‘What’ are my team members? Getting engineers to see the ‘who’

By Patricia Sheridan

A three part series on a fundamental principle of effective group communication

Too often I meet with engineers and engineering students whose teams are not functioning well. They will talk to me about the project, they will talk to me about the deliverables, and they will readily talk to me about the task-based competencies of their team-mates. Rarely, will I ever hear how they are actually interacting with each other.

Engineers by nature are a group of highly rational, logical, and driven individuals. They have a strong focus on delivering their work and ensuring that the needs of their clients and stakeholders are met. And these are all great things, provided the engineers can work effectively together to actually produce that work. What happens when these traits move towards the hyper-rational is that team members become seen as ‘what’ they produce rather than ‘who’ they are and ‘how’ they can contribute to making the team and the product better. Seeing individuals as solely what they produce limits the effectiveness of the team, and puts up barriers between team members that block effective communication and prevent the development of relationships that lead to mutually-developed collaboration.

Knowing ‘who’ you are communicating with highly influences both the message you send, as well as how you send it – we speak with an understanding of how our team members will receive that message. When we know ‘who’ we are speaking to, we can leverage our understanding of them to attune to how they understand the project and promote discussion that allows the ideas of both contributors to build on one another and create a better, mutually-constructed idea. In the absence of this knowledge of ‘who’ our team mates are, the communication within the team begins to sound like a cacophony of ideas passing-by and colliding with each other until one happens to stick – the skillsets of the team-members and their knowledge are not leveraged to communicate in a way that facilitates the development of an idea that is better than one team member could have developed individually.

When this happens with the teams I work with, two results occur. First, no team-member feels ownership of the whole project. When team members are reduced to the sections of the project they worked on or wrote (the ‘what’) they do not feel like a valuable and integral member of the team. Second, the project is not cohesive – the ideas and the communication to do not develop from a unified concept or voice. Each different section or component is developed and explained through a different framing and language.

Eventually these teams who only see the ‘what’ fall apart or produce suboptimal work that no team member is proud of. Getting engineers to see and value ‘who’ their team members are is necessary to get team communication to a level where the whole team can be greater than the sum of its parts. However, getting engineers to take the time to see ‘who’ their team members are can be challenging; in the next post I will explore some ways of effectively cultivating this perspective.



Patricia SheridanPatricia Kristine Sheridan is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering at the University of Toronto where she has been a team-effectiveness researcher and engineering design educator for 4 years. She has researched student behaviour in over 300 different teams, following some teams in depth for up to 4 months, and has designed an on-line system to facilitate the development of team-effectiveness behaviours in student teams. Her teaching and course development focus on creating interactive learning activities at the intersection of design, leadership, teamwork, and identity formation. She holds a BASc and MASc in Mechanical Engineering, and has previously worked on large plant design teams in industry, and on algorithms to develop co-operative multi-agent systems in robotics.