HR Directors: How to Get Engineering Managers to Tackle Tough Topics

By Heather Campbell

Does tackling tough topics bring you out in a cold sweat?  If it does, you’re far from being alone.  In our recent research, 66% of managers admitted to fear getting in the way of having the conversations they need to have.

Managers in most industries would rather avoid tackling tough topics. But HR Directors in the engineering sector face a number of particular barriers when it comes to encouraging managers to do so.  Telling direct reports that their performance isn’t up to scratch, informing them that they didn’t get a promotion or introducing unpopular changes are typical examples of conversations that most engineering managers avoid.

However, as an HR Director you know that this avoidance is undermining the managers’ credibility and the performance of the people they lead.  So what can you do about it?

In this post, I’ll set out three specific points that I have found really persuasive when it comes to convincing engineering managers that they need to deal with tough topics.

Give sound practical reasons

Let’s face it, engineers are not the most naturally people-focussed managers.  It isn’t that they don’t care or don’t want to support their people – it’s just that they find it easier to focus on the task in hand instead.

Focussing on the task in hand is relatively straightforward.  Even when complex problems are involved these can be solved in a logical, practical way.  Solving people problems is not straightforward – this involves interpreting subtle nuances, political games and mixed messages.

Because of this, engineering managers need sound, practical reasons to take on these tough topics.

Trying to convince engineering managers to tackle them because people will engage better or will be more motivated sounds like fluff.  Talking about resolving specific business problems or increasing productivity on a particular project will make your case far more persuasive.

Provide a structured conversation process

Engineers tend to be structured, practical individuals who want to know that something will do what it is supposed to do.  They tend not to be drawn to theoretical ideas or to giving something a go ‘just for the hell of it’.

This means that producing elaborate theoretical models of how relationships work or ways to motivate people tend to leave them cold.  On the other hand, describing exactly what to say to start a conversation in the right way, or giving a list of questions that will elicit the other person’s views, will get their interest.

Showing what to say if someone gets emotional or is resistant to your message is another example of a practical tool to add to the manager’s conversation kit.

Be clear what not to say

Tackling tough topics can be a minefield.  If the manager says the wrong thing the other person may get emotional, may fight back or may not engage.  Worse still, there is a risk that the individual will end up taking a grievance against the manager or that legislative requirements will not be met.

In my experience, these are all major barriers to managers having the tough conversations they need to have.  And they tend to feel that HR really doesn’t give them the clear, direct information they need about what not to say to avoid these pitfalls.

In my post The 8 Burning Questions Engineering Managers Have About Managing Underperformance, I highlight some of the information that you most need to provide.


In conclusion, managers in the engineering sector are typically engineers first and managers second.  As such, they are practical, solutions-focussed individuals who want clear, practical, predictable ways to manage people.  They don’t warm to complex theoretical models, broad psychological reasons or HR-speak when it comes to dealing with the tough topics that are an inevitable part of their management role.  But at the same time, you do have to convince them to have these less-than-pleasant conversations.

My top three tips to do this are:

  • Give sound practical reasons
  • Provide a structured conversation process
  • Be clear what not to say
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