“That was the biggest waste of time I have ever sat through. Who cares about communication styles or generations? That has nothing to do with engineering or this industry! The next time you better focus on things that matter!”

This is actual feedback given to me by an engineer after he participated in a communication styles and generational differences class I taught a couple of years ago. I remember afterwards being in shock from the audacity of being called out in that manner, and from thinking that a senior engineer could believe that communication skills and generational differences are not relevant in the success of an engineering organization. As I told that story to some of my colleagues, they simply laughed. I remember my vice president of HR saying “that’s the way engineers are!”

Soft skills really matter

Are soft skills important to engineers? Anecdotally, we have all heard of the extremely intelligent individual who lacks the ability to work on team assignments, communicate with clients, or maintain professionalism. Typically, this results in a lack of effectiveness and limits growth opportunities.

Craig Watson’s research on successful professionals―cited in the McKinsey Quarterly in 1983―provides support to this example. He stated that those who successfully utilize soft skills generally outperform those who rely solely on technical knowledge. Both Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence and Daniel Pink’s publication, A Whole New Mind,have expanded on this notion with numerous examples of the importance of relationship building, communication, and teamwork toward both individual and corporate performance. Specific to engineering, University of Washington Professor David Socha’s article “Teaching Reflective Skills in an Engineering Course” cites the lack of soft skills as a contributing factor in the majority of engineering project failures.

In today’s marketplace, soft skills play an important role in differentiating potential candidates for employment or advancement. In an article in Direction Magazine, Richard Serby, founder of the Geosciences recruiting firm GeoSearch, stated that the development of soft skills is critical considering the “intense competition for many available positions.”

In the day-to-day work of engineers and technical specialists, softs skills are critical components of success. For example, when designing a transformer for high voltage transmission lines (those metal power lines you often see running along highways), it takes more than one engineer to complete the project. It requires a team of engineers and other professionals―drafters, project managers, and administrative staff―working together and potentially interfacing with clients, regulatory agencies, subcontractors, and even public advocacy groups. What would be the likelihood of success if team members could not communicate together? What if they could not share responsibilities and accountability in working as a team? What if there was no leadership present in the project? Remember that “failure” in a project like this not only means a loss of revenue, but may very well mean loss of life!

Soft skills promote career success

Why do so many engineers and technical specialists struggle with and even fight against learning these skills? One theory links back to failure of universities to create soft skills-related courses within engineering or other technical-degree curricula. Bernd Schulz, in a 2008 Journal of Language and Communication article entitled “The Importance of Soft Skills,” cited engineering board proposals as far back as the 1960s that proposed at least 20 percent of collegiate engineering curricula should be composed of soft skills related courses.

German author Dietrich Schwanitz, when comparing the levels of soft skills of hypothetical graduates of Mechanical Engineering programs with that of a History of Arts in 1999, rated the mechanical engineer at the level of a caveman. Yet even today, many graduate from engineering programs with little exposure to soft skills, and thus, do not feel that soft skills are important in career success.

Another reason is difficulty in grasping soft skills for analytical personalities. Much of the knowledge and skills learned in engineering and other technical disciplines have black and white answers. Soft skills, on the other hand, often fall into “shades of gray.” They deal with subjective and often hard to measure aspects such as personality and emotions. These are difficult concepts to grasp for many in the workplace.

Another reason may be the failure of corporate training departments to structure soft skills education in a way that technical employees can grasp. To train technical employees in soft skills,workplace learning professionals should:

  1. Meet them halfway. Remember that technical professionals are typically not comfortable with soft skills. Thus, starting off by having individuals share their emotions or communicate in front of a group simply won’t work, and will lead to aggravation and contention. Instead, start with a relevant case study or sample problem that technical professionals can understand, and apply those to the importance of soft skills.
  2. Don’t make assumptions. It is easy to assume that someone is “socially inept” if they cannot initially grasp soft skills concepts. Not only is this a false assumption, but it also is damaging toward individuals. Instead, explore where discomfort lies in individuals when training on soft skills. Self assessments and simulations are great methods to explore discomforts without making assumptions. Be sure to be prepared with the validity or reliability data of the assessments in case of being challenged.
  3. Be supportive. For some, learning soft skills will be as foreign as Organic Chemistry to a sociology major. As Marcus Buckingham proposes, we all have strengths and weaknesses. But even areas of weakness can be developed to maximize effectiveness. Be sure that as a trainer, you remain optimistic and supportive of individuals as they grow through the frustration and eventual success of learning soft skills.

Utilizing these approaches will help to bridge the gap between technical professionals and soft skills, thus enabling these professionals to be more effective and have greater opportunity for advancement throughout their careers.