Together we stand

secret engineerOur anonymous blogger reflects on the challenges of getting the best out of an engineering team

A recent conversation with a colleague surprised me because he effusively congratulated me on my personal success with a project, when we both knew that he had helped me out with it. The responsibility for a project always has to be clearly defined and accepted by the person who takes the lead, but as far as I’m concerned any success should reflect on all those involved.

Without wishing to appear woefully egocentric, undoubtedly I had driven us to the point where a resolution to a critical problem had been found but – I was supported by him and a number of other colleagues in getting there. I summed up my view with a mumbled “We fail together and we succeed together.”

This was no broad largesse, both he and I knew the extent of our respective inputs. However it was important to me to acknowledge that there was still a team effort involved. Perhaps more importantly the MD of Sleepy Hollow Electronics has also been aware of who is responsible for what’s gone on – not through any particular effort but merely because he does keep his finger on the pulse, as it were. Double edged sword as this may be, at least as well as catching the flak I should also be able to bask in the metaphorical sunshine.

This may beg the question, “if all I was doing was reinforcing common knowledge, what is the value in it?” Personally, I do not think of colleagues as “human resources”; they are people. It is because of this that, while I remain deeply suspicious of structured “team building” exercises, I fully believe that good working relationships are founded on actively deploying people skills – and founder on personal disinterest.

Equally important, this should be a hand that is underplayed rather than overplayed. It is far too easy to either lose the feeling of sincerity or to gain a feeling of any appreciation just being the result of cynically applied strategy.

What it doesn’t mean is being careful of what you say to the n-th degree. Again, such an approach brings the veneer of consideration-by-rote. “Banter” is a dreadful word used far too often these days to excuse boorish behaviour but when done properly can help release pressures and draw colleagues closer together.

The fact that my colleague in this case seemed so willing to emphasise my part in the success gave me cause to look back over my career and try to recall how similar situations had been handled in the past. I have to say that on the whole those I have worked for at an immediate level above me seemed to generally fall in line with my approach. Those at levels above them however, I have found, tend to pay less thought to such things or indeed seem entirely oblivious to the advantages such an approach can bring. It may be that I was flying under their radar and therefore unworthy of their attention. Then again, it may also be an indication that certain sociopathic tendencies are required to rise to the very top in business.

In fact, as I consider these phantoms from earlier in my life I have a feeling of only being engaged in conversation when progress was to be checked, or a problem looked like it may be about flare up. I wonder if I would have felt more reassured if my experience of my superiors had been more balanced? Leading on from this, would I have felt empowered to be more creative in the solutions to the challenges that I faced? More forward looking rather than constantly on the back foot? Invariably the best way forward lies in a balance between evolution and revolution.

Likewise I think getting the best from a team, whether consisting of peers or subordinates, lies in taking the time to find the balance between wielding the carrot and the stick. Or perhaps that’s exactly why I’ve never risen to the very top?