The number of engineering graduates is currently growing at a steady rate of just over 1% per year. While that rate may have slowed down a bit in recent years, it’s estimated that there are currently more than 4.5 million engineers in the U.S. workforce.

As competition in the field continues to increase, some engineers find it difficult to stand out from the crowd in order to advance their careers. This challenge is compounded by the fact that several characteristics that tend to make someone a good engineer may be inconsistent with effective leadership skills.

The typical engineer is very analytical, relying on logic and “left brain” thinking to address the task at hand, often in a single-minded way. Moreover, traditional academic engineering programs tend to further emphasize a focus on logic and efficiency rather than “soft” people skills and effectiveness.

This situation has caused many engineers to become frustrated at the inability to nurture the leadership skills they need to improve their career advancement opportunities.

Anatomy of a Leader

Traditionally, the idealized image of a leader has been the epitome of strength, making the tough decisions to get the job done no matter the cost to individual team members. Throughout history, however, truly influential leaders have been those who tapped into human emotion to build a strong relationship with their followers by demonstrating empathy and understanding.

Recent advances in neuroscience have proven that humans are “hard-wired” to connect on a personal level through emotional and social connections. In fact, we react to situations much more quickly through our emotions than our cognitive brain, especially when under pressure, triggering a physiological reaction known as the “fight or flight” response.

For the typical engineer relying on intellect and the cognitive brain, emotional connections with their peers or staff may not come easily, leading to a lack of interpersonal connection. For example, many engineering project managers tend to be very assertive by nature, focused solely on completing projects on time and on budget. While this approach may work in the short-term, over time the team can experience high levels of attrition and burnout. On the other hand, a manager that relies on emotions and empathy alone may fail to command the respect of their team, leading to missed deadlines and poor outcomes.

The key to becoming a truly effective leader is to strike the perfect balance between empathy and assertiveness. In order to accomplish this, engineering leaders need to look beyond their technical knowledge, business acumen and cognitive IQ to develop their emotional intelligence (EQ).

Transition from IQ to EQ

The first step toward developing EQ is emotional self-awareness, which requires an honest assessment of one’s own emotions and the impact those emotions have on thinking and behavior. Questions to ask oneself include, “Do I understand my emotion, and what triggers it?” “What impact does that emotion have on my cognitive thinking?” and “How does that show up to others in my physiological responses and behavior?”

Self-awareness is key to recognizing one’s own emotions, thoughts and behaviors, which ultimately enables greater understanding of others on an empathic level. This development of cognitive, emotional and behavioral capabilities allows an engineer to better explore interpersonal strategies that will help sustain them as an effective leader. Furthermore, learning to balance out their “left brain” cognitive abilities by exploring emotion and “right brain” creativity also can help engineers become more innovative.

Beyond self-awareness, improving EQ requires regular practice and mindfulness. Because many engineering professionals might be uncomfortable with soft skills, they will need to proactively seek opportunities to practice empathy in their daily lives.

Other critical leadership skills that some engineers may find challenging include financial decision making, risk management and the art of effective communication. For a leader, improving their ability to communicate with others empathetically is key to being able to influence team members more effectively and positively interact with colleagues of all levels.

Become a Change Agent

While the field of engineering is often about improving the quality of life for all people, a lack of focus on sustaining and developing individual engineering professionals as leaders has hindered the growth of the profession. Addressing this oversight is particularly critical today, as new generations of workers seek a workplace that demonstrates social responsibility, offers greater inclusion and fosters personal fulfillment.

The ability to connect with managers on an emotional level helps employees feel respected and appreciated, reducing the employee turnover that has been rampant during the post-pandemic’s Great Resignation. When empathy is viewed as a strength, rather than a weakness, tomorrow’s leaders are empowered to build and leverage relationships in a more inclusive society.

Growth of an engineer’s EQ also helps increase their personal well-being and resilience. Research demonstrates that a state of well-being helps an individual better cope with normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and make contributions to their community, according to the World Health Organization.

As more companies come to understand the value of empathic leaders, even the most hardcore engineering firms are learning to emphasize people skills and focus on EQ development. Companies are recognizing that empathic leadership training can deliver significant return on investment by reducing attrition and burnout, while encouraging more ownership of projects. For example, based on the success stories of several employees, Lockheed Martin is now looking at the possibility of implementing an EQ leadership training program internally.

For many technical management leaders, their traditional training has been limited to technical skills and project management, overlooking critical people skills. By enhancing professional development programs with an emphasis on EQ development and self-awareness, today’s engineers can foster and nourish the empathetic skills needed to design the perfect formula for greater leadership potential in the 21st century.