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Engineers Are Human Too

Lucy Adams on October 20, 2020

Engineers Are Human Too


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At Disruptive HR we’re often told that taking an innovative approach to people practices is not possible when you’re working with managers from sectors which tend to be more rule or process based. So, new approaches to HR are fine for say, marketing or media, but not for engineering, accountancy or pharmaceuticals. The argument is along the lines that, when it comes to HR:

  • Engineers and pharmacists must have a process
  • Accountants and lawyers must have prescriptive detail
  • Financial services managers must have clear rules

And any deviation from this will be met by huge resistance from managers within these sectors.

I would like to suggest that, whilst it’s not easy to remove the clunky process and stifling rules from HR in these sectors, it is definitely possible. I believe that managers are completely capable of treating their people in a different style than their corporate DNA dictates. For brevity, I’ll use ‘engineers’ as a catch-all to describe any manager in one of these high-process, rule-bound fields.

Engineers are humans too

Whilst we often picture engineers as being devoid of all spontaneity, highly introverted and process-obsessed (and I have worked with a few like that!), this is clearly not the case across the board. Moreover, the human brain is sophisticated enough to use and apply different mindsets in different contexts. Engineers cry at sad films. Engineers mess about with their mates. Engineers show tenderness and affection towards their children. So why do we believe that the only people approach they are capable of is following a step by step process to its conclusion?

They are smart enough to understand that, whilst a rigorous adherence to a detailed process might be hugely valuable to an engineering outcome, when it comes to working with people, something different is needed. It would be a bit scary if an engineer working on a product just decided to go with the flow! But they are totally capable of working out the difference between a product and a human being and recognising that the latter won’t necessarily respond to a standardised and systemic approach.

Clever people are as emotional about change as everyone else. They just disguise it better!

Trying to convince really clever people, such as engineers, to change their approach to people management can of course be tricky. Clever people have the same emotional rejection of uncomfortable change as everyone else, but they can be really good at disguising their reactions as  an intellectual rationale. So, we in HR spend ages addressing their objections on this intellectual level. We provide more data, we have loads of debates, putting together ever more elaborate counter-rationales – all to no avail. Because, in reality, they just don’t like the idea of having to do things differently!

Engineers can delight in their intellectual prowess – but we in HR need to recognise when it’s a genuine objection to the changes proposed and when we’re just being fooled. As the HRD of the BBC I was regularly interacting with leaders with a higher than average IQ. Nowhere else have I had to look up the meaning of words so regularly! In no other job have I sat there like an idiot whilst my colleagues made jokes in Latin! But whilst being awash with Oxbridge alumni may produce great debate, it doesn’t necessarily get things done. We should make sure that we are identifying the real reasons for resisting change. Is it because they have spotted a genuine flaw in our arguments or, are they just not comfortable with trying something new? I think it’s often the latter and that’s what we should be helping them with. Not providing additional intellectual responses.

A people process is usually less satisfactory than an engineering one

Unfortunately, in HR we have often tried to appeal to our engineers’ comfort with process by giving them more people process than they know what to do with. We’ve become adept at providing process solutions to human challenges. You want to improve human performance? Here’s a performance management system. You want a pipeline of talent? Here’s an Annual Talent Review supported by a 9 Box Grid. You want engaged employees? Here’s an Annual Engagement Survey supported by a cascade action plan for every team. You want people to feel rewarded and recognised for their efforts? Here’s a complicated bonus system.

It’s not difficult to see why we’ve taken the process route. It’s often easier to introduce a one-size fits all process that is monitorable, scalable, and more cost effective to implement. And we think that if we offer our managers a process, then they will respond more favourably because they ‘get process’. But engineers will only use processes that actually make the product better. They will weed out ineffective processes because they care about doing a great job. When we provide them with processes that don’t result in better outcomes, they might comply, but they will only be going through the motions.

Our lack of faith in line managers to do the right thing by their people results in the creation of processes that try to compensate for them. Sadly, if we have line managers who have zero interest in developing their people, there is no process that will change the outcome. We just feel better that we can point to our completion rate of performance reviews, or the fact that we have everyone in one of nine boxes. We rarely question whether we have actually had an impact on human behaviour in terms of performance or personal growth.

We need to stop being the people process experts and start being the experts on how human beings think, feel, behave, communicate with one another, learn, are intrinsically motivated, etc. We need to build our capability and our credibility on how to create the conditions in our organisations where people can become more creative, more productive, more collaborative, more agile. Being the architects of these conditions won’t come from the implementation of universal processes but through a more robust understanding of WHY people behave in certain ways and HOW you can help them to shift their established behaviour.

So, yes it can be difficult to get engineering leaders, or managers in financial services or heads of department in pharma to change how they lead. But it is difficult whatever the sector. These leaders are not pre-determined to lead by process by virtue of their profession. It is totally feasible to help them change and become more human-centred and better coaches. But not by giving them another process.

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