss a client’s needs and project goals from the client’s perspective. We are fortunate to live in a time during which we have a greater understanding and sensitivity toward individual attitudes and needs. The ability to see through a verbal conversation and into an individual’s unspoken character and desires ultimately will lead to a more responsive manager.
Indeed, being able to anticipate a colleague’s next move is not presumptuous, but is a welcome relief to an employee or client that is accustomed to reactionary management. Being a proactive manager and client advocate is one of the major milestones along the transition from engineer to manager, and further, is one that distinguishes mere management from leadership.
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