I was born in a very small town in southern Mississippi. From the earliest age, I was taught that every adult was a “ma‘am” or a “sir,” that you always held open doors or gave up your seat on the bus, and that everyone deserved to be treated with respect and courtesy. Later in life I was occasionally berated by some women who felt they were “too young to be called ‘ma‘am.’” I apologized and tried to accommodate their wishes, but the fact is that I say “Yes ma‘am” to any lady from 2 to 102 years old and after doing it for this long it feels like the right thing to do.
Beyond saying “ma’am” and “sir” where it is appropriate, I try to treat co-workers and clients with a high level of professional respect. I certainly do not always agree with everyone and you can be certain they do not always agree with me, but regardless of our differences I try to maintain a high level of decorum and courtesy and I expect the same from them. I do not bully people and I will not allow others to bully me. I have had domineering clients try the bullying tactic early in a relationship and I have immediately called them on it. In almost every case, the client apologized and we ultimately worked well together. On the rare occasions when a client demanded the right to treat me or my team with disrespect, I simply walked away from the project.
Concept: Treat people as you would want to be treated. Arrive at meetings on time and be prepared. Show respect to others and expect the same from them. Never allow a client to bully you or your team. It is better to drop a client of that sort rather than endure their actions.
Details: Conflict is inevitable in the automation engineering profession. There will always be differences of opinion (and some may be strong) concerning project design, money and budgets, realistic schedules, client demands, etc. Do not let this conflict turn into chaos by losing sight of appropriate decorum and professionalism. Arguing is fine and defending a position is certainly warranted if your position is correct, but do not resort to personal attacks as a means to achieve your goal. Such activity may win the battle but it almost always loses the war. When a problem transitions from a technical issue to an emotional issue, the situation becomes much more complex and the ultimate resolution will become infinitely more difficult to achieve. Even when the issues are finally resolved, the emotional scars and resentment can linger for years. People can be extremely slow to forget.
Being respectful of others is important, but you should also expect similar behavior from others. Do not let people routinely stand you up, waste your time, or publicly disrespect you. This is true for co-workers, bosses, and even clients. As mentioned in Tip #44, clients and vendors need each other and the best scenario is a situation where the vendor and client act as a mutually supporting team. (In this case the engineer is the “vendor” and the plant the “client”.) Unfortunately some clients will try to establish a dominant position from the outset suggesting that they are in charge and if the vendor does not comply with their demands they will be replaced in an instant. This is almost always a false premise. Unless one is buying a generic commodity, the list of acceptable candidates for a particular piece of equipment or service is limited and in most cases the client has selected a particular vendor that is best suited for a particular project. Therefore, despite what the bullying client might suggest, the vendor is actually in a much stronger position than it may seem. If the client tries to bully the team, the wisest course of action is to immediately call out the client on their behavior and set the precedent for how everyone will be treated going forward. In many cases the client will develop a new respect for your having stood up to him and a long-term relationship will result. In some rare cases the client will demand to get their way and at that point an immediate exit is the best strategy. Sending such a problematic client to the competition rids your firm of a long-term troublesome client and deposits the same in your competitor’s lap.
Watch-Outs: Be particularly wary of clients who will berate you in front of their coworkers and then apologize in private afterwards. If this happens, point out that the behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated again. If it is repeated, simply walk out.
Exceptions: Occasionally a firm will sign a contract or make a commitment to a client such that walking out is not an option and the precedent of bullying by the client has been established. In such a case the on-site staff is forced to endure whatever pain the client decides to inflict. This is a prime case for the application of Tip #3 – Pain Is Instructive. Have the on-site staff refer all client communications to the manager and/or sales person who set up the contract and/or commitment in the first place. Now the person responsible for creating the situation must deal with the unruly client on a daily basis and must suffer the pain of their contractual decision. Either the situation will improve or the manager/sales person in question will likely never agree to such an arrangement again!
Insight: This concept is particularly applicable to union/management relations. After years of contentious negotiations, some unions and/or managers develop strong-arm tactics to get their way or grandstand in front of the other union members. Like all union/management issues, precedent is the key. Once the precedent of treating each other poorly has been set, changing it can be very difficult.
If you are promoted into a management position that involves union relations, you will have one opportunity to set the precedent for future meeting behavior. (Unfortunately you cannot reset the precedent for contract rules, etc. – those have been set by prior management decisions and you must abide by them.) If the Union Committee comes storming into your office screaming and shouting, promptly throw them out of your office and tell them they can return tomorrow morning if they are prepared to discuss their issues calmly. Start the next meeting with an explanation that despite what previous managers might have allowed, screaming, shouting, and other disrespectful behavior will never occur in any future meeting. They are welcome to disagree and discuss the issues, but they are not welcome to act like five- year olds. If they DO act like five-year olds, they will be dismissed from the room….then DO IT! Even historically stormy relationships can be calmed if both sides treat each other with decorum and respect, and are consistent, honest, and fair.
Rule of Thumb: In any relationship, set a precedent of mutual respect and professionalism from the very beginning. Once the precedent for a relationship has been set, it is difficult to change.
About the Author
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.