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  • 19 May 2019 10:17 AM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    by Alexis Devenin, MBA, PMP

    A program is understood as a group of related projects with common strategic objectives that must be managed in a coordinated way.  A project portfolio is defined as a group of high-level projects and programs with the focus of sustaining the strategy of a company. It is understood that the stakeholder of a project portfolio is the top management of the company.

    There is a great number of project managers that must lead a group of projects from different stakeholders of their organizations. They have to manage a “portfolio,” not of high-level projects, but rather to address organizational requirements arising from different stakeholders and to cover different kinds of problems or opportunities. For instance, in an industrial plant, these projects can consist of replacement of old equipment, automation, safety improvement, machine monitoring, equipment modification to meet environmental standards, or to eliminate repetitive failures, energy efficiency improvements, etc. These multiple projects may not have been originated from top management or inspired by the company strategy or vision, but they have appeared by “spontaneous generation” at different levels and in different production units. As a group, they can be called “multi-project” instead of referred to as a “project portfolio” because they are not necessarily related to strategy, but instead, they correspond to local and punctual requirements.

    The Project Management Institute (PMI) has dedicated standards and a certification for program management and for portfolio management. “Multi-project management” has not reached the same status as their fancy relatives “program management” or “portfolio management,” but multi-project management is the scenario in which a lot of project managers have to work.

    Typically, the projects come from different production lines of the plant, or from different plants of the company, or from different units of the organization. In the same way that similar organisms have similar needs, similar units usually have similar requirements. It is convenient to identify a group of projects with similar contents or objectives and manage them as a project program.


    Identifying similar projects and treating them as a program has several advantages. You can develop a pilot solution in one of the plants and then fine tune the solution for the next one. Once you arrive at a satisfactory solution, you can standardize the solution for the group of plants. Finally, grouping projects puts you in a good position to negotiate with contractors for better conditions. 

    Programs not only can arise from high-level management, but they can emerge naturally from requirements at the operational level.

    About the Author

    Alexis Devenin is a Mechanical Engineer with his MBA and PMP certification. He is an Engineering Project Manager with 20 years of experience in the Steel, Mining and Renewable Energy industries. Connect with him at: www.linkedin.com/in/alexisdevenin

  • 18 May 2019 2:14 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    Build an A Team by Whitney Johnson.  Harvard Business Review Press:  Boston, MA (2018).  194 pages.  US$28.00 (hard cover). 

    Whether you are designated supervisor or manager, most engineers find themselves in a position of leadership.  We lead project teams to accomplish specific goals, and we lead R&D teams to explore new scientific frontiers.  Moreover, we are all part of teams striving to grow and sustain the organizations where we work.

    Whitney Johnson’s recent book, “Build an A Team,” is a short text that teaches us about assembling the right mixture of knowledge and expertise on a team.  She also informs us how to better lead and motivate team members with wide variations in skills and experience.

    Learning S-Curves

    S-curves are common throughout the technological and business worlds.  At an early time, the curve has a low value but as time goes on, the slope increases steeply.  And near the end of the time period, the curve will again level out.  Sales of new products and technical advances in science follow S-curves.  And as Johnson illustrates in “Build an A Team,” learning also follows an S-curve.  At the beginning of a job assignment, we are often inexperienced.  But, as we become familiar with the organization and performance expectations, our learning engagement rises steeply.  Then, as we gain mastery and experience in conducting the job’s required tasks and activities, our learning levels out to a slow pace.

    Because you wouldn’t want to have a team completely composed of novices or of experts, the author recommends an ideal team composition based on the learning S-curve.  She advises that effective teams have about 15% at the low-end, 15% at the high-end, and the remaining 70% in the middle.  The team can be highly productive since newbies are typically at the low-end of the learning curve for about six months while engaged and growing team members (in the middle) need three to four years to build expertise.  People at the top of the curve should be coached and mentored into new positions where they can start a new learning curve to sustain engagement and motivation.

    Accelerating Learning

    While each person proceeds through an individual learning curve at his or her own pace, leaders can accelerate a team’s learning curve.  Johnson offers seven tips to help managers support team learning (Chapter 2).
    1. Become a talent developer.
    2. Pinpoint employees’ talents and utilize them.
    3. Use time limits to motivate and hone focus.
    4. Celebrate success and be generous in helping employees fulfill their potential.
    5. Sacrifice short-term productivity to encourage curve-jumping.
    6. Let employees take on uncomfortable challenges and support them through failures.
    7. Shift players on your team as their skills and talents emerge.

    Managing the Team

    Recruiting and hiring (Chapter 3) should focus on motivation and purpose as much as acquiring given skills.  People can be taught functional skills but fit with purpose and goal-orientation are intrinsic characteristics.  I emphasize this point in the Virtual Team Model [1] as well.

    New hires at the low-end of the learning curve need support to build their internal networks (Chapter 4).  Job rotations are often used in engineering and operations companies for mutual exposure among people and functions.  Make sure you set short-term, achievable performance goals for new hires too.

    As team members build technical and leadership skills, give them assignments that continue to capitalize on their strengths (Chapter 5).  Push these mid-level learning employees to greater investment of effort or ask them to accelerate results.  These team members are confident in their abilities but often need a push to independently practice skills (pg. 113).

    Finally, the experts who have repeatedly demonstrated mastery are at risk of becoming bored and leaving your organization.  You’ll need to motivate experts to become internal pacesetters and leaders, trainers, and/or mentors (Chapter 6).  These activities usually require new skills so the master is jumping to a new learning curve where s/he will again be motivated to learn and grow.

    Conclusion

    Less than a quarter of people feel like they have a clear career path (pg. 4).  Engineering managers are in a unique position to help team members and employees accelerate their own development.  Understanding the various stages of learning, as described by Whitney Johnson in “Build an A Team,” can help us to become better leaders.  Ultimately, our improved leadership as engineering managers leads to better performance for our teams and organizations.

    How would you assess the learning levels of your current engineering team?

    Works Cited

    [1] T. Jurgens-Kowal and D. Hardenbrook, "Bridging Communication Gaps in Virtual Teams," in Leveraging Constraints for Innovation, PDMA New Product Development Essentials, Volume 3, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2018, pp. 95-117.

    About the Author

    Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PE, CPEM, PMP®, NPDP, is a passionate lifelong learner. She enjoys helping individuals and companies improve their innovation programs and loves scrapbooking. You can learn more about Teresa and her new Innovation MasterMind group by connecting on LinkedIn.

  • 16 May 2019 8:39 AM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    by Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PE, CPEM, PMP®, NPDP

    Innovation is key to success in all businesses today.  Global competition is driving a faster pace of technology development, and consumers require updated and integrated access to products and services.  Yet, innovation often remains an elusive goal for many engineers. 

    Engineering managers are on the frontline to encourage creativity and innovation.  While we must always place safety as a first priority, we can adopt testing, prototyping, and variation as tools to improve product and process performance.  Building effective, balanced innovation teams is the first step to long-term, sustainable success. 


    Innovation Team Member Profiles

    A team is generally composed of several engineers with different levels of experience and various skill sets.  Such diversity in education and knowledge can lead to more creative problem-solving, but only when the diversity does not lead to conflict.  Understanding the work styles of your team and how to mold the team for productivity is the responsibility of the innovative engineering manager. 

    Creators

    Creators are team members who love the hunt for new ideas.  They are eager to “bounce around ideas and concepts,” and they enjoy thinking in the abstract.  They love brainstorming sessions and are very arisk-tolerant.  If an experiment doesn't work out, then they are ready to move on to the next one.  Generating a lot of options and alternatives is very energizing to a creator. 

    Executors

    At the opposite end of the spectrum are executors.  These team members like stability and predictability.  Once the plan is written, an executor will follow the steps exactly.  Executors prefer concrete thinking to the abstract and will often jump immediately to solution-generation.  They are energized by systems and procedures, enjoying implementing projects with specific and detailed checklists, for example. 

    Refiners

    While creators and executors sit at opposite ends of the opportunity spectrum, refiners and advancers view communication and relationships as the primary lens for teamwork.  A refiner enjoys analysis and will mold and shape project data to draw objective conclusions.  Refiners may prefer to work alone and assume that all solutions must be based on logic.  Ideas that are impractical are not necessary to study from a refiner's perspective; but, if the existing data supports a solution to the problem, a refiner will design an accurate response. 

    Advancers

    Further, while the refiner believes the data speaks for itself, advancers relish building relationships to sell and promote an idea.  Emotional linkage to a product or process solution is engaging for an advancer to develop.  They act us “cheerleaders” for projects and can get others  excited about it.  Advancers are energized by interactions with potential customers and senior management because they are excited to promote answers to solve problems. 

    Potential Team Conflicts

    Engineering leaders need to manage personality conflicts yet can encourage diverse technical discussions to drive toward a better solution.  Creators may find frustration with the slow, methodical work of an executor.  An innovation team can thrive by letting creators have free reign at the beginning of a project but transferring standardized implementation to the executors later in the project life cycle. 

    Likewise, refiners may be frustrated with the exuberance of an advancer, who in turn believes in the emotional value of a solution.  Advancers will find the pace of work of a refiner slow and may not understand their need for isolation.  Each team members’ preferred work style could lead to a conflict, but a successful innovation manager will instead use these differences to build strength on the team.

    Using the Work Styles for Strength

    Using your team’s work styles for strength can benefit an innovation project.  In addition to leaning on creators in the idea generation stage of a project, an engineering manager can use advancers to gauge qualitative feedback.  A refiner can work with executors on the team to design specific quantitative measures to validate the early concepts.  When trouble hits a project schedule or budget, as it inevitably does, the varied work styles of an innovation team will allow team members to collaborate, brainstorm, test, design, and evaluate novel solutions.  Your executors will ensure that the project gets completed according to these specifications.

    Engineering managers must assess the various work styles of their innovation team members to build on their strengths.  Engaging in open communication regarding work style preferences and differences can lead to more productive and efficient team relationships.  And in turn, this leads to better and faster product and process development. 

    How will you use different work styles on your team to create novel and innovative solutions?

    About the Author

    Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PE, CPEM, PMP®, NPDP, is a passionate lifelong learner. She enjoys helping individuals and companies improve their innovation programs and loves scrapbooking. You can learn more about Teresa and her new Innovation MasterMind group by connecting on LinkedIn.

  • 30 Apr 2019 11:00 AM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    Happy Spring! Carpets of lush green and beautiful flowers abound and it is a time of exciting promise for many as they consider new challenges and opportunities! ASEM is no different and we also rejoice in the accomplishments of our members, plus the chance to take our next steps as engineering management professionals. I’m delighted to share details on the 2019 IAC in this newsletter, along with opportunities to celebrate each other through society awards. Please consider nominating a worthy colleague or program for one of the awards listed below. Also, we have very exciting news about the trademark application for our CAEM/CPEM professional certification. We are in the home stretch and so excited! It has been a journey supported by many and we are so grateful to all for their hard work. Engineering Management is a vibrant, ever evolving field and it is a great time to be part of the exciting promise that ASEM brings to its members.

    In friendship,

    Suzie


  • 04 Apr 2019 1:07 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    The ASEM Board of Directors just held its Spring meeting at the 2019 IAC venue and we are all in for a treat at the next conference! This conference space will be very different from the 2018 meeting in Idaho, but every bit as vibrant in its own way. The conference will be housed in a bustling neighborhood with many excellent dining choices nearby. Some of the most historic sites of the early history of the US are housed just a short distance away. It will be another world-class meeting.

    Beginning in the April eNews, we plan to invite multiple guest columnists to help get the buzz going around the conference and the local industry. We hope you’ll enjoy this change of pace!

    Best, Suzie



  • 29 Mar 2019 12:00 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)


    Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

    In this final installment on the Engineering Management Body of Knowledge (EMBoK) blog series, we take a look at professional codes of conduct and ethics. I share an overview of what ethics is, some of the important concepts surrounding ethics, and why ethics is so important to our work as engineers and managers.

    What is Ethics?

    Ethics relates to the set of values and morals that are accepted as good and desirable by society or an individual. When a person’s behavior or character is deemed good or virtuous, regardless of the pressures put on them to act otherwise, they are regarded as ethical.

    Stakeholders and Ethics

    Stakeholders are the groups and individuals who may be affected by, directly or indirectly, what an engineering manager or organization does and the decisions they make. A typical organization may have stockholders, employees, suppliers, customers, and communities as their stakeholders. Ethical decision-making on the part of engineering managers requires consideration of how decisions will affect all relevant stakeholders. 

    Ethical Theories

    Ethical theories are useful because they provide a framework for use in decision-making. There are two broad groups of ethical theories considered in the EMBoK: conduct theories and character theories.

    Conduct theories are concerned with the actions a person takes and what the underlying motivation is for taking them. These theories range from the altruistic to the self-centered. On one end, a person’s ethics lead them to act in ways that benefit others. On the other end of the spectrum, a person’s ethics can lead them to “look out for number one” and make decisions that benefit themselves at the expense of others.

    Character theories, on the other hand, are concerned with a person’s character and virtues. These theories do not suggest explicit ways of acting; rather, they suggest ways of being such that ethical behavior will naturally result. Virtues like courage, honestly, and justice are promoted in these theories.

    Ethical Decision-Making

    There is no one process or flow chart to guide an engineering manager towards making ethical decisions. However, there are practical tools and models that can be used to help. For example, the utilitarian model mentioned above could be used to help a manager determine which decision could be made that would result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

    With each model, however, there are pitfalls that need to be understood and mitigated. In the utilitarian model, it can be difficult to measure benefits and harms for each stakeholder group, and to rank the order the importance of those groups.

    The EMBoK also offers a series of practical questions that engineering managers can ask themselves when faced with ethical decisions. Questions like “What would my mother think of my decision?” are simple, but can be very useful in cutting through the complexity of a given situation and get to the heart of whether a given decision is ethical.

    Professional Codes of Conduct

    Our profession demands ethical behavior from its members, especially those in management and leadership roles. As a result of recent major scandals in the corporate world, such as the Enron scandal, many have lost faith in the business community. Furthermore, the nature of our work as engineers is such that the public’s well-being is often implicated in the decisions we make. Therefore, maintaining a high ethical standard for ourselves is of critical importance.

    One challenge in behaving ethically in any given organization is lack of clarity on what constitutes ethical behavior. To address this, high-performing organizations develop clear, robust codes of conduct and train their staff to understand and apply those codes. Additionally, professional associations like the National Society of Professional Engineers create and promote codes of ethics that have broad applicability in many different industries and situations. Engineering managers and leaders can rely on these codes to help guide them in managing the difficult situations they face in the workplace.

    Conclusion

    Ethics and ethical decision-making are likely not at the forefront of most engineering managers’ minds in the course of a week. However, it is all but certain that, at some point in your career, you will be faced with an ethical dilemma. Being able to recognize a situation as such, and understanding the tools you have at your disposal for managing that dilemma can go a very long way toward resolving your challenge in an ethical way.

    About Patrick Sweet

    Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA, ASEP is a recognized expert in engineering management and leadership. His mission is to create a better world through high-performing engineering organizations. You can read more from Pat at the Engineering & Leadership blog.


  • 28 Feb 2019 12:30 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    This has been a busy month for the society. Our new projects are starting up, new board members are getting up to speed, and plans for the spring board meeting are moving forward.

    The Board of Directors meets face to face twice a year, in March and prior to the International Annual Conference in the fall. The primary focus of our March meeting in Philadelphia involves linking society performance metrics with our director activities and projects so we continually improve our service to the global engineering management community. We plan to include updates on society metrics and various projects in future eNews editions.

    In the last few months, a growing area involves our international presence. Currently there are graduate program certification visits being planned and conducted, ideas being developed to grow international chapters, agreements being finalized with the Canadian Society of Professional Engineers, and work on a proposal to grow international presence at the International Annual Conference. Speaking of which, please make your plans for Philadelphia, an excellent venue. Details on the abstract submission deadline are below.

  • 16 Feb 2019 11:37 AM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    by Alexis Devenin, MBA, PMP

    One of the most typical problems in projects is scope creep, or the appearance of new requirements during project execution. The consequence of the appearance of new requirements is an increase in costs and time to complete the project.

    One of the principal reasons to have unexpected requirements is an incomplete identification of project stakeholders. In fact, if you are unable to identify stakeholders, how you can understand and identify their needs, requirements, and constraints?

    To identify stakeholders requires a 10,000 feet panoramic view. Because of your role and career path in the organization, and because of your academic background, personal skills, and character, you have a personal vision of the project goals, priorities, and scope. And that's okay! The company put you in a project management role because of your personal skills and vision. Nevertheless, if you don't have the ability of active listening and observing, you will advance in your particular interpretation of the project. Along the way, you will be surprised by unexpected stakeholders with complex and unexpected requirements.


    Source: https://www.ghd.com/en-us/services/plant-engineering.aspx

    In my particular area of practice, plant engineering project management, I have to link engineering phases to different stakeholders. Engineering projects usually have at least three different distinct phases: conceptual engineering, basic engineering, and detail engineering. Once these three phases of engineering are completed, construction begins. Each of these phases is dominated or influenced by different stakeholders.

    In general, the project initiation is related to a business opportunity. The product definition, the production capacity, the location, and the plant performance are defined in this conceptual engineering stage. An outline or sketch up of the plant is defined, and the project at this stage is seen through business and strategic lenses. Clearly, in this phase, the highest influencer stakeholder is top management of the organization.

    Once the conceptual phase is defined and concluded, the basic engineering phase is developed. At this stage, we have to put boots on the ground with engineering design. Process and instruments (P&I), layout diagrams, energy, raw material flow and principal equipment must be defined. Logistics and product storage shall be specified. A more precise investment estimation must be developed. At this stage, operations managers and production engineers are the most interested stakeholders and the ones that have to contribute the most to the engineering definitions.

    Finally, detail engineering completely defines the equipment specifications and layout in sufficient detail that the constructor can execute the project. At this stage, is very important to check with operators and maintainers. These stakeholders have a practical “field” interest. To include these stakeholders in design review can avoid a lot of problems in operations and can improve the reliability and maintainability of the new production line.


    Source: https://www.steengipharm.com/servicios-proyectos-de-ingenieria

    The following table summarizes the engineering phases and the most important stakeholders in each stage:

     Engineering
    Phase
    Fundamental
    Stakeholder 
    Definitions /
    Regard 
     Conceptual Engineering   Top management   Business-Strategic 
     Basic Engineering  Operations manager
     Production engineers 
     Mass & energy flow
     Technical standards
     Logistics 
     Detail Engineering   Operators 
     Maintainers
     Functionality-Safety-
     Maintainability-Reliability 


    In each engineering phase, it is important to check the design with the interested stakeholders. The division is not rigid or immovable, if not rather diffuse and iterative. Important changes in design have to be checked with all stakeholders. Implementing this process as a practice will help to achieve better results and minimize unexpected requirements during the execution phase.

    About the Author

    Alexis Devenin is a Mechanical Engineer with his MBA and PMP certification. He is an Engineering Project Manager with 20 years of experience in the Steel, Mining and Renewable Energy industries. Connect with him on Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/alexisdevenin

  • 16 Feb 2019 10:59 AM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    by Joshua Plenert, PE, MS, MBA

    Far too often organizations will unknowingly sacrifice long-term success for a few short-term gains. They get so caught up in the urgent things that they lose sight of the important things. Like jeopardizing the stability of a structure by not paying enough attention to the integrity of the foundation. A healthy corporate culture is that important foundation that will sustain your organization and make long-term success achievable.

    Culture is inevitable. Ignoring the culture of your organization doesn’t make it go away. A culture will develop with or without any intervention from the leadership. But keep in mind, not all culture is good. And, not every culture is the right fit. Some cultures can drive very negative behaviors, toxic attitudes, and even unethical business practices. In order to ensure an organization develops into something to be proud of, the culture will need to be deliberately led.

    The easiest places to start with culture is the corporate strategy. The strategy and the culture must be aligned. A strategy that is not aligned with the culture of the organization is nothing more than wishful thinking. All strategic planning efforts need to be designed to support a healthy culture. Otherwise, strategic initiatives will face serious resistance from the members of the organization and will at most produce only short-term gains but never sustainable improvements.

    Leaders will often hope for high-performing teams. A desire that is not possible without a healthy culture of collaboration, cooperation, and a strong sense of belonging. Any leader that wants to see higher levels of performance, needs to be focusing on leading the culture in a healthier direction. Simply driving the team harder or increasing levels of micro-management will only increase resistance. High-performance teams are born from high-performance cultures.

    A forensic engineer walking into a structure with the purpose of evaluating its structural integrity will likely cringe if significant and wide-spread issues with the stability of the structure’s foundation are easily visible. Correcting a failing foundation can be a serious undertaking and in some cases isn’t worth the cost. But the sooner you can catch the slipping foundation and take actions to stabilize it, the more likely you will be to save the structure.

    A healthy culture is the solid foundation your organization must build on for stable long-term success. The sooner you correct any failing aspects of your cultural foundation, the more likely you will be to ensure your organization will continue to thrive far into the future.

    About the Author

    Joshua Plenert is highly passionate about the continuous improvement of organizations in the AEC industry. He is currently a Regional Director for an Architecture and Engineering firm where he has been a key player in the development of two highly profitable branch offices. He holds a master’s degree in Structural Engineering as well as an MBA. He has also enjoyed teaching engineering courses at the university level and is the author of Strategic Excellence in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction Industries.


  • 09 Feb 2019 5:19 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)


    Head On: How to Approach Difficult Conversations Directly by Janel Anderson. Gale House: Farmington Hills, MI (2018). 230 + ix pages. US$15.95 (paperback).

    As a young manager, I dreaded doing performance reviews. I never felt good about receiving performance feedback – even when it was stellar – from my managers in the past. I didn’t know how to conduct the performance review with my own staff and without all of us feeling bad.

    What I desperately needed, as a new engineering manager, was a toolkit for communication, especially those very difficult conversations like performance reviews. Janel Anderson’s book, “Head On: How to Approach Difficult Conversations Directly,” offers methods for negotiating these difficult topics. Applying her techniques can improve both workplace and other relationships by increasing our ability to handle uncomfortable conversations.

    “Head On” is divided into three sections. The first section summarizes neuroscience studies explaining why seemingly intelligent and competent people either become belligerent or shut down when faced with complex, emotionally-charged conversations. Part 2 provides tools, tips, and guidance for approaching sticky topics at home or at work. Finally, Part 3 gives the advice that I needed as a young engineering manager – how to handle performance reviews – along with other typical professional contexts where communication is challenged (meeting, senior management presentations, and so on).

    Part 1: Neuroscience of Difficult Conversations

    Dr. Anderson starts “Head On” with a quick review of the fight-or-flight mechanism. Though we are no longer trying to outrun lions in the jungle, our not-so-deeply buried animal instincts kick in whenever we feel threatened. “Our bodies do not distinguish between modern office politics and a saber-toothed tiger chasing us down” (pg. 11). So, we “fight” in difficult conversations by yelling or screaming, and we may literally take “flight” by leaving the room to avoid the discussion. Many people will take “flight” by simply disengaging from the situation but remaining physically present.

    Anderson’s research into neuroscience also shows that human beings will assume a negative outcome when presented with an ambiguous situation. Of course, this is just the case when office rumors and gossip outweigh facts and authentic conversations.

    The best tip from Part 1 of “Head On” is to become better in tune with your own physiological reactions to stress. Does your neck ache or your fists clench when the fight-or-flight mechanism is triggered? When you first recognize these symptoms, ground yourself by touching a familiar object (like your watch or eyeglasses) to validate that the conversation is challenging but also to reassure yourself that you can approach the topic calmly and logically.

    Part 2: Step-by-Step Instructions

    In Chapters 4 through 8, Anderson provides a manual to guide us through the difficult conversations. First, we need to prepare for the conversation. This means taking the time to understand the need to discuss the topic and clearing our emotions.

    What does “clearing emotions” mean? We are often running from home to work and from meeting to meeting without taking a break. The stress from a situation earlier in the day can put us on edge and make a complicated situation worse because we let our emotions run together. Anderson advises taking a few moments before a tricky conversation to ground yourself (touch your watch or eyeglasses) and then clear your body of the past emotions.

    From the neuroscience viewpoint, this is why you “take a deep breath” since these actions can literally clear toxic substances from the blood stream that build up stress. If possible, Anderson recommends a short walk or jog in a green space to effectively clear those negative emotions prior to a challenging discussion. Light physical activity helps prepare the body and mind for the next activity.

    Next, the conversation must start with verifiable facts to keep your conversation partner from responding defensively and triggering his or her fight-or-flight mechanism. Practice active listening and acknowledging alternate perspectives. Then, you should close the conversation with agreement on action steps.

    Here, Anderson describes two types of agreement. Type 1 agreement is resolved in a single conversation. Type 2 agreement, however, might require multiple discussions to achieve the desired behavior change with your team or staff member. In a Type 2 agreement, you close the conversation by describing your motivation and commitment to change the situation. Then, you ask for their commitment in return.

    Part 3: Contextual Difficult Conversations

    Finally, Chapter 11 in Part 3 addresses the specific situation of a performance review, often a very difficult conversation even when there is good news. Of course, performance feedback between a manager and direct reports should be ongoing and not reserved for an annual discussion. Feedback that is prompt can result in changed behaviors while delayed feedback more often yields a defensive response or disengagement with the task.

    As I learned and as Anderson describes (pgs. 179-182), a manager must be able to read non-verbal cues that employees present during the review meeting. Often words don’t match the person’s posture which signals discord and lack of agreement with a go-forward plan. It’s okay to take a break during the discussion if you feel your emotional triggers (fight-or-flight) whether you are giving or receiving performance feedback.

    Finally, Anderson closes “Head On” by acknowledging our human nature to make mistakes while we seek perfection. If we make an error, we can learn from it. Some difficult conversations start with “I’m sorry” and the parties build trust form there.

    Handling Difficult Conversations

    “Head On: How to Approach Difficult Conversations Directly” by Janel Anderson is an easy to read book with lots of tips and exercises to help us improve our workplace communications. Strongly grounded in neuroscience, the author provides many contextual examples of challenging discussions, providing guidance and step-by-step instructions to address specific conversation types. I recommend this book to anyone engaged in communication, but especially for engineering managers and team leaders responsible for employee development. Moreover, each of us can apply the actions and methods of “Head On” to improve our own abilities in conducting difficult conversations.


    What triggers your fight-or-flight mechanism? How can you practice grounding yourself and clearing your emotions before a difficult conversation?


    Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PhD, PE, PMP, CPEM, NPDP
    Global NP Solutions, LLC

                


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