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.

arguing_with_the_engineer_may_be_ineffective_poster-r89c3520f924f44bc995a8a4d5884f956_wqa_8byvr_512

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.


 

  • Sean

    First, I don’t think “arguments” have any business being in the workplace. If you find yourself in argumentative situations at work, it is either a problem with you, or the work culture you are in (or maybe both). Professionals have constructive “discussions”. With that being said, the entire process of developing a good product or engineering solution is built on iteration, a process in which your initial work gets dumped on (at least to some degree). So if you are going to be good at developing novel and new things, you better get used to it. You also need to know your place in the engineering world. Are you at a job where new and creative solutions are welcomed and encouraged? Or… are you somewhere that just needs practical, pragmatic, tried and true engineering solutions? If you are trying to do whiz bang new things in the latter situation, expect the senior engineers to stomp your guts out. And always remember, it is the senior engineer that takes responsibility for the failure of the engineering effort as a whole at the end of the day. That is why they are the senior ones. So don’t expect them to go out on a limb because you want to try something new. If it fails, the rest of the crew can put their finger on their noses and walk away while the senior guy who has many more years invested in their career and probably company must take the damage. You need to earn their trust and confidence by producing solid results and establishing a track record of successful outcomes before you can earn their respect. This is also called “experience”. You gain it on your way to becoming the trusted senior guy. Don’t be offended if your ideas get shot down by trying the “trust me I have an engineering degree” approach and your unsubstantiated judgement is in conflict with a more senior engineer’s. If you can’t produce solid and understandable engineering-based evidence to support your approach, at the right time in the process, then you are failing as a communicator.

    • Smeatfree

      Whatever the perfect world should provide, the reality is that some really experienced people with big attitudes exist in the workforce. These people are a fantastic asset to any company but when it comes to making a team decision they can outvote the timid and put the handbrake on new developments. I have had a couple of these experiences whereby I had to use my own obstinate nature to find a way around them. In these cases where the decision is being made by opinion rather based on fact, you just have to find a way to get the data if you think your idea has legs. That means not arguing about it but by proposing a means to a resolution that does not involve someone having to back down. In one case that involved doing tests using an outside contractor, which subsequently became an in-house manufacturing process.

  • Eric Fredericksen

    Its simple really, If your right then you should be able to prove it empirically. Engineers are logical and will respond to the data. If they don’t then they are probably not good engineers.

    • Ralf Weigel

      Dear Eric,

      if only… Human beings (yes, also engineers) in a meeting love their own ideas and contributions always much better than those of the other attendees. Logic will be bent to prove their point. Please believe me, I’m coaching teams in creativity methods and more efficient meetings since many years. It’s very hard to separate an idea/design/solution from it’s creator, attack the idea and you attack the person who proposed it.

      Greetings from Germany

      Ralf

      • Cliff Bargar

        Maybe it’s a product of workplace culture? In my experience (after ~8 mo) working in a medium-sized company with many highly experienced engineers (many of whom have advanced degrees) my coworkers are frequently (although not always) able to check their egos at the door in favor of deferring to sound logic and physical principles

      • Eric Fredericksen

        If you have one engineer in a room bending logic and the rest of the team cannot call him out on that…you probably have a room full of incompetent engineers. Just my opinion. As team members we simply cannot make decisions in a vacuum. If you have one person bending logic to make their points valid, they are simply not competent engineers. Competent engineers use the scientific method.

  • Dave

    Good article Gordon, you are wise beyond your years.

  • Excellent article. As an experienced engineer I saw myself reflected in the text more often than I would like.

    Often engineering decisions are quite arbitrary as there are equal benefits in two or more different approaches. Under these conditions the older engineer will generally favour the less novel (i.e. less risky) approach when the youngster will often consider a new approach “kind of neat” and possibly leading to interesting advantages when fully developed.

    The other aspect is that I grew up with a slide rule in my hand (yes, I am that old) so evaluating a new concept was a laborious business and not to be done too often. When pocket calculators and then computers became mainstream it was possible to explore many different options in much more detail than before.

    Even today I find it extraordinary that I can build a computer model and then change its dimensions later instead of being committed to a certain geometry as soon as my pencil touched the Mylar. The reluctance of a more experienced engineer to embark on new solutions is often based on an unconscious throwback to the time when developing a new concept was fraught with lots of additional work and uncertainty. Young engineers have no such inhibitions and will happily pursue novelty knowing that CAD designs & computer simulations can often substitute for an old man’s experience of “the way it has always been done”..

    • Roger-Marie Couture

      Wow

    • marcoselmalo

      Hey there!
      I’m not an engineer, but I found the article very interesting. Like you, I try to be open to different ideas, new methods, and I especially want to know if I’ve made a mistake(!). I’m also told I have a gruff personality.

      What I think I respond to best is when a subordinate says, “Could you help me? I’m getting something wrong (a result different from mine).” And then proceed to show me where I got it wrong.

      I also find that this formulation works with superiors and other people senior to me.

      There’s also “you might think so, but it turns out not to be the case” when correcting an error or assumption.

      • gregge

        So when the senior person has something wrong, approach that person as though you think *your* result is incorrect, allowing the senior to discover their own error. Sneaky way to get something corrected.

  • McMEM

    Gordon: How about another article on how the senior engineer should help. In my case, I am the senior engineer, and my boss assigned a young pretty girl with no engineering experience as the lead engineer. The final product is dangerous and can kill the user.

    • Martin Altria

      What about testing ? I have seen loads of items in the automotive after market industry that should never had left the drawing board, let alone been made and then sold, and all done on the cheap with no testing !!!

  • Jimbo

    Before I say anything about this, I should say, I am not an engineer. My engineering education was terminated by health problems that the doctors couldn’t diagnose, let alone treat. Because I made the mistake of trying to “stick it out”, my last year’s grades were very poor, and I was forced out. Since my health problems were still undiagnosed, I couldn’t get
    disability. I had to earn a living. so I became an engineering
    technician. I found, that even though I didn’t finish my education, I knew more about engineering than many of the public school graduates. I tried to get back into school for decades. But that last year’s grades always kept me from gaining admission.. No one would let me start over from scratch, either. The grades were a “dishonorable discharge.”

    So I have had 35 years experience dealing with engineers. And I find that the best way to deal with 90% of engineers, is to let them think that they came up with the idea or solved the problem. That is the only way to keep the peace.

    • Mechanian

      You can accomplish anything you want, as long as you don’t care who gets the credit!

      • Jimbo

        I’d agree with that statement. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t whining about the treatment I have received over the years. I know the rules. Degrees open doors. No degree? You’re going to have a lot tougher time getting valued for your contribution. I have the satisfaction of knowing I have done a lot of design work. And that is the whole reason I wanted to get into engineering.

    • Roger-Marie Couture

      Too bad it’s like that but you’re right, man being what he is, let him believe things is much more efficient and ultimately it is easy enough to ensure that the benefit back to those who deserved.

  • Ed G

    I’m a consultant doing my own mechanical design and mechanical drafting service. I’m not a real engineer – I’m just a mechanical design engineer with 40 years experience, and have learned that it is best for me to say to the real engineer, “I’ll do it any way you want as long as it doesn’t fall on someone and kill them” or “I can do that but it will cause such and such a result later” – and if they insist or determine that’s what they want then I do it. I have – however – had calls at home from upper level individuals who asked me to look into some of those situations where I warned of potential problems. Sometimes the real engineer tried many times with many solutions to make that concept work, and consistently failed to do so. In each case I indicated I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes – and was given the reply that this person was that real engineer’s boss and I was being instructed to look into the situation. In each case I was able to describe that problematic aspect of the situation and was even able to arrive at a concept that when it was executed it produced the necessary function. I’m no smarter than anyone else – not special – but there are certain things that are either recurrences of earlier difficult situations or things that for some reason seemed to me were not likely to work as expected, based on just my impression of the concept and expected function. Sometimes even highly experienced schooled engineers don’t know which type of bearing to use. Basic.

  • sloppyslim

    imo , you’ve done a service to junior and senior engineers alike .
    a mirror helps to remind what being junior felt like

    [I see Butch Dalrymple-Smith already made my point , and more]

  • bruce shand

    Great article. Another frustration with more junior engineers is when their ideas mysteriously become the chief engineer’s.

  • Roger-Marie Couture

    Excellent article on a very interesting topic that will always be relevant.
    I’m not an engineer, I am an artist-designer but I love working with engineers. I’m like a junior who will never retired! But it seems to me interesting that to “even out” the professional relationship, each must not forget the importance of the creativity of each, because the actual profit earned in a work is related as much to the creativity of the people that their practical abilities.
    It reminds me of the work of my doctor son who is asked to heal first yes, but also to enter into sincere relationship with its patients precisely because the patient himself becomes an important factor in its own healing.
    You guessed that I try to find a higher principle to the conventions, but also must be part of the corporate culture.
    It’s still great to see that regardless of human activity, the behavior of stakeholders is still one of the most important parameters in the production of all types of projects.

  • Martin Altria

    I run my own Engineering design, development and manufacturing company, I would really appreciate having somebody that is open enough to discuss their new ideas. I really cannot understand Engineers who have closed ideas, as to me they are simply costing money not saving it, without new ideas being heard we wouldn’t have CAD and CAM etc, or CNC machines…. what ever it is, if you are a young Engineer (or just junior) and you have a good idea, then prove it, work through it logically and then discuss how it might fit in at your current work place, if you hit a brick wall, leave and get a decent job.

  • Barry Obama

    I just agree with them and then go do it the way I want.

  • gregge

    How experienced were the engineers who screwed up on the original iPhone 4 antenna?

  • Jimbo

    One of my employers had regular “brainstorming sessions”, in which several departments got together and picked away at a project, tackling one sub-system or design requirement at at time. The moderator would open the floor up to ideas and discussion. One of the hard and fast rules, was that no one could attack anyone. If they tried, the moderator nipped it in the bud immediately.

    The management invited not just engineers, but also technicians, and assembly workers. They had different insights. By bringing in a wide pool of people, you got ideas that “entrenched people” never would have thought of. Let’s face it. We all get stuck in the mud, reaching for the same solution over and over again. Some times there are easier solutions, but we can’t see them. I have to say, I found the sessions quite exciting. All sorts of interesting ideas pop up.

    As for challenging the work / calculations of an experienced engineer – that is dangerous territory. You have to approach it very carefully. Basically, you have to let them think they have found the problem. It helps to make your challenge without any co-workers around. That way, you don’t embarrass anyone.