Engineering Ethics: Communicating Effectively in Engineering

This article looks at communication as a professional engineer, causes of poor communication in engineering and also offering advice on how engineers might communicate more effectively.

effective communication within a team

In the ever-dynamic world of engineering, effective communication isn’t just a luxury—it’s an absolute necessity. Whether it’s conveying project requirements, collaborating with team members, or presenting findings to clients, clear and concise communication is the bedrock upon which successful engineering endeavors are built.

To survive long, organizations and individuals must actively listen and promote dialogue with other parties because communication involves a two-way process. This dialogue, comprising clarification, feedback, and effective questioning, is crucial. It’s vital to recognize that communication encompasses not only verbal but also non-verbal cues like posture and facial expressions and demonstrating respect. Since people process information differently, employing a variety of methods is essential for achieving optimal communication.

However, the path to effective communication is often riddled with obstacles, with poor communication lurking as a persistent threat. Understanding the causes of poor communication and implementing strategies to avoid them is paramount to ensuring seamless project execution and achieving desired outcomes.

Thus, the purpose of this article is twofold: first, to shed light on the root causes of poor communication in engineering settings, dissecting the factors that impede clarity, coherence, and collaboration. Second, to provide engineers and project stakeholders with a comprehensive toolkit of strategies and best practices to enhance communication effectiveness.

Causes of Poor Communication

There are several instances of poor communication and how it adversely affects an engineering project outcome, some of them are briefly outlined below.

  • Lack of design coordination between design team members
  • Gaps between the main design team and subcontractor designers
  • Gaps between subcontractor designs
  • Poor flow of information from the design team to the contractor
  • Misinterpretation of the design intent
  • Inappropriate materials used due to poor specification
  • Designers not communicating the appropriate design risk assessments to the contractor
  • Lack of clear definition of responsibilities for design
  • Poor communication of the project risks that impact on program, cost, and quality

All of these above examples of poor communication result from the following causes

Technical Jargon Overload

Engineers are notorious for their use of technical jargon, which can alienate stakeholders who lack specialized knowledge.  This reliance on technical language can erect barriers to effective communication, particularly when attempting to convey complex ideas to individuals outside the field. Misinterpretation or sometimes confusion may arise as a result, impeding the collaborative process and obstructing the flow of ideas.

Lack of Clarity in Goals and Expectations

Ambiguity in project goals and expectations can create misunderstandings among team members, resulting in divergent paths and inefficiencies. Without a clear guidance, team members may work towards different objectives, leading to discord and subpar results.

An illustration of a prevalent instance of this disparity can be seen where a secondary steelwork is required for attaching a cladding. Frequently, the main contractor and the sub-contractors responsible for the cladding operate independently. It’s almost improbable that they engage in discussions regarding the design during the tender phase, hence disparities will often surface during the detailed design phase. In this scenario, these disparities hold the potential to increase expenses, induce delays, and trigger contractual disagreements.

Inadequate Listening Skills

Effective communication is a two-way street, requiring active listening as much as articulate speaking. Failure to listen attentively can result in missed cues, overlooked concerns, and ultimately, communication breakdowns.

Poor Feedback Mechanisms

Constructive feedback is essential for fostering continuous improvement and maintaining project momentum. However, a lack of structured feedback mechanisms can stifle communication channels, preventing vital information from reaching the relevant parties.

For example, consider a scenario where a construction team on a project encounters unexpected challenges with a particular building material. The structural engineer notices issues such as inconsistency in quality or difficulty in installation. However, if there’s no formal feedback mechanism established to relay these observations to the project managers or procurement team, the issues may go unaddressed. As a result, the project could face delays, cost overruns, or even safety hazards due to the continued use of subpar materials.

In this instance, the absence of a structured feedback mechanism not only impedes the resolution of immediate issues but also undermines the project’s overall success by preventing timely adjustments and improvements.

Communicating Effectively

Having understood the general causes of poor communication in engineering, how can engineers communicate effectively?

Effective communication requires:

  • Comprehension of the audience
  • Determination of the communication method
  • Selection of suitable language while anticipating potential areas of confusion
  • Proactive measures to solicit feedback for evaluating the comprehension of the communication as intended.

Here are some practical steps to enhance your communication effectiveness. By consciously understanding the dynamics of communication, you can refine your approach, leading to more impactful interactions.

  • Take a moment to consider your words; opt for clear, everyday language, whether verbal or written, and maintain a respectful tone.
  • Clarify the thought, message, or desired action you wish to convey.
  • Choose the most suitable and efficient communication method, and consider ways to reinforce the message.
  • Establish methods for assessing the reception and understanding of your message, as well as the elicited responses.
  • Practice active listening and demonstrate empathy towards responses, which can provide valuable insights into comprehension and potential issues.
  • Observe interpersonal communications, noting the involved parties, the message content, any distortions or inconsistencies, feedback mechanisms, and the context.
  • Provide summarized information upfront to offer readers a quick overview before delving into specifics.

Next, we will explore two particularly tricky scenarios which is not only particularly challenging for engineers but for everyone: communicating negative information and communicating with management.

Communicating Negative Information  

Conveying negative information is undeniably one of the most delicate aspects of communication. The individual tasked with delivering such news often faces uncertainty regarding the recipient’s reaction. When preparing to communicate negative information, it’s crucial to acknowledge the humanity of the individuals involved and approach the situation with respect and empathy.

Before communicating negative information, it’s essential to be thoroughly informed of all relevant details. This involves:

  • Understanding the decision-making process.
  • Identifying consulted individuals.
  • Exploring alternative options that were considered.
  • Grasping the reasoning behind the final decision.

Preparation for delivering unfavorable news involves ensuring a comprehensive understanding of all pertinent facts. This entails knowing the decision-making process, identifying consulted parties, exploring alternative possibilities considered, and grasping the rationale behind the final decision. Surprising recipients with negative information should be avoided, as it may trigger disproportionate reactions. Instead, providing advance notice, without delving into specifics or offering false assurances, allows individuals time to mentally prepare for the impending news. Timeliness in communication is vital to prevent feelings of betrayal or exclusion.

Tailoring the delivery method to the severity of the news is essential. While face-to-face meetings are generally preferred for significant issues, the delivery should be clear, confident, and devoid of ambiguity. Practice and rehearsal may prove beneficial, particularly for those less experienced in delivering such news. The message should be concise yet considerate, maintaining objectivity and fairness throughout. Withholding information out of fear may exacerbate misunderstandings or underestimate the gravity of the situation.

Documenting all communications and actions leading up to the delivery of negative information can facilitate future discussions and provide clarity for all parties involved.

Communicating with Management

In the workplace, everyone interacts with their manager at some point. Communication forms a crucial aspect of colleague relationships. Successful relationships hinge on understanding and strong communication skills. People’s responses to communication vary based on their individual differences. Mastering effective communication methods is key to fostering positive, respectful, and trusting relationships. When communicating with managers, time constraints often apply. Hence, discussions should be concise, relevant, and task specific. Similarly, when managers communicate with their teams, they should maintain patience, understanding, and clarity.

Occasionally, topics discussed with managers may evoke emotions. Emotional discussions tend to obscure issues and hinder effectiveness. Thus, maintaining a clear perspective and avoiding confrontation proves more productive. Generally, day-to-day communication with management can prevent major issues from escalating. In instances where negative information needs addressing, managers typically prefer timely disclosure. This allows for prompt problem-solving or mitigation. Presenting a potential solution alongside the problem demonstrates a proactive approach and is well-received by managers. It signifies a commitment to finding resolutions rather than merely transferring problems.


In engineering, effective communication is essential for successful project outcomes. Poor communication as highlighted in the article can always result from a number of sources stemming from technical jargon to challenges in delivering bad news. To communicate effectively, engineers must be able to balance their technical precision with accessibility, employing plain language explanations and fostering collaborative communication practices. Clear project goals should be established early, with regular communication and feedback loops to ensure alignment and address concerns promptly.

Also See: A Background to Construction Specifications

Sources & Citations

  • The Privacy & Electronic Communication (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, SI 2003/2426 [Online] Available at: (Accessed: June 2024)
  • Institution of Structural Engineers (2018) ‘Effective Communication‘ Professional Guidance Business Practice Notes, The Structural Engineer 100(9)

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