Why Engineers and Managers Can’t Communicate

Hopefully, you have already read A Manager’s Focus and An Engineer’s Focus.  If not, I encourage you to do so, because the purpose of this post is to discuss why it is that engineers and managers tend to have difficulty communicating.  In fact, many times, while watching communication happening during meetings, it is fascinating to realize that both are talking, thinking their point is getting across but in reality they are talking to the equivalent of a brick wall!

Talking to a brick wall

So there are essentially three main reasons the two worlds have difficulty interacting with each other.  The first is that both groups speak essentially different languages.  The engineers are predominantly focused on implementation details.  The how-to of getting the task accomplished.  The managers are more focused on what they want to be implemented.  The how-to of that implementation they leave to the engineers, though they tend to believe that anything can be achieved if you put enough brain-power into the system.  This is technically a nearly true statement, but the real question is how to put that much though into the system before development comes to a half with too many differing opinions.

The second reason is that most engineers (save for the politically savvy or overly aggressive ones) tend to be solitary individuals.  Wander around an engineering workplace (I’d say accounting fits this mold too), you will likely be intrigued at how little discussion actually goes on!  Engineers push their brains into work-mode and then mentally wander into their own world by themselves to address a problem.  There’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, you want your engineers to be completely focused on their tasks, or you will notice that there are more bugs and malfunctions in the end result.  A side-effect of this isolation-based mentality, however, is that in group meetings, most won’t open their mouths to indicate they have a problem.

The manager will start talking, impressing the importance of the new features they wish to add, and the engineer is thinking of how feasible those features are.  They nod, smile when looked at, chuckle when necessary, but their brains are processing projections, implementation details, feasibility concerns, etc.  The manager looks at a nodding engineer and assumes all is well.

With their meeting finished, the manager thanks everyone for coming and lets them go.  The engineer isn’t done yet.  They are still processing.  They say their goodbyes and meander back to their desk before finally, they are done thinking.  Now, what to do?  Do they email everyone in the meeting to tell them why the just “agreed upon” decisions are not going to work the way they want?  Most likely not.  Perhaps he/she will tell them in the next meeting, yeah that sounds like a better idea… now back to work.

I’m going to save the third for the next post, due to the length of this one, currently.  What are some other reasons besides being solitary and different outlooks that you have seen for engineers failing to connect with managers on decision-making processes?  I’d love to hear from you!