image of man with white mustache wearing construction hard hat

I wish I’d known how important people skills would be for success while practicing engineering and technical endeavors.

Bridges don’t build themselves. Treatment plants don’t operate themselves. Multidisciplined design efforts don’t spontaneously self-organize and coalesce. It’s people, of course, who are the common element in transforming ideas into reality. Whether performing or supervising work, incorporating the work of others into your projects, anticipating and addressing others’ expectations, or revising work plans for unexpected issues, any workplace can be a symphony of people interacting with one another — and one day you may find yourself as the conductor.

Individuals bring with them their own talents, abilities, preferences, baggage, habits, fears, and endearing quirks. Recognizing and working with this assemblage of traits is nearly as important to success as a project’s technical aspects. Refining something from a general concept to the final details requires a critical interaction of efforts in addition to a critical mass of contributors. So being better able to appreciate these influences — and learning to effectively navigate through them — would have been of great benefit.

Like our formal education, this people-focused approach won’t be just a matter of reading a few popular books and starting to tinker with your human subjects. It will take some thoughtful observation and mature sensitivity about the ways that others interact in small and large groups to appreciate what’s going on “under the hood” of your colleagues. That which is said, with expressions and intonation, along with what is not said — by body language, for instance — will provide tips about whether things are aligning well or skidding onto an off-ramp or a dead end. But if you pay close attention and actively participate, you can transform yourself from a spectator into a guide and facilitator.

If your only tool is a hammer, your solution to every problem will be a nail. So load more tools into your tool bag, such as trying the Socratic method, being respectful and inclusive of others’ ideas, recognizing the power of pauses, and using personality test exercises (such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) to benefit yourself and your team members. Growth spurts of emotional intelligence will help identify and create more win-wins in lieu of less satisfying compromises.

It is a blessing that everyone doesn’t think and behave the same. There truly is strength in diversity.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Civil Engineering as “Wish I'd Known.”