The Extremely Negative Senior Engineer

A cliche of technology projects is the presence of an overly negative senior engineer who will not hesitate to communicate their disapproval, often accompanied by an extremely negative opinion on the realisability of a given project. I have seen managers finding it difficult to deal with such a situation. In this article, I want to explore the dynamic behind this situation and how I think it can be handled.

Imagine you just presented a new project to the engineering team and one of the more experienced colleagues, someone who has been with your company for more than twenty years rolls their eyes and says: “That’s simply technically not possible, we can’t do it!”.

What has happened?

Now, the precise dynamics at play might vary from organization to organization. Nevertheless, let us consider a pattern that can be found across companies of all shapes: In any professional setting there are three* sources of power that determine how much influence an individual has on decisions:

  • Firstly, there is the formal role of an individual in the organization. The role bestows a specific authority on a person. This is most visible when the authority includes the ability to influence another person’s career: The implicit “I can promote or fire you” will automatically lend more weight to your words. However, it is also a very blunt tool and can backfire if overused.
  • Secondly, there are the relationships an individual has in the organization: Do people trust you? Do people come and ask you for help? Would people side with you when push comes to shove? In my experience, the most influential individuals in an organization typically benefit from this source of influence.
  • Lastly, there are your unique skills and competencies. How hard are you to replace? Does the organization depend on your knowledge to achieve its goals? This source of influence in my experience is hard to develop and can easily perish whenever an organization’s priorities change.

It appears to me that for a significant number of experienced engineers, the last bullet point is the main source of influence at their disposal. Saying “this project is impossible” is a way of referring back to their main source of influence by placing the focus on the fact that you need them to realize your plans. They might simply be trying to build up the necessary authority to influence the direction of the project!

I don’t want to defend a cynic attitude which is often not productive. As engineers, part of our responsibility is to distill requests down to their essence and to constructively and collaboratively propose solutions that contribute to solving the underlying problem.

Nevertheless, when confronted with such a less than constructive response, I suggest you take it in the most positive light possible: This individual is willing to spend their political capital by drawing from their main source of influence to answer your request. This means that they care and want to do the right thing. The worst reaction you can get is a group of people nodding and mechanically implement what you asked them because chances are that this simply reflects inner resignation.

How to move forward? The most important thing is going to be that they understand the exact problem you want to see solved through your request. Explain the background of your request. Why do you need it solved? They demonstrated that they care which means that likely when asked, they will want to be part of the solution.

Footnotes

* This is a slightly condensed version of the five sources of power proposed by French and Raven. While you can always differentiate things out a bit more, I don’t think that this changes the general point of the article.

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