From One Leader to Another: Bridge Your Teams’ Communication Divides

According to Mary Pilotte, Ph.D., the seemingly trivial quirks, habits and communication preferences of engineers shouldn’t be ignored by industry leaders. Since 2010, Dr. Pilotte’s research has centered on zooming out and seeing the bigger picture of interaction among engineering teams and leaders divided by age, personality and background. That research continues today in her role as Director of Undergraduate Degree Programs in Engineering Education and Associate Professor of Engineering Practice at Purdue University in Indiana. However, her sage-like insights on workplaces predate to her time managing teams and overseeing mergers and acquisitions in industry.

“I was seeing a shift in the workforce. At one point I had almost 90 teams doing acquisition integration work, and trying to drive profitability, safety, sales revenue, things like that,” she said. “What I saw while leading those teams was that not all teams are equal. As new people were joining the organization, they talked about where they wanted to work, how they wanted to work, who they wanted to work with, and even just basic rules for working.”

As an example, Dr. Pilotte pointed to the idea of what it means to different employees and leaders to show up to meetings on time. “When you tell someone you expect them to show up on time for a meeting, to someone my age it means five minutes early. But on time to someone a little younger might mean as long as I’m within five minutes plus or minus, I’m good. For others, it may have a completely different meaning depending on where they’re from geographically. So there’s this notion of time and work as being equal across not only our age groups, but also our nationalities or ethnicities and our geographies, and it’s just not the case.”

Differences like age, personality characteristics, work preferences and unique disciplinary backgrounds in the workforce have existed for as long as work has, and Dr. Pilotte believes that leaders of engineering teams ignore them at their own peril. But the pandemic has highlighted workplace divides like never before, and within this context many issues simply can’t be ignored. The work cultures that have long existed within some product development teams can no longer be sustained in a moment when business as usual isn’t safe or practical in many instances. Whereas older generations often thrive in in-person work settings for meetings, training and routine work, millennials and Gen-Zers are typically more comfortable with remote working and video conferencing technology, both of which have been essential for allowing work to continue during the pandemic.

As remote work continues, leaders need to remain responsive to their direct reports’ communication styles and consider how their teams best interact. Maintaining this focus will keep teams productive and remove tension—and perhaps fatigue that has built up from working virtually. The steps that need to be taken aren’t always easy and are different for everyone. But leaders who take the time to reflect and act on change are likely to keep their teams—regardless of age and location—engaged and removed from bigger, boiling issues.

One small step is considering the technology you’re using for each type of communication. Dr. Pilotte noted that more technology often leads to more problems when it comes to sharing knowledge and getting things done. “We’ve all experienced problems with Zoom calls when a call starts to unravel, and once it has issues, people just keep trying to call on and call on and call on and call on. How many times have you been on a call like that?” she said. “Maybe what you should be doing is just going back to conference calls. We get stuck on, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be on Zoom because that’s the norm that we have,’ but that may not be the best tool for the type of information you’re trying to share. Really what you need to think about is what types of knowledge and information are you trying to impart, and what’s the best modality for sharing that information.”

When asked what kind of leaders are best adapting to the pandemic, Dr. Pilotte gave a surprising answer. “The ones who are doing the best have incorporated and embody, as part of their own internal team culture, the positive benefits of diversity in all of its permutations. Those who can integrate people from different parts of the globe, different languages, different work traditions, different styles of work––those folks who have embedded these into the norms of their culture have done the best during COVID. Because if you think about it, COVID has created just another version of diversity.”

Patrick McGuire is an ORTHOWORLD Contributor.


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