How to disagree with a more experienced engineer
In engineering workplaces across the country, a burgeoning workforce of new engineers is looking to assert itself. Along the way, they are learning how to work alongside, occasionally disagreeing, with an increasingly entrenched generation of more experienced and extremely knowledgeable engineers with decades of technical experience.
Disagreeing with a more experienced class can be a tall order. The typical experienced engineer harbors intense skepticism toward new, unproven ideas (or new, unproven peddlers of novel ideas). One can be sure to expect intense scrutiny of every minute technical detail of technical engineering work.
Certainly, a long engineering career demands a good skeptical mind, but over the years this bleeds deeper and further into every facet of the seasoned engineer’s life – well beyond the bounds of a strictly technical engineering discipline.
The less experienced engineer, boasting only a handful of years of meaningful engineering practice, must find a way to effectively collaborate with this more experienced generation of highly competent, yet painstakingly meticulous and critical engineers. The chief problem is that, in times of frank discussion or disagreement, a junior engineer is often led to feel as though every piece of his/her work is completely wrong. Some senior engineers seem to really enoy doling out excessive criticism like it was going out of style.
The result is that the less experienced engineers sit in silence all too often, fearing the fireworks that tend to fly during substantial disagreements in engineering judgment.
However, this must not be the junior engineer’s mode of operation. In moments of substantial disagreement or lack of consensus, less experienced engineers must find their voice and speak up for the sake of the technical engineering product and the success of the team.
In a situation such as this, there are three essential principles that will serve the less experienced engineer faithfully and help him/her to confidently, yet respectfully identify and resolve differences of technical engineering judgment.
Choose battles carefully
In general, engineers are very opinionated people, and the more seasoned engineer has had an entire lifetime to build and refine a seemingly infinite array of stances on various topics. If junior engineers are prone to pointing out every facet of disagreement with their more senior co-workers, do not be surprised if the same favors are returned with interest. A measure of vigilance is required on the part of the junior engineer in order to always take a constructive approach to resolving issues.
When a substantial engineering disagreement on a particularly important issue presents itself, the worst possible outcome occurs when the junior engineer has exhausted all his/her cooperative capital by endlessly engaging in arguments about trivial subjects – like the best place to buy auto parts.
In light of all this, the junior engineer would be very wise to save the substantial dialogues for technical exchanges that are really essential to ensuring that the group can complete its work with two feet grounded firmly in sound engineering judgment. Additionally, the junior engineer should practice a measure of restraint about the minor issues that may not significantly affect the overall quality of the engineering product. A working environment poisoned by constant, menial disagreements will lead to nothing but resentment between parties.
Don’t take criticism personally
Experienced engineers will never shy away from fixing even the most minor of perceived wrongs; a modest overcharge on a cable bill will require hours on the phone to remedy. They will also always offer perspectives or opinions on the way things had been done long before the junior engineers learned how to perform long division by hand.
In this sort of environment, it can be difficult not to translate every criticism on a personal level - a huge temptation for the junior engineer - which leads them to react in a defensive, hostile manner. This all but guarantees that they never speak up with a novel engineering solution to a problem.
The reality of the situation is that hard criticism is the love language of the seasoned engineer and is actually not a bombardment of attacks against the new engineer’s character.
On the contrary, a lack of brutal scrutiny would show an utter deficiency of care for the development of the junior workforce and the delivery of a quality product.
By being brutally skeptical, the experienced engineers employ the same method of discipline that was impressed upon them as junior engineers. The junior engineer must grasp this important distinction early in order to be able to shove off some of the excess bravado in the criticism received from far more senior engineers.
Stay grounded in solid engineering
Perhaps it’s obvious to affirm that for junior engineers to stand any chance in a disagreement with a far more senior engineer, they must be backed up by good engineering practices. But, the fact is that there is probably nothing the senior engineer respects more than a technically sound application of engineering disciplines and judgment, and there is usually never any discrimination against the person who performed it.
This must be the bridge between the two experience levels. When the time comes to finally discuss deep seated differences and concerns, the junior engineer must masterfully, yet concisely, communicate assumptions and approaches used to solve the problem. Only then will the senior engineer be ready to respectfully engage in a dialogue.
Know your stuff, don’t argue about auto parts (unless that’s your job), get thicker skin
These practices are certainly difficult to employ in every instance, but the junior engineer would be well served to at least keep them in mind during technical exchanges with all engineers, regardless of experience. The more this occurs the more the junior engineer will be reminded that even within animated disagreements, the goal is must always be collaboration to deliver a sound engineering product.
With careful daily practice of these principles, the new engineer holding down an entry level position can possess the humble confidence to productively grapple with the long tenured consultant engineer, recognizing that the quality of the work comes first. In so doing, the entire workplace will benefit by becoming a place where innovative technical problem solving skills are cultivated at all experience levels.
About the author: (Gordon Grob)
Gordon is a twenty-something mechanical engineer with an advanced degree in materials science. He is a product of the Rustbelt, currently residing in Pittsburgh after growing up near Cleveland. In his spare time, when he’s not searching for an exotic coffee or espresso drink, you can find him participating in an endurance sport, such as running or cycling.
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