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The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Engineering

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Engineering

Dr. Joe Mayer

“Emotional intelligence is part of leadership. It's part of communication.”

So says Dr. Joe Mayer, senior lecturer in the Case Western Reserve University School of Engineering. He teaches Leadership and Interpersonal Skills, with the aim of developing leaders who motivate and inspire others to work as a team in the service of shared goals.

His focus on emotional intelligence education may face resistance in a field known for its introverted practitioners, but Dr. Mayer is undaunted.

“I feel very strongly,” he says, “that students learn a lot from talking to each other, exchanging ideas with each other, listening to each other, perhaps seeing different viewpoints and challenging their own thinking.”

Embracing the Challenge

As the best teachers do, Dr. Mayer holds deep respect for his students—and recognizes traits and challenges that many of them share.

“Scientists, including engineers, are not known for being the most outgoing people,” he notes. “And introverts are normally very, very measured in how we engage in communication. We need our facts. We have to think through issues before we give our opinion. So communication, the importance of communication, the way we approach and form networks and trust within them, are really key issues for scientists.”

In prioritizing communication skills, Dr. Mayer understands that he’s taking his students on a journey that they might find uncomfortable.

“If you look at something science-based, you calculate and there’s only one true answer. If you look at personal development, we are all different. The answer might look completely different for each student, and it’s a really big deal to accept that, to be conscientious and spend time really challenging one’s own beliefs—specifically for people who might like the world more black and white than gray.”

Emotional Intelligence Education

“If we are authentic leaders, we have to be authentic in a style that will really attract our followers,” Dr. Mayer asserts. “And we can only do that by having a lot of emotional intelligence.”

People who are unaware of their own feelings and/or cannot effectively manage them are often seen as unpredictable—a highly unattractive trait in the professional world. Furthermore, those who lack a good grasp on their own feelings find it very difficult to see and recognize others’ emotions. As examples, he posed these questions:

  • How would you show empathy to somebody if you don't see that that person is not her usual self this morning?
  • Why would you be interested in somebody, to build a close relationship, to learn about that person, when you are so focused on yourself?

“The good thing,” he continues, “is that emotional intelligence is a skill. We can actually teach that skill; we can practice and become better at it.”

The Growing Demand for Teamwork and Leadership

When Dr. Mayer started in engineering, engineers were seen as extremely technical. They worked in offices behind closed doors. Anyone needing a question answered would, essentially, slide it under the door and wait for the response to come back the same way.

“As time went by and our business environment got so competitive,” he says, “businesses have had to rely on the ingenuity of more than one person. One person cannot have all the answers.”

As a result, companies depend more and more on teamwork. “Everything is done in teams. We listen to different perspectives. We listen, hopefully, to a significantly diverse group of teammates, and together we can find an idea that’s better than anything any one person had thought about before.”

“This means,” he clarifies, “that everybody on a team today needs to be a leader. Because as soon as you have the ball, as soon as you are being asked the question, that's when you are the leader. Now you can direct the question, answer the question, provide background information—and then fall back again into followership as the question is passed on.”

The Gift of Diversity

The Case School of Engineering is rich in varied perspectives.

“We are really blessed in that we have a diverse student body: people fresh out getting their first degrees, people who come back into the program after 20 years of various degrees or business experience, people from Iran, India, Ukraine, Indonesia. It's amazing.”

Dr. Mayer values the change and opportunity made possible by approaching problems from a variety of outlooks. The discussions become “so much more interesting and philosophical” than they’d be if everyone had the same point of view.

“By adding somebody who thinks differently, has different priorities, a different background, different experiences, now we have something we can bounce off of each other. We can learn from each other and can develop differently. And that's what good teams are all about.”

Teaching Leadership and Interpersonal Skills

“In the Leadership and Interpersonal Skills class,” he shares, “we believe that a person’s effectiveness and success are directly tied to how the person works with others: how well that person leads others, inspires others and how well that person is a follower, in a bigger context, of others. So we really need people to understand where their leadership strengths lie, what they inspire, what their leadership style should be, and then close the gap between where they are and where they want to go.”

The first part of the class is heavily focused on the dozen or so assessments the students take, to look at different components of their personalities and leadership styles. The second part centers on exercises regarding the students’ aspirations:

  • How do they want their leadership style to be seen by others?
  • What is their ideal self?
  • What do they want to achieve?
  • What are their values?
  • How can they utilize those values to get to their ideal picture of themselves?

“Based on those two—we call them the real leadership/real self and the ideal leadership/ideal self—we then can see how we can go from one to the next,” Dr. Mayer explains. “What kind of goals should we set? What kind of steps can we take to close that gap? What kind of skills do we need to develop to reach what we have set out in our ideal scenarios?”
He continues to develop the course, including the addition in 2020 of a peer coaching component, created because, “in the business world, every leader's job is to coach, to help others achieve their goals.” In peer coaching, students are challenged to help others look through their plans, question where they stand and develop learning plans that are more solid and better researched.

“It's incredibly difficult,” notes Dr. Mayer, “especially if you are young in your career, to ask questions without giving an opinion. It's so much easier to tell somebody, ‘Just try it this way and it will be fine.’”

His favorite part of the class is the final paper—a cumulative summary that tracks students’ aspirations, assessments of where they stand and plans for how they’ll move forward. He appreciates the growth that it shows, and the development of “different priorities, different points of view, what's important professionally, how to approach it.”

“I hear over and over again that, to be a really great leader, you have to be born a great leader. And I think throughout the class, students realize that a lot of great leadership is actually skills they can pick up, develop and apply at work and in their personal lives. Each of us can be a great leader if we really are conscientious about who we want to be and how we want to lead.”

Become your best self

Develop the professional and personal expertise that successful leadership requires. Learn more about what becomes possible with the online Master of Engineering, Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering, Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering or Master of Science in Systems and Control Engineering from Case Western Reserve University.

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