According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empathy is "the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation." Because engineering is an industry it has a prevalent human interaction element to it, thoughts, ideas, and problems can become convoluted. It is up to an engineer to put himself/herself into another person’s place and figure out what the issue at hand is. This article discusses what empathy is and its relevance to engineering.


Empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling or to project feeling into another living creature. Though empathy is an individual trait, one can consider an empathetic environment. The optimal engineering environment is having a good balance of individuals that make empathy-based decisions and individuals that make logic-based decisions. The stereotypical engineer lacks an emotional indicator due to the isolating nature of technical work, yet it is essential that an engineer have the capacity to empathize to function not only on the job but in society as well. As a successful engineer progresses through his/her career, being able to empathize becomes essential.

The opposite of an empathetic person is a narcissistic person. One who is narcissistic will say and do things out of belief that he/she is entitled to say and do these things. The narcissist views other humans as only objects to get what he/she wants in life and feels little to no remorse for his/her actions. A narcissist has a very difficult time functioning in society and has no place in the engineering world. Though narcissists are extreme examples of people who do not exhibit empathy, it is important to note that engineers cannot fall into this category and be successful.

Examples and Implementation

Having a lack of empathy causes workers to disrespect authority while too much empathy will enable workers to push the manager around. The critical question is "how does the importance of empathy find its way into the life of an engineer?" An engineer usually starts his or her career as an entry-level technical engineer. For several years the engineer becomes familiar with the industry and continues to grow his/her skills. At this point in the career the engineer does not manage people and is solely focused on gaining technical skills and showing for it.

Moving up in the company requires showing promise as a project manager. Once the engineer has shown this promise, power is given to the engineer. This first taste of power marks the shift of importance of empathy in the engineer’s career. Striking the balance between moving oneself higher in the company and concerning oneself with the welfare of others is crucial. Now that the engineer is a manager, personal interactions become a daily part of the job. Project productivity and efficiency depend on the technical workers to get the job done, and an efficient manager that can put things in perspective when needed. If a manager pushes too hard or does not push hard enough, efficiency is not optimal.

As the project manager gets promoted to a senior manager, who is in charge of multiple projects, the stakes get even higher. The problems, dilemmas, and controversies get more serious and the ethical decisions become less black and white. To put into context how empathy is involved with managers here is an example from a second hand story:

Jane Doe has been with Company X for fifteen years and knows just about everything she needs to know as an administrative assistant. She knows the ins and outs of her duties and when she performs them, she is very efficient. Jane is the only person in the company that keeps records and the only person that can find anything if an engineer needs to reference an old project. She is nearly irreplaceable as a worker in the company. However, Jane has a history as a functioning alcoholic and is not reliable. Whenever she can she will make up an excuse of being sick to go home early. She has not had sick time in the company in years because she has used it all. Jane is asked to go to the local high school to make a delivery on behalf of the company. She has already been stopped for speeding and hitting a pedestrian on the same campus and cannot put a toe out of line again. However, Jane’s manager gets a call from the school that Jane was pulled over by campus security after she was going 35mph in a 10mph zone. The school said that if Jane is ever sent again on behalf of the company, they will never do business with company X again.

The manager must decide whether to simply reprimand Jane and give her yet another chance, or to let her go. The manager believes there is a lot of good in every person and that people just make mistakes. However this time, the magnitude of the mistakes are becoming bigger. The high school is a repeat client for the company and Company X cannot lose its business. However, Jane lives alone and does not have anyone to care for her. She would have a very difficult time being hired by another company because of her record. For the sake of telling the story, Jane’s manager decides to fire her.

This is just one example of how a manger effectively took his worker’s feelings and situation into consideration. The manager displays less empathetic actions valuing business, the company’s future, and doing what is logical. This is not the only way to go about dealing with this situation though.

Sometimes customers need to be shown a little empathy, especially young companies that do not yet know how to navigate the engineering world. However, even the most experienced CEO’s and executives don’t know what they want in a project. Consider the following second-hand story:

The president of Company X met with the president of Company Y to discuss scope and cost of Project Z. Both companies have spent years building up reputations to uphold. Company X is offering its electrical design services to Company Y to design the electrical distribution system in their building. The scope and cost of Project Z was agreed upon with a contract and a handshake. Yet when the design went for review, the president of Company Y said, "This is not what we wanted. We wanted Project Z to be done to LEED Platinum standards." To which the president of Company X said, "Please refer to our contract. Nowhere do you mention that you want LEED accreditation of any level. The budget you presented could not get you get anything past LEED silver." The president of Company Y replied, "Please redo your design to make it conform to LEED silver then. However, we don’t have the budget to give you more money. We would really appreciate it.

At this point, the president of Company X has two choices. He could stretch his workers to redo the design and keep his customers happy. Doing this would allow Company X to keep its reputation of making clients happy whatever the cost. After all, it is company philosophy to keep the customer happy whenever possible.  Or, Company X could stick to the contract and not lose any money redoing work. This would be tempting because Company X would do exactly what they were contracted to do and nothing less, but nothing more. For sake of telling the story, the president of Company X decided to take the monetary hit and redo the design to the LEED silver standard. This allowed Company X to build its phenomenal reputation for going the extra mile for its clients.

The previous two examples outlined the actions and thoughts of two employees in the same company. They work in close proximity and must collaborate on projects all the time. With two very different styles of approaching situations, Company X continues to thrive.  Having both of these styles within the company was ultimately beneficial. When companies build balanced teams, it is useful to have some objective way of determining how an employee might approach a situation.

The Myers Briggs test is used to determine personality type. Managers may find it helpful to not only administer this test to their technical workers but to take it themselves. They may find out the strengths and weaknesses of their teams and then strategize how to build and lead the team. There are four different categories to the test, but the category that concerns empathy is "Thinking vs. Feeling." This category describes how one goes about making decisions. Thinkers make decisions using logic and reasoning while feelers tend to rely on emotion and context for making decisions. Generally, feelers have more empathy in their decision making than thinkers. Both have their strengths and weaknesses in the engineering world.

The manager in the story is more of a thinker since he relied on his logical intuition to fire Jane. She may be on her own and struggling, but the manager decided to do what was best for the company and sever professional ties with Jane after a fifteen year stay with the company. Since the firing, Company X has replaced Jane and is functioning normally. In contrast, the president is more of a feeler since he relied on his situational analysis and the customer’s need for the LEED accreditation. He did take a monetary hit but Company Y walked away very happy and has since referred Company X to other lucrative projects.

Having an engineering team of a uniform personality type may be very ineffective. If the whole team were feelers there would be a lack of discipline, yet if the team were thinkers the working atmosphere would feel more cutthroat. Being a part of a properly balanced team with the right amount of empathetic response from each team member is a very rewarding experience. Not only does the team look out for each other but work gets done and the company succeeds.

Case Study

Myyry and Helkama of the University of Helsinki (year?) make a comparison between values and choice of occupation. Businessmen value power, social workers value benevolence and universalism, but workers in the technology field [like engineers] do not statistically stand out in any particular category. If they were to score higher in any value from the Value Survey designed by Schwartz, it would be in security. The "security" category is described as "safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships and of self." When engineers act as businessmen to run companies or manage people, the desire for power tends to emerge, which conforms to the Schwartz hypothesis.

It is ambiguous as to what the engineer values most. Because there are so many different types of engineers it is almost impossible to generalize "engineers" valuing "power" or "benevolence" or "security" over anything else. These three values can be viewed as a spectrum with benevolence being on the empathetic side, power on the less empathetic (but not necessarily narcissistic) side, and security somewhere in the middle. Universalism and benevolence encapsulate "protecting the welfare of others in everyday interaction (being helpful, forgiving, honest, loyal, responsible)." Power involves "social prestige and controlling others (social power, wealth, authority)." According to Myyry and Helkama (year?), engineers tend to find the happy medium, security, between benevolence and power most valuable.

Application to Senior Project

My experience working on the Orange senior design team is that of success. I work with two friends that work well with each other and with me. As individuals we tend to express varying levels of empathy, which makes for a productive team. Having taken the Myers Briggs test myself I can say I am very much a feeler. One of my team members is very much a thinker and the other appears to be somewhere in the middle. I tend to want to put people’s emotions, feelings, and other responsibilities first while the thinker in the group likes to have a plan and move forward with it. This is a great balance as the group is productive and not overly stressed at the same time. Being able to tell when someone needs some time off for whatever reason leads to increased productivity. Realizing when someone could use an extra push also has its benefits.

A common occurrence is sitting down as a group and seeing what each person has to do for the week. My intuition is to pick up the slack for my group members who have busy weeks instead of always dividing up the responsibilities evenly. However the thinker in our group does like to keep everyone on schedule and will not deviate too much from the plan. This is a perfect balance as our group is very functional and we are happy with each other.

Engineering is a team effort and the industry engineer will most likely be part of a team at any time in his/her career. The engineer’s position on the team will change throughout the years but the sense of being part of a group will always be there. Having a balance of feelers and thinkers in a team environment will make for optimal productivity. An engineer with the capacity to show empathy is valuable to any team dynamic and will be successful interacting with people.

Cited References

  • Schwartz, S. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. In: M.P. Zanna (Ed.). Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 25 (pp. 1 – 65). San Diego: Academic Press. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1283539
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