The trouble with engineers

Mar 14, 2017

I’m about to make some generalizations that could get me in trouble with people I care about. If this includes you, please forgive me!

Engineers have problems. You heard me. Engineers have PROBLEMS! I have been working with engineers for 37 years now. That’s a long time and I’ve seen it all! And these problems I am referring to impact their success in both business and in their personal lives.

Here are a few of the “problems” I am referring to:

  1. Can’t make a decision. Engineers too often really struggle with this one. There’s never enough information. Therefore, it is deemed best to do nothing. This kills you when you are in business where your clients and employees need answers – or where delays implementing critical strategic initiatives translate into lost opportunities. I can’t tell you how many times over the course of my career I have been asked by an engineer-firm-owner this kind of question: “How many other 27-person MEP firms in Duluth have done this?” (Referring to a change we have recommended). That’s ridiculous. Beyond that, it virtually ensures the firm will at best be a follower and imitator of another company and not be a leader or an innovator.
  2. Cannot take a risk. We once worked with a company in Oklahoma that was stuck at $20 million in annual revenue for five years in a row. Their owners decided in a business planning retreat to “commit” to a 15-percent revenue growth goal for the coming year. To accomplish that we suggested they increase both marketing and recruitment spending. One of the engineer owners was vehemently against that because, as he said, “It would be irresponsible to risk the bonus pool.” They wanted to grow but were ultimately unwilling to do a single thing differently or take any risk to make it happen. Ridiculous! And I could give you 100 similar stories.
  3. Introverted. You have all heard the joke about how you can tell when an engineer is extroverted? The punchline is, “He looks at your feet when he speaks rather than looking at his own feet.” That’s sad but true. And the problem with introverts is they don’t get out and meet people. Because of that they may be less likely to have the relationships it takes to solve problems both inside and outside of the organization.
  4. Passive aggressive behavior. We have seen so much of this over the years and still do. Passive aggressive behavior kills productivity and morale for everyone involved. A good example is an engineer who doesn’t like someone else they are working with on a project so they get to a point where they need information from that person and instead of asking them for it, they do nothing. Only when the project deadline is jeopardized is the problem discovered. But instead of it being the problem of the engineer who stopped work waiting for information, they turn it into the person’s problem who didn’t voluntarily give them that information. This is ridiculous, of course, but common with engineers.
  5. Not honest about feelings. Between being introverted and non-confrontational, one of the biggest issues with engineers is they often aren’t honest about their feelings. This leads to more misunderstandings and problems throughout the organization, with people inside and out. Problem situations don’t ever get resolved without management’s involvement which sucks time and saps mental energy.

All this stuff is real. Certainly – and thankfully – there are engineers who don’t share these characteristics. Thank God for that! They are the successful ones. And we need more of them!

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1189 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here to subscribe or get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.