Seven Soft Skills to Help with Tough Engineering Jobs

Article by Lucy Harrison

How to increase your chances of doing well in leadership positions

HAVE you ever come across a problem you couldn’t solve? Most engineers I know love to solve problems. There is a great satisfaction in coming up with the perfect solution, process or result, no matter how tough the environment.

But when it comes to dealing with people, there is rarely a perfect solution. People are unpredictable; what works with one will not work with another. Individuals behave differently when they are in different groups. It is easy to fall foul of hidden agendas, unwritten rules, assumptions and miscommunication.

I’ve been working with engineers in industry for many years, helping to develop leaders and teams to perform more effectively.

As you progress your career, it is likely that your skills in leading people will become as important, if not more important than your engineering prowess. This is true no matter what your gender or identity. The ability to collaborate, engage, influence, think strategically, empower and communicate is crucial to every leaders’ success.

That is because using these skills can bring out the best in people and mitigate the worst. They will help you navigate problems more effectively and become more likely to come up with a good solution.

The difficulty is that soft skills involve self-reflection, they involve calling ourselves and other people out, they tap into human psychology and deep seated belief systems. They are not "soft" at all, but some of the hardest things you can do well.

The simple truth is that every person and every conversation has an impact. The more senior you are, the more influential your behaviour is. Therefore what you do matters. Every conversation you have matters. How you show up to projects and how you respond to situations matters.

So if you want to increase your chances of doing well in leadership positions, here are seven of the most important human, leadership or soft skills to cultivate, as well as some suggestions of how to improve them.

1. Forge strong relationships

Strong relationships are ones that are able to be stretched and challenged, whilst ultimately collectively having each other’s backs and working to the bigger goal.

  • Look at your relationships across different teams and stakeholders. Which ones need some improvement?
  • Invest time to get to know them better, to understand them, to build trust and mutual respect.
  • Notice patterns that you have fallen into with particular people or teams. How are you showing up to these and what do you need to do differently?

2. Build psychologically safe environments

This means creating the environment in your teams in which people can speak up without fear of punishment or humiliation. If people feel like their ideas will be poo-pooed, their concerns belittled, their mistakes punished, or as if they matter less than getting the project done or problem solved on time, then you’ll miss vital information, engagement and performance.

  • Be aware of how you come across, not just in word but in deed. Seek feedback so you know what others hear rather than what you think you have said.
  • Make the time and create the forums, seek to learn not blame, and show that you care.

3. Engage and empower others

You can’t do it all, know it all or control it all (even as a process engineer!). You need to hear from the voices on the ground and allow others to take ownership and responsibility for their solutions.

  • Learn how to listen more effectively, being present, asking good questions and truly hearing the responses,
  • Coach people to solve their own problems. There is often more than one potential solution and developing people to make decisions for themselves gives them a huge learning experience. Ultimately it will help give you the time to do number four.

4. Develop the habit of taking a step back

Give yourself enough time to reflect and consider the bigger picture, the wider cause and effect. Look for unhelpful internal or systemic patterns of thinking.

  • Consider different potential responses for the future, or reflect upon what happened in the past and what you might do differently.
  • Look at the bigger picture and communicate this regularly to others too to help them also develop this habit.

5. Stay curious

Usually the presenting issue is not the real problem. You know this in engineering, but do you know it with people?

  • Use your existing critical thinking skills to explore what else is going on, what is underlying, what is not being said, where else might this problem emerge, who else is involved?
  • Actively seek people who think differently to you; the diversity may help you find creative solutions.

6. Build your resilience

Seek to understand yourself better to recognise what trips you up, how you deal with setbacks, how you keep yourself steady.

  • Acknowledging your own emotions is a great habit that also helps you regulate them. Exercise patience, remembering that tough times will pass.
  • Seek supportive people that will coach, challenge and champion you to keep you learning and growing.

7. Build courage around discomfort

There is a great African proverb: "smooth seas do not make skillful sailors". This is true as leaders. You have to be able to create and hold boundaries, hold people to account, accept feedback, be visible, admit mistakes, push out of your comfort zone and stand up for yourself. This is not always easy but it is often necessary. Seek trusted people and mentors that both challenge and support you through these.

A different kind of conversation

Together, these skills will enable you to choose to have a different kind of conversation when you are meeting with your team, your stakeholders or even with your family. You can choose how you show up to that conversation and how you respond or react to how it plays out.

After all, if every conversation matters, you can do something every day to make a difference. As you rise up the leadership chain, your ability to bring people with you, to grow them, will help you both be more effective in role and more likely to be considered for future leadership roles.

Developing your soft skills is not easy; changing ingrained habits never is. The initial effort to do something differently may be tricky, but the results will make your life easier and is likely to make your projects more effective.

Just remember that learning soft skills is a lifelong journey. I’ve been training people in soft skills for many years, yet I am still learning every day.

Lucy Harrison is the founder of leadership and team consultancy the Harrison Network, and author of Soft Skills for Tough Jobs, Building Teams that Work One Conversation at a Time, where she introduces a simple soft skills framework that underpins your ability to do all the above seven areas. Luckily, this framework highlights what you are already using when you are at your best, so that you can be your best more often.

Article by Lucy Harrison

Founder of leadership and team consultancy the Harrison Network

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