Technological progress requires emotional intelligence

emotional intelligenceDoes engineering’s current focus on automation and digital innovation risks a loss of emotional intelligence? asks Nicola Park, UK & Ireland Engineering Manager Air Products.

When it comes to engineering, it’s all about automation – or is it?

Without question, technical innovation has a critical role to play, not just in the future of our sector, but in the future of our species – improved efficiency, productivity and sustainability are all up for grabs.

But what about emotional intelligence?

This might seem an unusual question when it comes to engineers, renowned for their in-depth technical prowess but it’s an important question, nonetheless. Yes, we have the technical expertise to achieve great things, but that, in itself, is no longer enough. In the face of climate change, growing carbon emissions and health inequalities, we need to add a layer of emotional intelligence to the work we do and really recognise our role, as engineers, in tackling society’s most pressing issues. That requires genuine emotional understanding and empathy.

MORE FROM SKILLS & CAREERS

The events of the past year have brought this into sharp focus for me. At Air Products we spent much of our time at the start of the pandemic concentrating on providing the gases, engineering support and equipment needed to upgrade oxygen supplies at frontline hospitals battling Covid-19.

In a situation such as this, the direct link between engineering and real-life – even life and death outcomes – is impossible to ignore. Hospital staff haven’t just been our clients – they have been frontline workers operating under intense pressure. To respond appropriately we have needed not just technical know-how and clever digital applications, but personality, empathy and understanding. As engineers, we have had to show our human face.

Of course, not all engineering applications are in such an acute setting, but there is a valuable lesson that this sector can learn. Understanding the ‘end impact’ or ‘human impact’ is critical to developing the very best solution, even when, as engineers, we are not directly exposed to that impact normally. Nowadays, I’d argue that technological progress is an insufficient benchmark for success.

On a personal level, those of us who adopt this more holistic approach will reap the benefits in our work and career.  The onus isn’t just on companies to develop all-encompassing strategies for global challenges such as sustainability – individual project teams and engineers have to instill the mantra of building better and more sustainably in their own minds.  We also need to learn to communicate ideas to those across the areas in which we work – from clients and colleagues to the public at large.

I’d argue that technological progress is an insufficient benchmark for success

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be involved in the engineering industry.  As engineers we know how vital our role is in shaping tomorrow’s world.  Whether it’s decarbonisation on a large scale or just getting better at maintenance to reduce the number of miles driven by technicians, where there is work to be done to reduce the impact of climate change, engineers are at the centre of it.

The dynamic between emotional intelligence and leadership is also centred in the critical role that engineers play in challenging and advancing our ways of working.  Let’s be honest: collaborating with a team, especially when tasked with a nuanced or complex end goal, can lead to a wide range of emotions that – fundamentally – stem from the passion points of each engineer.

To overcome this, we need to see more engineers reflecting on the importance of both a level of communication and receptiveness that is not siloed and considers each of the valuable contributions on offer.  Our ability to innovate and think critically allows engineers to tackle some of the most significant challenges in our society.

Many of the conversations through lockdown have been about coming out of the other side of this with a refreshed view on how we do things – ‘building back better’.  For me, this starts with an attitude – a cultural change which will spread throughout our industry.  As engineers, when we succeed in putting that attitude at the forefront of all our projects, we will begin to see just how big a difference we can make.

Yes, let’s celebrate the wonderful advances in technology that our industry makes every day. But let’s not forget our purpose too. To solve problems and make a real difference – a human difference, lies at the very heart of engineering and that requires emotional prowess in bundles.

Nicola Park, UK & Ireland Engineering Manager Air Products