Brian Neville-O’Neill recently sent me this Reddit conversation in which an engineer complains that he is consistently reprimanded by his boss “for over stepping my bounds.” As the sole engineer at his company, he interfaces with multiple departments yet has no job description or guidelines for working with other teams. Advice from fellow engineers? Find another job.
Maybe they’re right. Good engineers should work closely with other disciplines—marketing, human factors, field service, production, etc. So, when your boss says, “stay in your box,” he or she is asking you to purposely break habits that make you good at your profession.
Still, resigning is a big step. If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are a few things to try (or just think about) to make sure there isn’t something else causing the problem.
- Deal with the ambiguity. A 2010 research paper suggests that perceived role ambiguity robs engineers and other manufacturing professionals of their creativity—and job satisfaction. Role ambiguity arises when uncertainty “duties, authority, allocation of time, and relationships with others” stress out workers. The authors propose two solutions:
- Get management to better define your role. Simply approach your manager and ask for a solid job description. In writing.
- Get used to uncertainty by working in more unstructured but risk-free situations. While this seems off the mark, it doesn’t hurt to ask yourself a few questions. Are you uncomfortable with too much freedom? Are you overstepping your bounds because you won’t let other people do their jobs? Have you become controlling?
- Understand your colleagues’ priorities. I don’t buy into the stereotype that engineers are awkward and uncommunicative. But if your priorities and values are dramatically different than those of your colleagues, they may want to avoid working with you.
Some interesting research shows that your stressors aren’t the same as everyone else’s. Interpersonal conflict is the largest source of anxiety for academic and sales professionals. Clerical workers suffer most when they’re overloaded with work. You know what makes engineers crazy? Wasted time and effort.
If your manager or the teams you interact with aren’t engineers, as was true for the Reddit engineer, it may be that they don’t understand your efforts or your frustrations. You may need to reset your (or their) expectations if you want to stick around at your job.
- Deliver your best technical communications. When your manager says you over reach, could the problem be you’re overwhelming your co-workers with detailed plans and solutions for them? If you’re trying to pitch ideas to others, especially non-engineers, remember your technical communication basics—active voice; short, concise sentences; and visual aids whenever possible. Most of all, know your audience. A well-aimed presentation (even if it’s no more than a single email or an in-person chat at the white board) that conveys your ideas quickly and clearly should always be welcome on a healthy team.
- Learn more about business. While you bring unmatched technical insight to the team and to your boss, they may feel you’re missing the big picture. Are you? Many engineers add business training, such as an MBA, to their resume to be more effective at their jobs. If you don’t want to commit to the time and cost of a graduate degree, explore free online programs from Coursera or EdX.
With all of that said, I’m not convinced you (or the Reddit engineer) are the problem when a supervisor asks you to “stay in your box.” You may have the wrong boss in an otherwise great company (in which case you could argue for finding a way to stay with the company but not the manager.) Or you may be working in a corporate culture that doesn’t value engineers and their expertise.
These points are just intended to help you be more confident in whatever decision you make. Good luck, and take comfort in the knowledge that you aren’t the only misunderstood engineer out there:
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