Technologist, including engineers, are often unfairly labeled and stereotyped as lacking soft skills when it comes to interacting with other people. Words like ‘quirky’, ‘introverted’ and ‘rambling’ are often used to describe technologists and how they interact with others. After more than 15 years in the medical device field working side by side with my engineering colleagues I’m convinced these adjectives unfairly characterize many technologists, yet the use of these descriptions continues to permeate conversations rather consistently.
Whether you’re a technologist or not, the simple truth is we all could use a little help in upgrading ourselves professionally. Continual improvement is a cornerstone for a good professional and so is proper business etiquette. If you’re looking for a way to improve how you show up, including how those around you perceive you, consider the following nine steps to boost your business etiquette:
1. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)
A wonderful acronym to say the least. Those of us who like to tinker and develop products have a tendency to overcomplicate the outcome, as well as our communication. When we ‘over engineer’ our ideas, products or conversations it shows a lack of understanding for the true need as well as our ability to hold back personal interest before company needs. Good business etiquette in this area is when we build awareness around the importance of keeping things simple which focuses on driving greater realized value for the end user. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
2. Understand the Big Picture
Technologist can be stereotyped as not understanding the company’s bigger picture and its goals as a business. Its important engineers slow down to take the time to understand how their role impacts the business, especially how their decisions impact things downstream. When we understand the big picture we’re able to remove ourselves from our preconceived notions and think like business professionals, not just technology developers. This becomes crucial when we’re making decisions early in the product development process on product needs versus how that need supports the company’s mission and the needs within the marketplace. Just because something is a great feat of engineering awe doesn’t mean it is necesary for the product, the company and or the customer.
3. Be Proactive With Your Communication
Engineers live a life of projects. They go from one project to another in their day to day work and as such they’re often embroiled in deadlines. There’s nothing more frustrating to have someone on your team report the day of the deadline that they are going to miss it. That’s unacceptable. When we have good business etiquette we respect the other people on the team by communicating proactively so the team is prepared, especially in a situation where we may be missing a deadline. Don’t wait to communicate.
4. Understand Your Cross Functional Colleagues
It’s poor business etiquette for engineers to only stay in their lane and not get to know, interact with, or understand their colleagues in non-technical roles. Why is this the case? Read #2 on this list. When we don’t understand the bigger picture of the business, how it runs and operates, how decisions are made and why they’re made, our ability to be a productive employee is reduced to chance. Ever seen someone come up with an idea which they claim to be amazing or revolutionary to be shot down shortly thereafter from another person in the company? More often than not that idea infringed on #1 or #2 within this list. For example, if you make a suggestion to add a feature to an existing product without taking into consideration the cost to manufacture it or if the companies sales people can actually sell it to their customers you’ve singlehandedly shown that you can come up with ideas which have little merit in their ability to be executed.
5. Good Enough Vs. Perfect
Confucius said, “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” When we chase perfection we often find ourselves on a never ending journey where we’re busy as can be without accomplishing much. Its important engineers build awareness around the idea that nothing is ever finished therefore it isn’t settling if perfection isn’t achieve. We should expect it and build product updates into our process down the road. Apple, Inc. does this all the time with their new releases and they still have people lining up around the block to buy their products, regardless of the initial glitches and bugs associated.
6. Handshakes and Eye Contact
Those of us in technical fields can at times get a bad rap for not being social butterflies who know how to engage with others. Let’s buck the stereotype! Good business etiquette tells us it is important to give a firm handshake upon initial interaction with another person. In fact, its common to hear from leaders that a poor handshake can be the difference in someone getting a job. The limp wrist, fish handshake belongs nowhere in business. Same can be said about eye contact. Be intentional with your eye contact when speaking with someone in person. Looking at the floor or down at your lap gives others the impression you aren’t confident in yourself.
7. Ditch the Cell Phone
Your cell phone needs to stay in your pocket at all times when you are engaged with others, especially in a business setting, unless you are using it as part of the discussion. If you’re in a conversation, including a group conversation, and you’re simultaneously thumbing through your social media you’re giving off a sign that what other people have to say isn’t important. Put the phone away! Your digital friends, who you’ll never meet anyways, won’t even notice you’re not there to like their cat memes. FOMO no mo.
8. First Impressions Are Actually Important
This goes hand-in-hand, pun intended, with #6. The way we show up with other people, especially during a first impression can make or break someone’s perception of you. Greet people, shake their hand, learn their name. Make an effort to engage with them. Be polite and considerate. Lastly, be groomed! If you’re appearance is disheveled or unbecoming of a professional that’s how you’ll be treated. Most technologists make a healthy living in their careers, it’s important you act like it, at least upon first impressions.
9. Respecting Others Lack of Technical Knowledge
When you’re talking to a layperson, a non-engineer, do your best to use simple, straightforward language. People who aren’t engineers already are often times giving you the benefit of the doubt that you’re smart. (this is the one time when a stereotype works in your favor) As such, you don’t need to impress people with your technical prowess by using terminology and theoretical concepts which fly over the head of the other person in the conversation. Be mindful of who you are talking to and adjust accordingly as this will ensure the discussion is fruitful for both parties. If the other party wants more information they’ll signal to you to get into the weeds, then its go time!
When we’re demonstrating good business etiquette we simultaneously show that we respect others while respecting ourselves. Take the time to build awareness in this area of your career, it will pay dividends in spades over the long haul.
We’re constantly bombarded with a litany of articles, studies and discussions highlighting the generational differences in the workplace. These discussions often confuse and mislead readers by zeroing in on ‘key characteristics’ which supposedly define a generation while subtly stereotyping it at the same time. One of the topics that comes up often in these discussions is what makes for a good employee. This topic has permeated the business world for decades long before Gen-Z and Millennials entered the workplace over the last 10+ years causing a current day telenovela in the business world.
While the generations entering the workforce, and or exiting for that matter, may have a difference of opinion on what they want out of their careers and what they need in order to be happy in their jobs, there is one common trait which is synonymous with all generations and all employees for that matter. This common trait, or behavior, defines what a good employee is regardless of the stereotypes and or characteristics which accompany the respective generation.
When we take away generational characteristics, race, religion, gender and everything else used to categorize and therefore sort and stack people we’re left looking at people’s actions. Their behaviors. What I’ve found true over the years is behavior is indicative of the true nature of a person, not their words. If we say one thing but then do (act) another, our behaviors become the defining force for who we are, not our words. This is certainly true for employees and their effectiveness as we look at whether an employee is ‘great’ versus ‘average’, or worse.
So, what’s the difference between a great employee and an average one? An employee who excels versus one who mails it in operating at a mediocre level of performance. The difference is a little behavior known as INITIATIVE.
I know what you’re thinking, “that’s not groundbreaking information. I’ve known this for years.”
While we may know this, or have seen it in person, what’s remarkable are the number of people who actually deploy ‘initiative’ in their jobs.
In my 15 years’ of business experience, of which 13 of those years have been in management, and 4 owning a business, I’ve experienced both first and secondhand the difference initiative makes in an employee and leader. When we strip away all the categories and demographics, mentioned above, this behavioral trait is the one that keeps rising to the top distinguishing the great performers from the average, mediocre and under performing employees.
Initiative is everything!
What does initiative look like in a business setting?
When I think of great initiative in the work place the first thing that comes to mind is a situation I witnessed firsthand with an employee of mine several years ago. We had a client who was flying into Orange County to visit with several suppliers, our company being one of them. My employee, Megan, took it upon herself to pick up our client at the airport, coffee in hand, and bring them to our office for the meeting. Talk about service, yet her initiative to provide a great experience for our customer didn’t end there. She also took the client out to lunch in Laguna Beach (our client was from Idaho and had never seen the amazing beaches of Laguna). The client had also forgot to pack a bathroom bag for their travels so Megan took him to Target to pick up a couple items. After all this was done Megan shuttled him back to the airport.
Yes, this was an amazing effort by Megan yet what made it truly remarkable and just as memorable was the fact that she did this all on her own. She didn’t ask for permission; she just took it upon herself to deliver top notch service. Memorable service at that.
I still think about the initiative Megan displayed during this time and marvel at how impressive it was. Needless to say the client sent us an overwhelming email of appreciation thanking Megan for her time and willingness to shepherd him around. He said and I quote “It was the best business trip I’ve been on, I appreciate you [Megan] taking the time to ensure I had a good visit.”
While that story sounds great it’s certainly not the norm.
Rather than focusing next on the lack luster initiative most employees display at the office perhaps its better use of your time and mine to discuss the ways an employee can change their mindset and actions to better align with an initiative based work approach. Consider the following:
Possessing good initiative at work makes or breaks the quality of employee you are and often times how you are viewed in the organization. Are you a blessing to your team and company or are you dead weight? Having good initiative is the one behavior you can 100% control which in turn can directly impact in a positive way your job and career.
Stop making excuses for why you don’t act at work. Next time you see a problem or issue come up at the office which you are directly or close too take a chance and stand up and get involved. People who say ‘YES’ I can do that rather than ‘someone else can do that’ frequently experience better career
About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.