Communicating with the Powers That Be
Chances are that everybody faces some sort of clash or misunderstanding with their boss, at some point of their career. Indeed, issues with the management were identified as one of the key problems faced by electrical engineers, in my recent survey.
Note that it doesn’t necessarily mean that your supervisors are bad per se – there might simply be a communication issue at play here.
In any case, below are some tips to help manage most confrontations in this area.
Speak understandable language
This might be the biggest issue here. It might very well be that your boss does not understand your point, or your problems. This is even more likely when said boss stems from a different background than you. Those idiot MBAs, anyone?
Let me stress my point: can you perfectly explain terms like prospect, lead, funnel, future, equity, cash-out, etc? Maybe you can, but changes are that most of you reading this right now can’t. Your boss? He/she certainly could.
And those terms are quite simple, after all. I mean, they could be explained with simple English to a layperson. For instance, prospect is a “potential customer or client qualified on the basis or his or her buying authority, financial capacity, and willingness to buy“. Simple as that.
By contrast, try to explain complex numbers in an equally understandable fashion. And they are the very first thing that electrical engineers learn during their five-year university education. Just esoteric the fifth-year stuff must sound to an outsider.
And that’s what your boss very likely is – an outsider. They may and should know the basics, but they are almost certainly missing on many of the details.
Even worse is when they simply don’t understand, but misunderstand. For instance, a term like loss might create wholly different associations for a power systems engineer, and a salesperson.
So, here’s what I suggest, to make sure lack of understanding is not the main culprit.
Pick an outsider, meaning somebody out of your field of expertise. Explain your problem to them. (Mind any confidentiality issues, though.)
Next, have them explain the same problem to a third person (ideal), or to yourself in case you can’t find anybody else.
How well did your message get through?
Not very well, did it?
We did exactly this very exercise among engineering PhD students last month, and you wouldn’t believe how hilariously badly my 2-minute pitch was mangled. And these were engineers, dammit! A data scientist, a telecom guy, plus me. Just imagine what happens when you substitute in folks from HR and management background.
So what can you do about this?
Practise. A lot.
Use simple, unambiguous terms. Shorten and revise your presentation. Stress your points, a lot.
Speak their language
So, you have made sure your words and sentences get understood? Great.
But still, are you speaking their language? One of the key points in Dale Carnegie’s world-famous book was appealing to people’s self-interest.
In other words: what’s innit for them?
If you’re dealing with good (or even okay) management, the them in question would refer to the company as a whole, or the department or team or whatever.
Simply explain how solving your issue would everyone under your bosses responsibility. It doesn’t have to be about money: good leaders do understand factors like stress, and employee satisfaction.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all bosses. Some are arseholes, plain and simple. If that is the case, you’ll probably be better off by appealing to their literal self-interest. How good this change would make them look in everyone’s (and especially their supervisors’) eyes. Remember to come up with some impressive-sounding profit numbers (moneyyy!) too.
Or, start looking for another job.
This applies to communications in general.
Suggest a course of action – don’t ask for permission to implement it.
By doing this, you are adopting an active, a proactive role right from the start. And that’s a good approach, no matter who you’re dealing with.
A good manager will definitely like and appreciate employees that can offer solutions instead of just pointing out problems. Even though they might not agree with your suggestion, you are still making a good impression. The next time they are having a problem, they might just ask for your input.
A bad boss probably won’t mind a suggestion either. After all, it still leaves the power in their hands – they can still freely approve or reject it as they see fit. If you have manipulative streak, you can even try to make them think it was their idea after all! (What do you think we can do? I’ve heard that <this approach here> works nicely…)
And finally, it’s a suppreme approach for getting several colleagues or friends to agree on a date or an event. Imagine sending them all an email asking for ideas and date for the next afterwork. In all likelyhood, everybody expects someone else to answer – and nobody does. By contrast, if you simply say “Let’s go to the Great Pub next Friday at 17:00. Let me know if you can’t make it.”, you’re as good as set.
Finally, you may need to sell your approach to your boss. Of course, it’s not an actual sales process, but many of the same convincing and persuasion tactics still work.
Begin by stating the problem. Bear in mind the previous points. Make sure you get understood, and that they understand how it relates to the bigger picture.
If necessary, you follow with the aggravation stage next. Paint sinister (but realistic) scenarios about the further trouble and toil that’s likely to follow if no action is taken. The goal here is to make the recipient somewhat anxious. To really understand and feel the severity of the situation.
And finally, you step in and offer your solution to all this trouble and scary scenarios you’ve just painted on their mindscape.
However, don’t mistake selling with bullshitting. There’s no need to false here – it’s actually very much counterindicated. Keep it real, keep it realistic. After all, you do have a real problem here – otherwise you wouldn’t be talking to your boss about it.
For example, your concise persuasion pitch might look like this:
Did you know that our design team is struggling to model eddy current losses? We have no proper tool for it, so each simulation is taking hours to complete. It’s severely impacting our throughput, and I think we’re actually losing sales because of it. I’ve heard this one Antti Lehikoinen guy has just what we need – maybe we should hire him to consult!
–Awesome sales pitch
Everyone faces issues with their management at some point of their career. By taking care of proper communication, and taking a proactive approach, these problems can be managed and resolved.
Do you have experiences to share? Let us know in the comments!
Need help with electric motor design or design software? Let's get in touch - satisfaction guaranteed!