The power of politics and of human emotion can be mind-boggling and utterly baffling to engineers who are taught throughout their lives to apply sound logical principles and facts to decision-making. I cannot begin to count the number of times when I have found myself desperately trying to apply logic to a situation where absolutely none could be applied. You cannot change the fact that politics and emotion are often intimately involved in a situation, but you can recognize that they exist and act accordingly.
Concept: For better or worse, engineers tend to be less emotionally driven than most. Therefore, they can get confused and blind-sided when people make a snap judgment based on feelings or when people choose a course of action dictated by some hidden political agenda rather than one based on the sound, logical principles that have been delivered for review. This can be most baffling to members of our profession.
Details: The fact is people often make their decisions based on emotion or politics, and the political or emotional angle often outweighs the logical argument. Unfortunately, most engineers do NOT think this way, and tend to assume others evaluate problems and information the same way that they do.
However, all is not lost if you recognize and accept this fact and adapt accordingly. If emotion and politics are afoot, then learn the rules and play the game! This is NOT an invitation to wade into corporate politics—life is too short—but this is a suggestion to study and understand the role of emotion and politics in decision-making so that their effects no longer appear as a surprise. Learn to separate the logical/technical aspect of problems from the political/emotional aspect so your effort is not wasted using the wrong skill set to resolve an issue. As ironic as it might sound, once the emotional or political angles of an issue are known, logic can be applied to resolve it. You need only apply a different set of rules. For instance if the decision becomes an emotional one, frame the arguments to cater to that mindset. If politics are driving a decision, seek to understand the source of those politics and act to convince the true power brokers/decision makers of your position.
The effects of politics or emotion often get much worse when there is an audience. People will defend a poor position to the death before they will retreat in front of their peers. Sometimes it is better to talk through disagreements one-on-one after the meeting and out of sight of others. Better yet, try not to let the situation develop to that point.
Watch-Outs: Despite the fact that most engineers consider themselves to be extremely logical, they can be emotional themselves. If you find yourself banging heads with a manager or co-worker, consider standing back and examining the situation as a disinterested third party (or discussing it with a disinterested third party). It may be that YOUR emotions are clouding the issue.
Exceptions: On rare occasions, people will ignore all of the politics and emotions swirling around an issue and will make a sound, logical decision. Oh how I wish this was the rule rather than the exception!
Insight: As an aside, you can eliminate a lot of conflict in your lifetime by simply avoiding discussing topics which are certain to create conflict in the first place. Many topics (religion, political candidates, favorite sports teams, etc.) can be very polarizing and are almost certain to cause problems. If both parties agree, there is really not much to discuss. If the parties disagree, then in all likelihood neither can say anything that will sway the other’s position. Why fight the battle?
Rule of Thumb: Always be aware of the emotional and political angles of an issue. If either is present, then recognize that the rules have changed and adapt accordingly. Never try to apply logic where it does not belong.
Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University. His job titles have included instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he joined Avid Solutions, Inc., as an engineering manager and lead project engineer, where he works today. Vegas has executed nearly 2,000 instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms.