Engineer Culture and the Transition to Management

When people talk about culture they usually mean national or regional cultures, but there are also important cultural differences between professional groups -- doctors, lawyers, pilots, managers and engineers -- and these cultures have an impact that is often underestimated.

Most people from a certain region will have similar values, beliefs and practices as the others from the same region, but within each professional subculture there are additional shared values and practices that are perhaps not shared by people in other professions from the same region.

One of the practical impacts of this difference in professional culture is the difficult transition from engineering to management.  In technology companies this is a problem familiar to managers and human resources professionals, and is also the subject of some training programs.  There are many factors involved but central to the engineering value system is the shared understanding that their world is strictly Cartesian, following logical laws and where everything has an objectively right answer.  Engineers are trained with the mindset that everything can and should be calculated or judged objectively, and this is essential to their work.  But moving to management means dealing with people issues, and this requires a completely new approach where there is rarely a single right answer and where the world is not black and white but many shades of gray.

One way to grasp this concept is to look at dilemmas like the credit for the discovery of the cure for Tuberculosis.  Streptomycin, the antibiotic that effectively eliminated tuberculosis in the 1950s, was discovered by a young scientist called Albert Schatz but initially the credit -- including a Nobel prize and a TIME magazine cover -- went to his professor, the microbiologist Selman Waksman.  Ask any group of people who should have been credited and at first most say Schatz, but if you dig deeper then you begin to have doubts.  It was an insight of Waksman that a suitable antibiotic could be found by testing thousands of cultures found in soil samples, he built the laboratory to do this and hired Schatz to do the practical work.  So it was Schatz who was actually doing the work when Streptomycin was discovered but intellectually it was the fruit of work by Waksman, even if he never visited the lab.  Perhaps the best solution would have been to share the credit, but fifty years ago when universities were more hierarchical this was unthinkable.  Today, though, the story helps people to see that answers are not always so black and white. 

You see the difference between engineer and non-engineer culture manifested in many other ways.  One is in the management of people – a difficult but learnable skill – and also in the way people present their ideas, something I have seen many times while I have been giving advanced speaking coaching to managers.  To anyone from an engineering background it is logical that you present the facts and the technically best solution will be chosen.  In reality it is rarely that simple because there are also human issues involved and some influencing skills will be needed.  Some look down on this as “politics” or worse, but it is in fact an essential core skill for managers, though also useful for engineers who wish to influence management.

Fortunately there are solutions to this problem and you will usually find them in management training programs, but the best starting point is recognition that there are different professional cultures.  They are there for a good reason and they are important for the success of the professionals in that field.  An engineer with no feel for engineering culture will find the work much harder, and a manager without the human skills will find their task very difficult, but someone who has both can move easily from one to the other, outperforming the less culturally literate.

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