As an engineering manager, it is essential to know how to communicate with your colleagues. We talk to an author who takes an engineer's approach to the subject
'There's a danger in using the phrase 'soft skills',' says David Fraser, author of a new book about how to raise your game when it comes to workplace relationships. 'It seems to imply that dealing with people is an optional extra that might be nice to have.'
Fraser's book 'Relationships Made Easy for the Business Professional' takes this 'optional extra' and puts it high up the agenda. 'About ten years ago it became clear to me that the limit on what many people achieve is set by their ability to relate to other people in the work environment, especially in larger, more complex organisations.'
This was an issue for Fraser earlier on in his career when he served time as programme director for the Type 45 Destroyer programme for BAE. 'I set out to find a systematic way of dealing with this, and my book is one of the eventual results.'
Fraser believes that the most critical skill of all is the ability to relate to other people. 'This is just as true for professionals in electronic or electrical engineering as it is any other profession or walk of life,' says Fraser, who has taken what he describes as a 'typical engineer's approach' to analysing how this skill can be learned and applied.
'What you have to bear in mind is that I am an engineer,' says Fraser, 'and as I made my way through the journey from various management roles to director, I found that what was a deciding factor in my success was how well I was able to communicate with other people. It was far more important than any management or engineering skills I may have had.'
The winning formula
Fraser 'got interested in the whole subject' of business relationships and decided that there simply had to be a better way of learning how to deal with colleagues and direct reports than simply relying on instinct.
He says he was fortunate in having access to good approaches to learning about management communication, that ultimately led to a 'eureka' moment where he found that there was a way to demystify the whole issue and apply some form of structure. He decided there must be a way of creating an objective process that we can all use in relating to people in business. 'I basically said to myself: suppose there was a formula for this? What would it look like?'
The answer is that there is a formula, and according to Fraser the people who are good at communicating with and managing people 'all essentially do it the same way'. They may not be aware of this, but the good people are all paying attention to a number of aspects of behaviour that can be modeled and understood.
Fraser maintains that we already have some of these skills; it's just that we're often inconsistent in how we use them. 'There will be areas where we are strong, and areas where we are weak. But with a bit of thought we can get clear in our minds what areas are working – areas where, with comparatively little effort, we can really raise our game.'
The key Fraser uses to unlock how we work as human beings is neuro-linguistic programming, which allows us to go deeper into relationships than simply relying on common sense or instinct. 'In effect, NLP switches the lights on and helps us to see what's really going on. It allows us to draw on the psychology expertise and gather together practical things that can be used to see what's actually happening in meetings and other work contexts.' And yet, the use of what Fraser describes as 'insightful approaches' is far from common practice.
For Fraser, the irony is that as engineers we have years of experience in our fields of expertise, and yet there is no structured model to allow us to deal with the most critical of business drivers – human relationships. He thinks that the fixes can be easily learned in a short time, with the additional benefit that if we improve this area it suddenly makes 'everything we do becomes much easier.'
A key component to management today is the ever present need for conflict resolution as a result of competing desires, personalities, objectives and ambitions. According to Fraser this is healthy as well as 'right and proper. But where there is an inability to resolve conflict, things can get out of proportion with the possible outcome of teams breaking down.
'So it's helpful to learn the difference between real conflict arising from real issues and a conflict that arises from people's inability to deal with personality traits. This doesn't need to be there, especially if we can be more flexible. And that is what my book is about: understanding what goes on when there are relationship breakdowns.'
But when it comes down to conflict generated by competing objectives, the first task is to try to work out what are the desired outcomes of the individuals in play. The trick is to work out what is important to each person and find a way forward where all participants are handed the opportunity to back the plan.
'It's important to realise that we're not necessarily talking about consensus here because that would imply complete agreement. What's important is to find something sufficiently of interest to all parties.'
All parties could be as many as 100 people. Fraser explains that we typically deal with that number in our working relationships. But with the span of reporting normally in the region of seven people, clearly most of those that we deal with are outside the management context. 'At most, a mere 10 per cent of the people we interact with actually work for us. So in deciding what the right managerial approach to life is, we find that's only a tenth of the question in any case.'
You could spin this around and ask how we deal with the other 90 per cent. 'This is probably as important, because these people are our peers, customers, colleagues – all areas where we don't have authority. With team members we can perhaps fall back on our authority to get what we want done. I would argue that this is not a good strategy because it's expensive in terms of goodwill. But if we can conduct our relationships with insight then things happen with a natural momentum.'
For readers who may find all this talk about relationships a bit too touchy-feely in the objectivity driven world of designing and manufacturing metal things that go clunk, Fraser points out that understanding how relationships work is very good for keeping you within the framework of the law. 'Absolutely. If we can handle relationships in a way that is humanly sensible then we can't go too far wrong.'
And we need to apply this because the days when organisations were hierarchical, when everyone had one boss 'and it was as clear cut and simple as that' are gone. 'Most engineers need to achieve their results in complex and ambiguous management contexts, where they have to deal with a whole range of people, very few of which they have any form of authority over. Essentially, good citizenship is a vital touchstone for getting it right.'
'Relationships Made Easy for the Business Professional', by David Fraser, is published by HotHive Books, £14.99