Five Ways Engineers Struggle to Become Managers

Engineers can make great managers. They have highly-developed problem solving skills, and they have mastered knowledge needed to lead technology-based organizations. But the road from engineering to management can be surprisingly rocky. Management requires ways of behaving and thinking that can seem contrary to hard-learned engineering values. This can lead to teams of engineers, frustrated by managers who can’t manage, and newly-promoted managers who find themselves in positions of bewildering stress. 

Engineers understand that management is different from engineering. New managers learn they need to set objectives, delegate, give feedback, handle finances, etc. The concepts are easy, make sense, and engineers can convincingly articulate them. But engineers frequently struggle with applying them. Why? 

One reason is that engineers try to manage while still thinking like an engineer. They follow the checklist of good management practices, but they approach management with deeply-held engineering values. An engineer who wants to manage must not only learn new skills, but also learn to look at things from a new perspective.  Here are five areas where mindset can torpedo even the best engineer’s attempt to manage: 

  • Identity: What is My Job? An engineer is focused on product, tools, and technical expertise. A manager must focus on people – roles, relationships, organization. 
  • Independence: How do I do my job? Engineers treasure independent thinking and personally coming up with the best idea or solution. A manager needs to treasure effective teamwork and success of the group.
  • Aesthetics: What does excellence look like? Excellent engineering is elegant, flawless, uncompromising, and efficient. Excellent management often compromises, trading performance for affordability, efficiency for buy-in, perfection in the face of resource constraints.
  • Influence: How do I work with others? Engineers seek unambiguous, data-driven interactions with others, to communicate and resolve issues. Managers engage in rich personal interactions to bridge barriers to communication, pool multiple perspectives, explore ambiguity, and achieve consensus.
  • Learning: How do I develop as a professional? An engineer’s growth is driven by expanding explicit, technical knowledge in an area, so the engineer can operate there without making mistakes.  Managers become good managers by managing, making mistakes, and adding to their base of tacit knowledge. 

It’s not that the engineering mindset is not useful to managers. An engineering background can give a manager a real advantage. And of course, like managers, engineers need to relate to people and learn from experience. However, an engineer stepping into management needs to know that his or her job involves not just new duties, but new ways of thinking. And these new ways of thinking are going to be especially hard to learn, because they can grate against engineering sensibilities. Engineers becoming managers need to honor their engineering instincts, but recognize their limitations and make sure they don’t get in the way.


Author: Tom Robertson

Tom Robertson, Ph.D., is an organizational and engineering consultant specializing in harmonizing human and artificial intelligence. He has been an AI researcher, an aerospace executive, and a consultant in Organizational Development. An international speaker and teacher, he has presented in a dozen countries and has served as visiting faculty at Écoles des Mines d’Ales in France and Portland State University.

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