Seeing Problems Before They Happen

From the Tech Team Coach:

It is ironic.  You might be leading the hottest new technical development, but most common problems tech and engineering projects experience come down to people not understanding one another.


You’ve got brilliant people on your team.  So you’d think, “Why can’t these guys put in the same level of care and quality that I do to get this right?  Aren’t they responsible for understanding the specs, getting the requirements right?”

But as the leader, responsibility for success or failure falls on you even if the mistake occurs among your team.  Somebody’s got to be in charge.  Lucky you.

From consulting with technical and engineering teams over 20 years, the problem I notice is that most of the time managers and team leads miss unspoken cues that if they recognized them, would signal a potential issue that could be avoided.  Project communication is a two way street and your people are usually sending signals requiring corrective feedback.  Are you noticing the subtle cues?

Most people look at communication like this:

NLP linear communication without feedback

But the straight line sender, message, receiver model doesn’t cut it in our fast paced creative and agile modern environments.   Every communication is intended to get a particular result that others are dependent upon.  That’s why the unit of communication has to be a feedback loop rather than a straight line.


Calibrated communication feedback

90% of the time, if you increase your perception skills you can pick up on warning cues from body language that foreshadow future problems for your team.  But learning to watch body language while you are trying to get a message across doesn’t come easily to most of us, at least not most of us in the engineering fields and science fields.

You have to know what to look for.  And you have to be looking for those details even while your focus of attention is on the content of the communication you are trying to get across.

The best way to practice these skills is in a set of exercises designed to provide you with  mixed messages in an environment where a missed cue won’t hurt your performance reviews.

A raised eyebrow, tightening of the muscles in the jaw, pursed lips, even dilation of the pupils in a person’s eyes all can be important feedback to whether the listener really understands what you are saying in the way that you mean it.  You can learn to see and interpret these cues like a professional poker player, but you probably are going to need to set aside time and put in a few minutes of effort for a few weeks to get good at it.

If you would like to learn more about reading people’s confused and incongruent behaviors, check out Genie LaBorde’s book:  Influencing with Integrity.  It is an oldie but a goodie that I use when teaching expert Engineering Teams to work together more efficiently.

Becoming a really excellent technical leader takes concerted effort, but it is learnable.  And your results will be worth the effort.


Keith W Fail is a Coach and Trainer teaching leadership skills to STEM managers who “hate” people skills but recognize that even the best solutions will Fail, if the people do.   If you feel ready to take the leading role,  talk with Keith about sharpening your skills in these areas:  512-512-5464


  1. Great article! We need more communication training for our project managers.

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