While technical skills can make someone a good engineer, it takes a mastery of soft skills to make a good engineer into a great one. That’s an insight shared by engineering organizations, hiring managers and industry leaders alike and reflects the findings of studies within the technical service industry.
The idea of engineers toiling away on projects in isolation without needing to communicate or collaborate with others is more than a misconception — it’s a harmful falsehood. No one works in a vacuum, and in today’s multidisciplinary and multicultural industries, engineers must be confident and comfortable in working with team members and stakeholders from different fields and backgrounds.
However, finding engineers that have developed their soft skills can be challenging. The good news is these skills are trainable at an individual level and replicable across the entire organization. Here’s what you need to know about these essential skills and how you can help foster them in your team.
What Are Soft Skills for Engineering?
Also known as socio-emotional skills, common skills, interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence (EI) or emotional quotient (EQ), soft skills refer to the character traits and behaviors that determine how a person interacts with others. They are the foundations of how we operate within a society, from everyday interactions with family and friends to how we approach large social gatherings and navigate the workplace.
In the workplace, soft skills are considered an important complement to hard skills, which are the pure knowledge and skills specific to an occupation. We know that hard skills are acquired through education, training and on-the-job experience, but soft skills training is less well understood. While many develop their own skills over time by forming social relationships, receiving mentoring and committing to their own personal development, there are excellent training and certification programs for soft skills.
The soft skills of an engineer are the same as those of any other profession. While engineers, scientists and programers have wrongfully earned a reputation for being anti-social or off-putting, in reality they’re as creative, passionate and empathetic as any other professional. Their soft skills can — and should — be developed over time with the right training and encouragement.
Benefits of Soft Skills
In the workplace, soft skills help to create an environment in which employees are more satisfied with their jobs and are able to perform better. A study by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found that a 63% majority of the people with supervisors who measured high in emotional intelligence reported being happier, more creative and more innovative at work. At the same time, a 70% majority of employees under managers who measured low in emotional intelligence reported feeling more stressed and frustrated.
Organizations that promote and support the development of soft skills for their employees are more likely to see:
- Improved relationships between coworkers, which helps to resolve conflicts, build stronger teams, encourage collaboration and retain talent.
- Improved customer service and customer relations, which can translate into greater customer satisfaction and increased sales.
- Easier sharing of knowledge between teams, which not only increases efficiency, it can allow for a smoother onboarding process for new employees.
- An overall increase in productivity and improved business results.
The true advantage of soft skills is that they’re applicable to almost every situation and transferable across departments. There’s no need for re-training or upskilling when an employee with a high EQ transfers into a leadership position or to a new department. Instead, after some adjustments, they should be able to continue employing — and developing — their existing interpersonal skills. Training in soft skills pays recurring dividends.
5 Important Soft Skill Areas for Engineers
Employers should value a balance of hard and soft skills when making decisions about hiring and promoting personnel. While soft skills are more universally applicable than hard skills, there are some important soft skill areas that are especially important for engineers to develop.
- Communication — This is the most important soft skill for engineers to work within and across teams. Effective communication is essential for understanding project requirements, collaborating on projects and navigating service situations. Communication has several components, including:
- Verbal communication, which is the ability to discuss matters in an open and inclusive way, while conveying information in an effective and concise manner. Not only is good verbal communication vital for public speaking situations, today’s virtual and hybrid work environments require specialized communication skills in order to overcome the limitations of remote communication.
- Non-verbal communication, which accounts for any and all of the physical expression that reinforces a message. Even a positive message may have negative effects when conveyed in a manner that makes people feel uncomfortable or stressed.
- Written communication, including asynchronous communication through email, memos and notes. From how we title our emails to when we respond to inquiries, there are certain considerations that should always be taken into account to build and maintain working relationships.
- Active listening, because good communication isn’t one-sided. Being an “active” listener requires showing that you’re engaged in the conversation, able to provide feedback and can offer appropriate responses. When utilized well, active listening allows employees to proactively anticipate the needs of others.
- Lifelong learning — Learning doesn’t end after a training session or earning a new position. Every engineer should be open to learning new ways of doing things; it is an essential component for personal growth and professional development. Simply sticking to “what works” or relying on old approaches risks inefficiencies, failures and frustration. A commitment to lifelong learning requires:
- Critical thinking, or the active process of questioning, analyzing and evaluating facts and data to make an informed judgment. A lifelong learner never takes things at face value, and instead always tries to dig below the surface of an issue.
- Adaptability, which requires a level of creativity and innovation, is being open to “outside the box” thinking and experimenting with new ideas or techniques. Being able to accept that some things will fail or turn out differently than planned is essential for recognizing when it’s time to try a new approach.
- Research and analytical skills, both of which are essential for making informed decisions. While they’re both necessary for technical knowledge, knowing how and where to conduct research and having the capability to analyze and synthesize data into reasonable conclusions are life-long soft skills for engineers that are relevant for every situation.
- Leadership — Any engineer who wants to advance in their career needs to know the difference between management and leadership. Management is about accomplishing a goal, whereas leadership is the ability to offer advice, guidance, mentorship or structure to achieve success. True leadership requires the following:
- Teamwork/Collaboration, which includes the ability to work with others and defer to their expertise. True leaders are humble enough to be open to accept feedback and are aware enough to provide constructive criticism. They are first in taking responsibility for themselves and others on their teams.
- Negotiation skills, which are essential for building a rapport with others and then finding the best outcomes and value for everyone. Being able to effectively give and take is as important for managing internal teams as it is for providing services to customers and purchasing from vendors.
- Empathy, or being able to “read” others, asks that we be perceptive about others’ state of mind and receptive to their needs. It is a key asset in understanding how to approach sensitive situations and getting “below the waterline” of a customer’s concerns.
- Strategic Planning — It’s impossible to prepare for every situation, so engineers need to be confident in their approach to any problem or issue. Strategic planning starts by evaluating a situation, considers multiple options and outcomes, then weighs the use of resources and personnel in order to make the best decision moving forward. Good strategic planning also accounts for:
- Time management, which is necessary for delivering results within a specified time frame. This requires understanding when to prioritize different tasks, how to eliminate redundancies and set realistic deadlines.
- Stress management, in order to keep team morale high and avoid frustration and breakdowns. This means being able to identify stress triggers within yourself and seeing them in others, then taking action to mitigate or eliminate the stressors. This can include re-prioritizing tasks, adjusting timelines or finding “downtime” to allow for de-stressing.
- Ethics — This is the commitment that the work can’t be for its own sake, or cause harm, but must be for the betterment of others. Ethics is such a core element of engineering that the National Society of Professional Engineers maintains its own official code of ethics. Ethical practice requires:
- A commitment to truth and honesty.
- The determination to follow through on tasks and projects.
- The integrity to hold yourself and others accountable and to own up for mistakes and shortcomings.
- Taking the time to determine if projects serve the public interest, are sustainable for the environment and do not discriminate against others.
- Making an effort to be respectful, impartial, fair and equitable to others.
How to Develop Soft Skills
The development of soft skills is a continuous process that takes place over a lifetime. Performing self-evaluations and receiving feedback are important for continued development. For engineers who wish to develop their soft skills, consider the following to-dos:
- Actively seek to interact with others, both with fellow engineers and with professionals in other fields. Don’t risk isolating yourself and losing invaluable feedback, especially in today’s environment where fully remote or virtual environments can limit daily interactions.
- Look for opportunities to present to others, either at regular team meetings or in larger company events. These situations can help build your communication skills, develop your confidence and position you as more of a leader.
- Seek out and secure time in projects to read and conduct research. Lifelong learning requires effort beyond the day-to-day work responsibilities. Be more active within your professional community by subscribing to content like newsletters, blogs and podcasts. Volunteer for conferences to expand your professional network.
- Make a plan to get organized. Strategic planning practice doesn’t just have to be tied to work projects. Set aside some time for personal development and set your own personal soft skill goals that can be achieved at events or meetings.
- Engage in your evaluations — including self-evaluations. Take the opportunity to get a reading on how others see your soft skills, your leadership and your value as a team member. Be sure to take feedback to heart, but never personally.
Companies can assist their employees in developing soft skills by offering courses or experiential training programs. Such programs can teach new skills, build on existing strengths and foster continued growth. For example, our own Total Customer Focus™ training suite is designed to cover all the areas referenced above and develop skills that bring about a series of personal and organizational shifts:
- Moving employees from being reactive to proactive in addressing customer needs, so they can take the lead in managing customer relationships.
- Training employees to go beyond the visible technical issues to understand and address a customer’s real, often hidden, needs.
- Showing employees how to work toward achieving balanced outcomes for you and your customer that are win-win and sustain working relationships for the long term.
- Overcoming personal barriers to change.
The Total Customer Focus Roadmap
Our best-in-class training approach helps today’s engineers succeed in the new service-dominant landscape. Here are key components of the Global Partners Training roadmap for achieving success:
We customize the training to your needs and goals — While the proprietary toolkit used in our standard programs is suitable for all clients, the experiential components are all custom-written based on interviews with key members of your team. We ensure that your training has immediate relevance for all participants and will be uniquely focused on your desired business outcomes.
Our embedding process delivers permanent behavior change — Instructional design is crafted for spaced learning and multiple points of reinforcement to combat the “forgetting curve”. Participants immediately apply their new skills on actual projects and day-to-day work so that new habits are formed and your company benefits from permanent behavior change.
We employ a robust measurement system for skill adoption and business ROI — Our best-in-class system not only captures skill adoption by the participants, but also registers causality (i.e. results are due to the training and not other factors) and business returns (ex: saved time, saved money, new revenue opportunities, and faster resolution times). Participants take away a powerful understanding of their own personal impact on your business through application of their new skills.
Soft skills training and development is fundamental to the growth and success for your company. Ensure that you’re investing in the right training to cultivate those necessary skills.
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