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September 10, 2017 BY PATRICK ALBINA

Emotional Equations for Engineers

When it comes to soft skills, engineers often get a poor rap as we are judged through a stereotypical lens of being a geeky and introverted bunch. Apparently, we also love to lock ourselves away in a room to work with facts, figures and numbers, with as little human contact as possible.

Sure, some engineers have a degree of social awkwardness, but hey…who’s to say what the definition of ‘normal’ is nowadays anyway? When it comes to expressing emotions, we just like to do this in our own minimalist and personal way. Engineers are some of the most creative people I know and some of the most brilliant people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. The act of engineering can be a ‘visceral’ whole of body experience, that is, we rely on all of our senses with which to assess the situation and make sound decisions.  Being in touch with the way we feel is important.

Having spent many of my formative years as an Aeronautical Engineer in Defence, I find that engineers actually experience a great depth of emotion. We may not be outwardly emotional, however our emotions are nonetheless genuine. They appear as resolve, frustration and fortitude, all in a quest to ensure safety and find that elegant solution.

As an Executive Coach and Consultant, I work with various engineering leaders, teams and organisations that seek to make a change and/or desire improved performance (note the emphasis on improved performance, not to correct performance). I work with them to make sense of what is going on by helping them to listen to their intuition and understand the power of their emotion, after all, emotion is the power source that drives us forward in life.

Let me assure you that there is no tree hugging, holding hands or singing Kumbaya involved. Rather, I bring about an awakening through something that engineers well and truly know…equations. I’d like to share a small sample below:

Equation 1. Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness

Think of something that makes you anxious. Public speaking? Meeting new people?   Asking someone out on a date? Anxiety is fuelled by the fear of the unknown and our belief that we cannot control the inevitabilities. For engineers, the key ingredients of anxiety are counterintuitive to what we are taught to do, i.e., what we don’t known (uncertainty) and what we cannot control (powerlessness). In fact, these factors have a tendency to feed off each other – the more uncertain we are, the more powerless we become. The more powerless we are – the more uncertain we become.

This is a tough predicament, especially since engineers are expected to be able to work things out and deliver the goods.

Uncertainty. Let’s face it…our world is more complex and volatile today than ever before, leading to unprecedented levels of uncertainty. We used to say that change was the only constant, but now it is increasing in a non-linear manner. Coupled with our perceived inability to make sense of uncertainty, much less do anything about it, it is no surprise that workplace stress management, mental health and well-being have fast become emerging issues.

Powerlessness. Powerlessness comes into play when we deny the fact that our world has shifted, and we fail to realise that our thinking, methodology and approach also needs to evolve accordingly if we are to have any chance of succeeding. Rapid change brings with it a multitude of decisions. What we experience as ‘resistance to change’ is actually a lack of clarity as to what to do and a perception of threat, leading to decision paralysis and subsequently a relapse back to the status quo. If this cycle cannot be broken, it results in increasing feelings of powerlessness and victim mentality.


Equation 2. Flow = Skill / Challenge

Flow is a highly focused state of relaxed concentration that obliterates all else out of consciousness. Finding flow enables you to harness your emotions in a single-minded immersion of an activity that takes you to peak performance. Finding your state of flow requires a balance between skill and challenge. Undertaking an activity that is relatively easy for your skill level will result in feeling bored or relaxed. Trying something way above your skill level, and you’ll likely end up feeling stressed or anxious.

Challenge. A highly astute engineering mentor of mine used to say to me during my transition into an Engineering Manager role, “…you’ll not encounter any technical challenges” (…in his German accent). Initially bewildered, I came to appreciate his wisdom in the years that followed when the obstacles that I had to overcome were invariably associated with people, culture, expectations, perceptions and emotions. It was a brave new world in which I had to learn new skills. True to his word, any technical issues were addressed in a relatively straightforward manner – we knew how to solve these.

Skill. Engineers like to be logical, methodical and rational, and much of our learned methodology is based upon these principles. However these approaches have limitations given our inability to predict and plan the future due to the increasing level of uncertainty as discussed above. The only way to deal with uncertainty is to accept it as the new ‘norm’ and develop the new skills that are more adept in changeable and unclear situations. Efficiently applying unsuitable methodology may give the perception of skilful accomplishment, but it is a bit like delivering a flawed strategy with ruthless precision.

Equation 3. Joy = Love – Fear

Now I did promise no tree hugging, holding hands or singing Kumbaya, but I do think that this is a great equation. This is a very useful equation as it forms the basis of other related ‘vectors’ (yes…LOL!) that have both personal and practical application. These ‘vectors’ are:

  • Fulfilment = Passion – Risk
  • Innovation = Creativity – Cynicism

Imagine that you have an important decision to make. It could be to leave your job (or accept a new career pathway), it could be to move overseas or it could be about pursuing a new idea for the company. Now what would it feel like to make this decision based on your passion rather than risk aversion. Would your decision be different if it were made from a place of creativity rather than of cynicism? Quite often we default to a decision based on our risk aversion, or one that may not contain sufficient belief to move past a cynical view to ultimately conform to a conservative norm. After all, cynics are merely frustrated idealists.

Whether risk aversion or cynicism, those things that trigger fear are some of the most restrictive and counter-productive emotions. Fear is a vicious predator of joy, risk of fulfilment and cynicism of innovation.

Engineers are naturally passionate about what they do and creative in the way they do it. That said, sensible risk taking and healthy scepticism are necessary to ensure the mandate of safety standards and the discovery of the elegant solution. The answer of course sits with finding the right balance. So next time you are faced with an important decision and you find yourself clenching up inside, you are likely to be in a state of defensiveness called fear. Now knowing this, will you be able to make the best decision possible?

I’ve placed a lot of focus on engineers, mainly because I am one myself and I can speak from personal experience. However, these equations could really apply to anyone who is seeking clarity between the evidence that is placed right in front of them, and the instinctive emotions that come from deep within. Hopefully these emotional equations offer you new insights and clarity into ways in which you may be able to change behaviours, come to terms with your own reactions, and ultimately make better decisions.  If nothing else, then hopefully it has provided you with a framework around which to have a decent conversation with a trusted colleague about how you are feeling.

If you have any emotional equations of your own, I would love to hear them.