When Heads of Departments Cross the Line

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 …

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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:

Unfortunately, professionals can misuse their rank, and it’s one of those classic yachting power struggles. The problem is acute in situations like yours where the Engineer has been onboard longer than the new Captain. So, what to do about it? 

A yacht will operate better when the senior figures get along, and a higher-ranking crew should model the desired culture onboard. Although the Engineers behaviour makes 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. 

We explore this as part of our membership program, and it is 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 used in organisations, therapy, and personal and professional development areas. It is advantageous in helping individuals improve their relationships and their communication styles.

Berne, the father of this theory, suggests that a person is made up of three alter ego states: child, parent, and adult. When we communicate, we do so from an alter ego state, our Parent, Adult or Child. How we are feeling dictates the ego state that we react from. The dynamic can change depending on whom 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 several reasons why the Engineer has these reactions, and the root cause is usually a result of conflicting values. One needs to learn how to communicate differently with different people. Once you understand the other, your communication with that person gets a lot easier, and you 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 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.

It would help if you also looked at how you might be inflaming the problem. We often feel that we need to micro-manage when someone isn’t giving us the respect we think 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 only 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. They will judge you 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 ‘hard to find’. Imagine the headaches you’d be having if you had a less talented Engineer onboard.

Often, these situations come to some 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. The 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. This means that you need to find a way to be satisfied with him or at least tolerate him and get 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!

When Heads of Departments Cross the Line