Engineer smarts can’t trump leadership ego

It’s one thing to be smart and another to be wise. Smart is actually a lot easier because it simply involves being knowledgeable. The smarts to know that you don’t know is a sign of wisdom. And the wisdom to compensate for your deficits through trusting in the knowledge of others is advanced wisdom. I think it’s safe to say there’s not a whole lot of tripping going on over that.

The wisest people I know seek to align themselves with trusted others who will give them the straight scoop of honest feedback. I learned early as a manager to encourage my staff to tell me when I was full of beans and to prove me wrong through offering better solutions – even when I was smarting from my lack of smarts.

Why is this important? Because the employees live more closely with the problem than does their boss. Therefore, they know exactly what is going wrong and usually have solid opinions on how to fix it – provided their feedback is made welcome. But alas, the boss refusing to listen to truthful information offered by his/her employees is where the system usually breaks down. Trust me, I’ve been on both sides of the coin.

Let me borrow here from the discipline of engineering, the quintessential problem-solving profession. Its practitioners are called upon to develop solutions for technical problems through designing materials, structures and systems within the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety and cost (not to mention the wild hair whims of the bosses assigning the project).

While searching online for another something, I happened across a short, 1996 paper titled, “On Being the Bearer of Bad News,”  authored by Philip Koopman, a former submarine officer with the U.S. Navy, who became an associate professor of computer and electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Because I am a geek, I instinctively knew an engineer would wax as wisely as a philosopher on the topic. But that’s another column. Koopman’s analysis led me to conclude the following about engineers: unfortunately, management regularly uses engineers not to solve the real problem, but to help them devise better ways of killing the messengers.

On a more serious note, Koopman made deadly accurate observations regarding the unenviable position in which engineers find themselves each time they identify a problem and devise a potential solution. Before taking solution-oriented action, they must first enter the lion’s den of calling the identified problem to the attention of those in charge – in a way that does not offend management ego and/or run afoul corporate ambition. Good luck there!

Mind you, the awaiting snarling countenances belong to the same management that hired the engineers specifically to problem-solve. Talk about ultimate irony: hiring technically-competent advisors as an extension of yourself, then disregarding them. Beyond stupid! Not even an engineer could solve that problem, even if believed and allowed.

Ideally, Koopman says, management listens earnestly to the engineer’s description of the problem, then seriously considers the engineer’s suggestions for problem resolution in long-term perspective. However, since many solutions necessarily color outside the lines of immediate project timelines and budget constraints, lasting solutions frequently get rejected so things can move impairedly forward.

However, when great safety or financial risk is involved, some engineers/truth tellers persistently stand firm regarding their concerns. Next thing they know, they find themselves perceived and/or treated as if THEY are the problem. Countless problem messengers are career-slain for the audacity of delivering the bad news someone’s pet project is not working.

Truth-telling can be hazardous to employee health. Should management decide not to fix the identified problem, an alternative scapegoat must be created. The quickest fix is to finger-point the problem pointer-outer as the problem. The obvious solution then becomes to punish, demote or terminate the pointer-outer to preserve institutional denial. Parents are highly familiar with this strategy.

Many smart, conscientious employees with good ideas are needlessly sacrificed each year to the anti-wisdom gods of management ego, which refuse to acknowledge their own short-sightedness. It feels akin to being lifeboatless on a sinking ship of a project, within reach of unimplemented life-preserver solutions, following multiple warnings that fell on ears deafened by the ring of a cash register.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Todd
    Nov 21, 2013 @ 00:43:32

    When thinking about difficult truths, my brain defaults to Jack Nicholson angrily saying “you can’t handle the truth” then the victorious Tom Cruise gets Demi Moore.


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