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Let’s Be Frank: Emotionally Involved

By Inspector Frank. June 30, 2022
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Editor’s Note:  Writing under the pseudonym Inspector Frank, the author of this column offers a first-hand, candid view of what he has witnessed throughout his career. His purpose in sharing these experiences and opinions is to encourage readers to think deeper about what they do, why they do it, and the possible impact of their decisions.

Inspectioneering is committed to protecting the anonymity of pseudonymous authors. We do, however, hold these contributors to the same editorial standards as those writing under their own name. In this, we know the author’s identity and maintain communications regarding the author’s published works. If you have any questions, feedback, or concerns stemming from this article, please send an email to befrank@inspectioneering.com and we will forward your correspondence to the appropriate party.

I really enjoy reading about, discussing, and thinking about engaging people, or at least trying to engage people. As a teacher, as a mentor, and as a supervisor, it is probably the single thing I have liked the most over the years in my career. Engaged people are so much more enjoyable to work with. However, it can have some problems, especially with junior engineers/inspection types.

One of the elements that comes from being really engaged in a topic, idea, or workplace is an element of emotional buy-in that is usually much deeper. Engagement means you care; engagement means you take ownership; but those things can also mean it’s a little like your “baby.” And like your own real children, it can be hard to see someone putting their hands on it, so to speak.

I have an example I would like to share. I recently sat in on some risk-based scope reviews/challenges for an upcoming turnaround - always a good thing to do for an integrity organization. You need that balance between operations, integrity, and maintenance. Operations wants everything gold plated (or like one operations manager I worked with once said, he just wanted everything made of Inconel) so they can run it forever, maintenance wants to spend no money and keep outages and maintenance downtimes short, and integrity wants everything returned to brand new every time.

But back to the scope review itself. The young engineer who had set the integrity scope, using RBI, historical data, and a pretty keen analysis on the items and damage mechanisms that RBI doesn’t do well with, was rightly proud of their accomplishments. Then we sat them down in a room with various representatives – operations, maintenance engineers, turnaround planning and execution members, other integrity and reliability personnel, and a third party set of scope review experts. The questions started flying, good discussion was happening, and the scope of the upcoming outage was indeed being challenged. However, I could see that the engineer was taking it a little personally. To be fair, we were tearing up their “baby.” They were very engaged and were therefore emotionally involved in the work they did around equipment integrity and inspection.

Sometimes it can be hard not to take it personally, especially for younger, more junior personnel. In an effort to keep them engaged and keep their spirits up, I talked to them about how well it went, how knowledgeable they were, and how few items there were that did not need to be in the scope. I also specifically said to not take this personally and tried to use it as an opportunity to get them thinking about what was challenged and why some of the challenges made very good sense. I saw that they intellectually understood, but it was still a bit of a blow to them personally. I know some people would just be of the mindset that people should just "suck it up, buttercup," but it isn’t always that easy and you do not want negative experiences to take away from their engagement. It can be a fine line to walk. I have found that we have a lot of young people in the petrochemical world that end up getting jaded, while some maintain their enthusiasm and excitement for things as they mature and develop into their roles. And some become over-emotionally involved.

Another example I have seen multiple times is when people move on to a new role or even leave a company to go to another one. People who are engaged tend to feel guilty for leaving their work or leaving their workmates in the lurch if you have a really tight team. This can be another mentoring moment. Many years ago, when I left the military, I felt guilty about leaving my teammates behind. The sergeant major told me something that’s stayed with me ever since.

“Losing you isn’t great, but we have many young soldiers coming up that will take your place and become as competent and useful to the team as you were. You have learned a lot from good people and passed some of that on to the next generation. The people you inspired, be it one or one hundred, will do more with that inspiration than you can imagine. Now go on into the world and do well in your next endeavor. I am sure you will bring value to any organization you work for.”

As an aside, he also gave the advice to “stay in shape; everything is easier when the machine is running well and healthy.”

I’ve used a variation of his words when I’ve seen people feeling guilty about what they perceive as abandoning their duties. “You have learned, done well, and inspired; please carry that forward wherever you go and look back at your time here with fondness.” What I have found is that the engaged people will take that to heart and, while they may still feel guilty, it gives them another way to view leaving rather than in terms of dereliction of their responsibilities.

Another consideration is that people who are too emotionally engaged can get a form of confirmation bias when it comes to technical decisions they have made. When you spend a lot of time on something, pour your heart into it, so to speak, you might start preferentially ignoring data or evidence to the contrary of the decisions you have already made.

In the Let’s Be Frank article I wrote in memory of Tyler Alvarado in the November/December 2020 issue of Inspectioneering Journal, I mentioned that one of our favorite discussion topics was on how to better engage people. Something we never really got around to discussing, but that I have been thinking about more and more lately, is how to maintain enthusiasm and engagement over the long term in a healthy way (where the emotional engagement is not excessive). Think of the clichéd "work-life balance" we always hear from HR and others.

Consider this: people become too emotionally engaged at work when their work identity becomes their primary identity. One problem with working to engage employees (especially young ones) is that the work can become their identity in a way that starts tipping a healthy work life balance in favor of work. How would I know? It has happened to me at various times in my life, even as an older employee. I have a problem where I too easily let work consume me at the cost of other very important things in my life. I now try to be cognizant of this and put work into maintaining a healthier work-life balance, especially to family, friends, and other commitments I have outside of my workplace.

When I resigned as supervisor of an integrity department that I had completely devoted myself to during my tenure, I felt terrible; not for leaving the company, but for leaving my team in the hands of my boss. I left that role purely because poor leadership had created an unhealthy environment for me. It wasn’t good and most of the team I had assembled fragmented and left the company in the years following. I should have given myself my talk, I guess.

I’ll be honest, for the last year or so I have had a hard time staying engaged and enthusiastic about a lot of things, including writing these articles at times. But sitting down and writing this has been cathartic and has helped me refocus on what I am passionate about. If you are a leader, unofficially or because of a senior title, please put some thought and care into your junior people. We need to keep these young engineers and inspectors healthily engaged with a good work-life balance, as it will help you and your organization in the short term and will help all of us in the long term.

I will leave you with this - to paraphrase my Sergeant-Major, whose wise words of advice to me were "stay healthy and everything is easier." Stay emotionally healthy and it will be easier to navigate today’s ever-changing work environments. Appropriate, proportional engagement will be easier and will be much better for you and your life if you put effort into your emotional wellbeing.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle


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