What to do when your Engineer is Ruling the Roost

Q: Jeff, Captain, 39:

My Engineer is walking all over me, and I can’t seem to do anything about it. He pre-dates me onboard, he’s older than me, the boss likes him, the boat is old and full of problems…but irritatingly, he’s a really good Engineer. I’m not sure how the previous Captain dealt with him, but he just seems to do whatever he wants. He doesn’t follow any of the crew rules like putting his plates in the dishwasher, making his cabin or putting his dirty clothes in the laundry. I’ve come down to the crew mess several times of an afternoon to find him with his feet up on the crew mess table watching TV.  When I’ve tried to pull him up he just ignores me, and I know it’s not good for the crew to see that I can’t maintain authority over him. I was chatting to another Captain recently and it seems a lot of us are struggling with talented Engineers who know they’re hard to replace so are acting like they are a law unto themselves. What can I do?

A: The Crew Coach:

It is so unfortunate that professionals misuse their rank. It’s one of those classic yachting power struggles. The problem does seem particularly acute in situations like yours when the Engineer has been on board longer than a new Captain. So, what to do about it? A yacht will always operate better when the senior figures are getting along. Higher ranking crew should be modelling the desired culture on board. Although his behaviour is making it difficult to approach him, I wouldn’t let it deter you from finding a solution to this problem. It would appear that his behaviour is reflective of what we call a child-like state in a modern psychology theory which is more commonly known as transactional analysis. This is something we explore in greater detail in our https://thecrewcoach.com/face-to-face-training/ and is super fascinating. I’ll give you a bit of insight into the theory as I am sure it will assist you in making sense of this behaviour. Transactional analysis theory is commonly used in organisations, in therapy and in the areas of personal and professional development. It is advantageous in helping individuals improve their relationships and their communication style.

Berne, the father of this theory, suggests that a person is made up of three alter ego states; namely child, parent and adult. When we communicate we are doing so from one of our own alter ego states, our Parent, Adult or Child. How we are feeling at the time dictates the ego state we react from. The dynamic can change depending on who you are communicating with. For example, in this case you may identify yourself reacting from the alter ego state of a parent and perhaps the engineer is responding from the alter ego state of a child.

There can be a number of reasons why the Engineer is having these reactions and the root cause is usually as a result of conflicting values. One needs to learn how to communicate differently with different people. Once you have a good understanding of the other, your communication with that person gets a lot easier and your are less likely to be fighting against the resistance.Engineers tend to have a practical disposition, so appeal to his logic. A lot of the tension and bluster surrounding this kind of situation can often be cleared with a good honest chat.

Ask him if there are things you’re doing that are getting in the way of him doing his job. Ask how the previous Captain did things differently and what worked for him; see if you can accommodate these methods. You don’t have to agree to them, but it will give you a starting point and a window into his perspective. In return, tell him how his behaviour is impacting you, but value communication and transparency as such would prefer to discuss things in a more confidential setting.
You also need to look at how you might be inflaming the problem. We often feel the need to micro-manage when someone isn’t giving us the respect we feel we deserve. Look at how you’re interacting with him and ask yourself if you’re overly checking up on him or looking for ways to find fault.

In a similar vein, when we feel disrespected or challenged, we often seek to find confirming evidence – and we often over-value it when we do. For example, if your trusted First Mate told you he’d get to something you’ve asked in a minute, would you take offence in the same way as you do when the Engineer says the same thing? Be aware if you’re being too prickly, and just assess the facts.You worry that the crew might be judging you for not maintaining authority over him but chances are they know he’s being difficult. What they will judge you for is if you visibly let it get to you, overreact to the situation or let it undermine your confidence.

Finally, be genuinely grateful that he’s a good Engineer. Count your blessings: a ‘really good Engineer’, as you put it, can be ‘really hard to find’. Imagine the headaches you’d be having if you had a less talented Engineer onboard.Often, these situations come to some kind of resolution on their own over time. You didn’t say how long you’d been on the boat as Captain, but it sounds like it’s pretty recent. Crew often take adjustment time – particularly if they liked the old Captain – and the Engineer may just be taking some time to see your good points too (as you are his.) Go about your work in a highly professional way and make sure you are above reproach yourself.

Ultimately, the yacht Owner is happy with him, and you’re a relative newcomer. Which means that you need to find a way to be happy with him too, or at least find a way of tolerating him and getting the best out of him as a leader. Good luck with this and keep in touch, I’ll be interested to hear how things are going 3 or 4 months from now!