The biggest problems faced by the engineers and technology leaders are not about technology at all. People are the issue. And most technology workers (should I just say most people) are not prepared to deal with the challenges people bring. My mom – who worked for J.C. Penney for years – has often said that everyone needs a job in retail at some time in their life so they can see how people are and learn to deal with them.
We Often Miss the Lessons in Dealing with People
The other day I was reminded of this “people issue” as I was meeting with the leaders of our student chapter of the IEEE ( Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).
Fall was starting, and they were busy developing plans for the year – yet frustration was mounting.
The faculty member who was in charge of purchasing student kits for projects had not ordered them on time – and he was known to miss deadlines.
They could not get faculty to listen to them or “mentor” them. They had ideas of things to do to enhance the department and provide meaningful students experiences – but they did not know how to get permission. All they got back from us was talk and delay. What could they do on their own? What did they have to have permission to do? They did not know where the boundaries were.
They had presented many ideas to faculty and were waiting on direction – but they knew from history that they would be given no direction.
These engineering students were not complaining – they were stating the facts. In a moment of my frustration, I just said – “Do something. Do anything. Even if it is wrong – do it. Break something.”
What are you learning?
I tried to calm a minute, and I then tried to explain to them that this is why they were in school. I told them
“Your problems in the workplace will not be technical. Instead, they will be like this. You will suffer from a lack of clear direction and people issues. These prevail no matter where you are.”
I do not think they were pleased to hear this – but I also think they got it. You could see on their faces that they thought people had always been the problem in everything they did. I am sure they could think back to all their other real experiences with family, churches, sports teams, and friends. People are always the problem – and logic rarely prevails.
But how can you deal with these people problems and get results?
The right questions
The students started to ask me more relevant questions like:
- How do you get people to do things for you when you have no power over them?
- How do you influence others?
- How do you run a meeting?
- How do you plan with a team?
- How do we get all the group to work together?
- How do we get the money we need for things?
- How can we bring in speakers who are part of the industry?
They were finally heading in the right direction.
Do These Examples of People Problems Sound Familiar?
My Coaching Session Examples
In a majority of all of my coaching sessions with working engineers, their challenges usually come down to one issue – people problems.
For example – here is the content of my most recent coaching calls:
- Underperforming employee – “What do I do with my one team member who underperforms? He knows he is not measuring up, and he just seems content with it. What do I do?”
- Mentors not sharing – “I am new to my role. I was added to the team to help a guy who did all the client support on his own – but now since the company has grown, he needed more help. I now am responsible for part of the clients. But my peer – who has all the expertise – seems unwilling to help me. He gives me just enough – but will not open up and teach me how he does his job. My boss is telling me to jump in and handle it – but the one who can teach me is unwilling. I feel stuck. How can I get him to start to trust me and open up?”
- Developing confidence – “I am new to the company and feel like I have ideas, but I am afraid to share them. No one seems to respect me now, so I do not want to speak up and be wrong about something and look like a fool. How can I show others that I have something to contribute? “
- Boss not listening to me – “My boss does not listen to me. I see some issues we need to deal with – but I do not seem to have the influence. My boss only listens to one of my peers who is always talking to her. How can I get my boss to listen to me like she does my peer?”
- Networking in the company – “I am new and on the leadership ladder and being told to network. But the only people I can network with are just like me – on the same team. How can I network with the leaders and executives and get myself noticed?”
Over an over, all the issues are people issues – usually related to winning people over to do what you see needs to be done. Just like these future engineers who were leading a student group – the professionals years ahead were dealing with the same issues – people.
The Tech CEO Example
A few years ago I was the CEO of a telecom company. We were working to sell our company. In a meeting with the CEO and CTO who were looking to acquire us, we were getting hammered on technical details. I figured the deal was toast. Their CEO looked at me and said he needed to get to a plane and asked me for a ride. The end of the conversation – so I thought. When we got in the car, he looked at me and said
“I am not worried about technology problems – they will be solved with other technology. It is the people problems that can be hard to overcome.”
So true. The deal did not go through – but it was the people issues that killed it.
Simple Solutions to Influence Others – from my experiments
Early in my engineering career – I became interested in psychology. Not in mental illness – but how people work. Out of sheer boredom (I hated my job), I started experimenting with ideas I was learning from people like Dennis Waitley and Dale Carnegie.
My experiments were often simple.
- Dress the part. I would dress in a suit and tie and notice the reactions. By dressing the part, I noticed I was treated differently – even in the grocery store. Could it be I was acting different and more confident? Sure – but either way – it impacted those around me.
- Speak with confidence even if I was not sure. I learned this from watching a co-worker. He would use complex words that he was not sure what they meant (like “fresnel zone”) in arguments with his peer and superiors. He could throw out words with such passion as evidence of why we needed to do things his way that others would back down – partly from ignorance and his mega-confidence. He would later tell me that he had no idea what that word meant – he just had heard it and used it when appropriate.
- Focus on the goal – not the problem. Always remind people of the end goal as they brought problems to me. It took their focus away from the problem they were working on and back to the goal they were trying to achieve.
- Think like the CEO. I went into work thinking “I will assume I am CEO and act on every issue with that big picture in mind.” The impact was meant for me – but I noticed as I talked through problems with my employees and coworkers from a strategic view – they seemed to get it and would develop this “can do” spirit for the good of all.
- Seek to find out what each person needs emotionally. I had between 8-20 women working for me at the time. They had different pressures of kids and family (many were divorced women with kids) that I did not understand. I started to listen to them and defend them to superiors. They became huge allies.
I was trying to entertain myself. But I became fascinated by how easily I could influence people by focusing on what they wanted instead of just what I wanted. As an engineer, you would think I could understand a simple concept like that without needing to be taught.
But now I see that we are all slow to understand. No matter what the position people hold in the company, people issues are the greatest challenge. We talk around each other and devise great tools and strategies or even higher consultants instead of directly addressing the issues. We would rather spend money than deal with people. Often the solution is so simple if we stop, ask questions, and seek to understand what is going on with the people.
The other discovery I made is that I do not have to change who I am. I still do not see myself as a team player. In fact, I am not. I tend toward the rebel side almost every time. But – when I need to get stuff done, it always happens through people and influence.
One of the greatest things we need to learn as engineering leaders are that everything comes through people. And – being selfish – we all have to realize that all opportunities in life come from other people.
Four Ways to Get People on Your Side
The best thing I have found it to ask questions, then shut up and listen. The question needs to be one about their emotions (gee – I feel like a dweeb even saying that – but there it is).
- Deal with the Elephant. Be direct and tell them you sense as an issue, and see what happens. Be polite. This is more you sensing something, and you could be wrong. Here is how I addressed someone a while back. “I am sensing you do not like what we are doing on this project. Am I right?” Ask and let the question hang and give them a chance to answer. No matter what – listen.
- Look for common ground. What do you both agree on? Often when working together on a project – conflict arises because two people both care that is gets done well. However, instead of working together – they get opposed because they both feel like they know the right way. When I have dealt with this I have said “OK – I am not sure about you – but I care about this result. I think you do too – am I right?” Let them answer. Then ask why they care.
- Look for a common interest. More than once in my life I have had to find something me and my arch enemy (is that too strong) have in common outside of the tense work issue. One time I wanted to get influence with the leader of the team – and I found out he and I were both interested in investments. I went and asked for his advice about investing. Next thing I knew I was over at his house for dinner and he and I were working closely together on almost everything. Recently I had a coaching client with something similar. He found his trouble person was interested in mountain biking like he was. They started sharing stories, best practices, etc. about mountain biking and their work-life significantly improved.
- Be manipulative. If you think this is manipulation – you are right. But we all like to be manipulated (call it influence if you prefer) when the manipulation gets us what we want. And what do we want? To be cared about. To be listened to. To be valued.
In all of these cases – nothing was fake. But, each case took the effort to step outside of what I wanted and think about what they wanted.
Continually Learn by Reading these Great Books
We can never know enough about people if we are trying to get things done. Here are some great reads that should help you out.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This is the book that gave me my wake up call. The core theme of this book is
If you want people to like you, get them to talk about themselves.
Some of the stories are talking about companies that no longer exist since it was initially published in 1936.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini This book with open your eyes to places you have been influenced (and maybe manipulated). Robert details actual studies where people were influenced to take specific actions. This book is a must for marketing – and yes – we are all in marketing!
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Another classic that is a must read. The book goes through what he calls private and public victories. To lead others – you first have to lead yourself.
Perhaps that is enough reading for now. If you have read these – dust them off and review. If not, I can tell you that you will have your eyes opened to learn more about yourself and others. Let me know how you like them.