How an engineer can build people skills

Building people skills helps in critical areas such as engineering project management, engineering sales and engineering product marketing.

By Riley Hall May 10, 2023
Riley Hall is the director of product marketing for Fictiv, the operating system for custom manufacturing. Courtesy: Fictiv

Learning Objectives

  • Understand that engineers do better when they improve their people skills.
  • Review five ways to improve people skills if you are in engineering.

Engineering people skills insights

  • Engineers need people skills to help others understand the value of the engineering they are doing.
  • Engineers can improve their people skills in five ways.

Although engineers are renowned and valued for technical skills and industry expertise, people skills are essential to excel in the profession.

I began my career as a mechanical engineer writing custom inspection routines for coordinate measurement machines. I transitioned from a working engineer into project management, sales and now leading a product marketing team, I learned emotional intelligence is as important as logical-mathematical intelligence in the workplace — mostly because the workplace is filled with a lot of other people.

5 ways to develop strong engineering people skills

Experience has taught me engineers skilled in communication and collaboration are more successful in their careers and can better promote growth and innovation in their organizations.

Developing people skills can seem challenging, but anyone can do it, and it is critical for professional development and long-term success.

Here are some key areas to focus on to improve people skills as an engineer:

1. Practice effective communication skills

Why practicing effective communications skills is important: Engineering professionals often work on teams comprised of people from diverse backgrounds with different technical capabilities. It’s essential to be able to communicate technical information effectively to both experts and those without any technical knowledge — and it is easy for engineers to appear arrogant if they do not adapt their communication style to fit their audience.

Tips for effective communication: Whether you’re an engineering student or an experienced engineer, practice is the key to improvement. Joining a club or attending after-hours social activities with colleagues are great opportunities to practice your communication skills.

Listen to others and learn about them. How do they communicate? What are they into? See if you can explain a concept or theory to someone new, someone not familiar with the idea, but interested in it — teaching others cannot only solidify and broaden your knowledge, but also spark a good conversation.

If they ask questions or say they don’t understand, consider their point of view. Is there a different way to articulate your point that’ll make more sense to them? Ask if they’re familiar with the topic, then try to tailor what you say based on their level of interest and previous experience.

2. Build engineering relationships

Why building engineering relationships is important: Creating strong working relationships with co-workers not only helps you become a happier human, but also benefits teamwork and builds trust. Forging good relationships helps you grow in your career and provide a more positive working experience.

Tips for building relationships: Mostly, building relationships is about paying attention to the people around you and showing you genuinely care about them. Ask your co-workers about their interests. Be respectful. Learn about the important people/dog(s)/cat(s)/other animal(s) in their life, if they’re willing to share. Listen first, talk second. Practice active listening. Be honest.

3. Be a team player in the work environment

Why being a team player is important: With remote work becoming more commonplace, building strong communication and collaboration habits are more important than ever to creating a high-functioning virtual or hybrid office. People from all different departments, backgrounds and locations appreciate a positive attitude, and teams that treat each other with respect do the best work. Remember, your ideas aren’t always the best ideas, and maintaining humility and listening to others are critical components of highly effective teams.

Tips for being a team player: Positive attitudes and kindness are contagious. Be supportive, honest and respectful to your team members. When a co-worker is struggling, offer to listen or to help. Even if they don’t take you up on your offer, the gesture won’t go unnoticed. Letting them know you’re willing to help not only is the kind thing to do, but is also how you strengthen your relationship and build team solidarity.

4. Show leadership in engineering

Why showing leadership in engineering is important: Experienced engineers are often looked to in times of crisis, and it’s important to lead by example. Providing a considered, confident and logical point of view is always useful in times of stress, and so is a willingness to listen to others’ input.

Good leadership is servant leadership. Sometimes, it means providing a solution. Most of the time, it means helping your team find the solution and not conceiving one of your own and then spending all your time trying to persuade others your way is the right way.

Good leadership is focused on helping others be the best they can be and finding the best solution. Bad leadership is focused on who gets credit for the solution, being “the boss,” and telling others what to do.

Tips for improving leadership skills: There’s no better teacher than experience, so don’t be afraid to take on leadership roles at work or with volunteer organizations. Research successful leaders you’d want to work with and learn about how they operate. Take a professional course on leadership. Find a leader in your company (or elsewhere) you admire and ask if you may pick their brain.

Many professionals are happy to share what got them to where they are in their careers, and enjoy the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience.

5. Networking with other engineers

Why networking with other engineers is important: Networking allows engineers to meet new people, learn about new opportunities and stay up-to-date with the latest developments in their field. You never know when you may need to tap into your network to source a part, get help with a unique problem, or look for a new job.

Tips for networking: Research networking events and webinars in your community and attend the ones that look interesting to you. Join professional groups like ASME, SAE or ASQ — those organizations often host trade shows and in-person networking events throughout the year.

Engineering people skills, a priority

Developing people skills is essential for professional and personal growth and development, and should be a priority for every engineer — even though it can be time-consuming and difficult. If you’re ready to practice what I’m preaching, then you are ready to step out of your comfort zone and get to know some new people. The rest is up to you. Like most things in life, developing people skills is a continuous learning process, but improving them will make you a better human and a more successful engineer.

Consider this

Relating the value of what you have engineered adds value to the engineering.


Author Bio: Riley Hall is the director of product marketing for Fictiv, the operating system for custom manufacturing. Hall has nearly 10 years of experience working in highly technical manufacturing engineering environments at companies including Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence, Hilti North America and Markforged. Hall holds a B.A. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan and an MBA from the University of Colorado Boulder.