Motivating, inspiring and directing automation professionals

A project’s success often depends more on human dynamics than on good engineering.

By Greg McMillan and Stan Weiner

Greg: The human aspect of our job is often neglected. One of our newest protégés in the ISA Mentor Program, Luis Navas, is a process control leader at Monsanto. He recently posed a question to me and Hunter Vegas (the cofounder of the Mentor program) about interpersonal relationships and how they affect project performance.

Stan: We start first with Luis’s thoughts and question, then give Hunter’s input, and conclude with Greg’s views including what we have learned from previous Control Talk columns.

Luis: Over the years, I have worked on several projects with different project team combinations and circumstances, such as different locations, idiosyncrasies, temperaments, subcontractors and engineering procurement and construction (EPC) companies, with an absence of face-to-face conversations. There were issues regarding communications, human behaviors and team member conflicts. This has led me to think that one of the biggest points that can significantly affect the project are human relations. I wrote the following about four years ago to help understand the problems and increase project performance in all its stages:

First, communication issues are, in my experience, the biggest obstacle in executing automation projects. These issues are worsened by an absence of face-to-face communication, no acknowledgement of hierarchy of team members, emails not written or read properly, unavailability of team members, conflicts among team members, fear, pride, poor technical resources, and prejudices that deteriorate objectivity.

Second, quality sufferswhen there are assumptions rather than certainties, aggravated by people who are afraid to ask, due to being new, workplace or country culture, or personal pride. Poor specification, insufficient documentation, lack of experience, lack of skills, lack of ownership and lack of training are factors.

Third, there is the lost time due to other activities apart from work, lack of experience, missing the schedule, deficiencies in skills, other projects, lack of monitoring and control, and inaccurate instructions for deliverables. Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely (SMART) goals can greatly help.

Fourth, there can be a lack of motivation due to aversion to the task, low pay, personal problems and a negative working environment. “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” is at play.

Based on your knowledge and experience, what recommendations, experiences, advice or literature can you give me to better manage this issue?

Hunter: You have asked a difficult question and certainly one well off the beaten path of technical questions that Greg and I usually get. I’ll take a crack at this one and let’s see where we go.

First off, I will totally agree that the human side of my job is the toughest. I have supervised small technical groups, larger technical groups, and whole production plants and departments, and without question, the people part of those roles was easily the most vexing. Technical problems can be difficult, but usually, with enough brain power, an answer (or at least a workaround) can be found. However, people problems are never so straightforward and there are times when no solution is a good one—somebody is going to be angry or hurt no matter what you do. To make things worse, engineers are notoriously bad at understanding people’s reactions, emotions, etc., so we as a group tend to handle people problems even worse than most.

Over the years, I have gotten better at handling people than I used to be. I suppose 52 years of watching human reactions and emotions is bound to teach you something. Obviously, it isn’t possible for me to convey all I’ve learned in a column, but there are certain tenets that I have found repeatedly useful over the years.

Understand a person’s motivations. Everybody is motivated by a couple of significant drivers. It might be money, recognition, power, ego, a drive for success, a penchant to avoid work, etc. However, those drivers vary wildly from person to person. Some people just want a big paycheck. Others crave public recognition. Still others have a need to be in charge. The best managers recognize those motivations and use them to guide behavior. And it is very important to realize that what motivates you may not motivate others.

Pain is instructive. Read Tip #3 in our ISA book, 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor program.

Never underestimate the power of politics and emotion. Read Tip #8 in our book, as well as many others. (My tips 1-8 and Greg's tips 50-52 help in some fashion.)

People tend to act very differently in front of groups than in a one-on-one situation. Bosses and managers (particularly ones who lack experience and/or confidence) feel that they can’t afford to lose face in front of others. Therefore, they will often act harshly (and even irrationally) if they are questioned in public. If possible, try to resolve issues one-on-one rather than on a public stage.

Read the Guide: The Essentials of Safety Instrumented Systems

Pretty much without exception, everyone wants to be treated with respect and everyone likes to get recognized. Talking down to people or treating them badly will almost always cost you in the end. And taking a moment to genuinely thank someone for their efforts or recognize their contribution is rarely a wasted effort.

Always be honest and upfront with people. Own up to your mistakes, never take credit for something you didn’t do, and don’t tell lies because you think that’s what they want to hear. People may not always like you or agree with you, but if you are direct and honest, most people will respect you.

Greg: In today’s work environment, with increased pressure on time and cost, and a broader spectrum of users and suppliers, the challenges are greater as to how to maximize the effectiveness of working together.

One of the subjects that intrigue me the most is how you deal with vastly different perspectives, opinions and ideas. You would think a good logical argument would work. Unfortunately, this may just build taller and firmer walls around people, blocking out the view and any intrusion. What you need to seek is an opening, and then some common ground in personal, private, face-to-face conversations, finding cases that they can relate to and see a value in resolving. You need to be positive and acknowledge expertise, effort, difficulty and challenges. You can see if they can come to the same conclusion and if necessary, adjust your own personal view and knowledge based on an open-minded, two-way conversation. Be a great listener. Seek a win-win situation where all parties feel that they have achieved and gained something important. Watch body language and keep the conversation upbeat, with smiles and a friendly atmosphere. However, you need to be firm in seeking the truth, asking the tough questions, and saying “no” when necessary.

I was alerted to cultural problems years ago when an associate said he spent months with the engineers at a contract engineering firm overseas with them nodding their heads and saying “yes, yes, yes” during instructions or presentations when in fact they did not understand anything. The misleading response was due to a cultural custom of politeness that resulted in a crisis when it was finally realized nothing had been done correctly.

Personally, I have seen the pride of great minds interfere with the goal of seeking the truth. In some cases, the bigger the mind and expertise, the bigger the ego and obstruction of anything that might prove them wrong. I have seen some consultants and developers only seek cases to prove their solution or expertise is the best. This is so counter to the power of the scientific method, where cases are sought to disprove as well as to support an idea. The keys to our great advancements are inquisitiveness, objectivity, discovery and truth.

I have been a user and developer of technology my entire career. I never have had to promote products or myself, which is fortunate because aptitude tests say I would be terrible in sales, in marketing or in any business venture. Increasing my knowledge and the profession’s knowledge has been my primary motivating factor. This is why I write and present so much and why I developed the ISA Mentor Program. In our profession, you don’t get rich from royalties, and unlike former politicians and executives, we don’t get paid much of anything from presentations and seminars.

In an exceptional situation where management sought to advance technology, I was given the freedom and time to develop my skills and to explore, discover, implement and document improvements in process performance through modeling and control as described in “Virtual plant virtuosity.” This approach has served me well in terms of achievements, recognition, salary and a personal sense of purpose. As I get tempted by retirement, what drives me forward is the feeling there is a deeper purpose to life. I wonder how much others in our profession could be inspired if given similar opportunities by management.

The success of the Monsanto and Solutia Process Control Improvement program certainly benefited from extensive practical knowledge and a corporate initiative. Even more important was the benefit gained from an individual who was not viewed as an outsider and was great at documenting financial opportunities in whatever plant he went into. He established a great relationship with operators. With his accounting skills and practical plant knowledge, he was able to gather the evidence to justify and show the value of improvements in terms of process performance. We can learn a lot from the Control Talk column with Glenn Mertz, "The Human Factor."

For more on how to effectively deal with personalities in projects, see the Control Talk column with ISA Mentor Program resource Leah Ruder, “How to get operators and engineers onboard for your next system upgrade.

Top 10 opening lines you don’t want to hear from team members

  • 10. There are two types of people in the world: me, and those who want to be like me.
  • 9. To know me is to love me.
  • 8. I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken.
  • 7. Those burritos I had for lunch really don’t agree with me.
  • 6. Just shut up and do what I say.
  • 5. Geez. Are you the best they could find me?
  • 4. I find a bath a week is plenty.
  • 3. I can only stay five minutes….
  • 2. I’m just here for the doughnuts.
  • 1. Well, I think we should create a committee to evaluate a protocol for selecting members of the committee to formulate a preliminary tentative team charter.
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