Letter to a Young Engineer

January 30, 2020

How time flies!

It seems like I just graduated from my undergrad, yet here I am being asked to give advice to versions of my younger self! And yet when I look back on all that I have accomplished in the past 25 years, I can see the paths that I have travelled. I blasted rock and built roads in the Northwest Territories for the Dene Cho Dogrib. I have done ice surveys on the Mackenzie River to determine when the ice roads were no longer safe and when the ferry could be put into the river, to ensure that northern communities could be continuously supplied. I have designed a nerve gas incinerator for the US Army to destroy chemical munitions left over from the Cold War. I have cleaned up derailments sites for CN Rail and trained as a locomotive engineer and conductor. I was the Assistant Director Professional Practice for APEGA, writing practice standards and giving ethics advice for 70,000 Professional Engineers and Geoscientists in Alberta. I got my PhD in Strategic Management and Organization so that I could better understand how to motivate companies to be more sustainable. And now, I examine methods of hazard identification and risk management, risk evaluation and social license to operate, and drivers of technology adoption in oil and gas, mining, pipelining, construction, agriculture, and railroading, among other industries. Given this all, what do I wish that I had known, when I graduated?

Engineers are the builders and changemakers of the world!

Politicians, critics, and protesters get all the media attention. Pffft… It is easy to throw stones. It is more difficult to gather those stones together and build a new foundation. As engineers, we design and build infrastructure, refineries, mines, cars, new algorithms. We have the capacity to ensure that our products are inherently safer and economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. We work from within the system to reshape that system. We are much more effective changemakers than a protester will ever be.

Yet, while engineers are among the most trusted of professions, we are often not great at self-advocating.

We assume that if our work is great, it will speak for itself. We are taught to write reports in the third person, as if the data analyzed itself or the building built itself. We absent ourselves from our own work. Break out of this! Allow yourself to the be hero in your own story. Communicate your work in the first person. Communicate in a manner that resonates with your audiences: use graphs, use pictures, tell a story. Be an authentic and trustworthy translator; connect your knowledge and experience to your audiences. Let your communications, writing, and presentations be a scarlet begonia amongst a sea of grey.

Align your values, actions, influences, and energies.

Be the change you want to see in the world. The world is worth your sacrifices. Be bold. Be generative. Be a uniquely valuable contributor. Change your career direction if you need to; take extra courses, go back to school, move, shift employers. There will always be more opportunities that you could have ever imagined. Don’t be afraid of change. And don’t be afraid of being ambitious.

Be open to the possible. Think big and bigger still.

I have always exceeded my highest expectations. Opportunities will be greater than your wildest imagination. Know that you can do things out of the ordinary. Own your intelligence. Trust your voice. When you are told ‘no’, it rarely means no, it just means that you must find a different way of getting something done. If the front door is locked, try the side door, try the window, dig under the foundation if you need to. If your cause is worthwhile, you will find a way to enlist advocates and persist, until it you have achieved what you set out to do.

Choose partners who support you

Surround yourself with those who lift you up to be your best self. This includes who you choose as friends, mentors, collaborators, and your life partner. You deserve to be supported and championed in all that you do. Life is too short for negativity and satisficing.

Following your Intuition

16 October 2019

Appeared https://os4f.com/stories-/following-your-intuition

Twelve years ago, I was told that studying climate change was a ‘nothing’ topic. Yet, as I worked for a regulator, I was shocked at the degree of disagreement amongst professional engineers and geoscientists – who share the same institutionalized education, experience requirements, employers, industries, and supposedly objective beliefs. This motivated me to develop and administer a survey asking them about their beliefs of the causes, consequences, and solutions associated with climate change. The response was overwhelming. I got 1077 respondents within weeks, with no reminders.

Surprised by this, I thought that these data would make an interesting empirical paper, as a side project to my PhD research. But my supervisor told me that these data were shit. He said that it would be a waste of time to do further analysis beyond the simple descriptives that I had done for the regulator. Again, I disagreed. And started talking to Renate Meyer (who was visiting the University of Alberta at the time) given the similarities between these professionals and her executives in Meyer and Hammerschmid (2006).

Beyond quantitative analysis of the survey, we were struck by the richness of the open-ended comments from over 300 respondents in their use of emotion and metaphor. So, we decided to take a mixed methods approach to analyzing their responses. From this we created a more nuanced typology of framings than an overly simplistic dichotomy of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ climate change. We got feedback from Royston Greenwood, Mike Lounsbury, and others and presented at EGOS, Academy of Management, and elsewhere, as we developed a more abstracted analytical and theoretical approach. The special issue in Organization Studies was the first mainstream management attention to climate change (Wittneben et al., 2012) and the perfect outlet for our article (Lefsrud & Meyer, 2012).

It was published in November. The holiday season passed. There was little attention to our article and this special issue, which was surprising to me given the vitriol from our respondents. So, I talked to the public relations person at the Alberta School of Business and asked her to do a media release on our article findings.

Our article was immediately picked up and misrepresented by a Forbes magazine columnist. He generalized our findings from a self-selected (i.e., non-random) sample of engineers and geoscientists in Alberta in 2007, to all engineers, and then to all scientists. Our paper then became a political football as the columnist’s interpretations became challenged by other researchers, industry folks, and as other climate deniers and skeptics joined the fray. Renate was in the hospital at the time. So, I was left to answer the deluge of emails. This ‘exposure’ left me feeling painfully exposed. When Renate became available again, we wrote a letter to Forbes editor, which caused this columnist and others to further misrepresent our research, attack us personally as failing ‘left-wingers’ and ‘feminists’, and insult each other.

While it was painful at the time, our paper now has 198 citations and over 32,000 hits on Google. I have had personal discussions with researchers in the New Zealand Academy of Science, NASA, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics. It is listed on a Wikipedia page with over 500 edits (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveys_of_scientists%27_views_on_climate_change ). And it has been cited by natural science articles (Climate Risk Management, Journal of Risk Research) and used as for education purposes in textbooks (Jenkins, 2015). It was an NBS-ONE Best Practice Paper 2013 finalist, Best International Paper 2012 finalist with Academy of Management, profiled by Sage Publishers Social Science Space, and written as an Op Ed. Our paper was the most read article in Organization Studies for every month since, until recently, when it was surpassed by an article on Volkswagen’s emissions scandal (Rhodes, 2016). Given that our paper has had over 100,000 downloads since its publishing, Organization Studies now includes Altmetrics for all its papers.

This experience was quite revelatory to me. First, it taught me to be inspired by the conundrums that I see in the world. If something does not make sense to me, it likely does not make sense to others either. This is most interesting. Second, if I am not getting research support from my closest colleagues, then I create a virtual ‘department’ of those who are intellectually supportive. As a result, I am working on fantastically interesting and valuable topics (climate change, workplace fatalities, energy transitions) with wonderfully inspiring and innovative collaborators. Third, I am creative in considering “What is data? And how can it be analyzed?” Qualitative analysis of a quantitative survey is nonstandard but gave us the most interesting insights. Our research on visual rhetoric and multimodal data (text, images) has also been nonstandard (Lefsrud, Graves & Phillips, 2019). Fourth, I work hard to make my writing accessible, interesting, and engaging: a scarlet begonia amongst a sea of grey. The more that I make every paper a ‘dream paper’, the more interesting I hope to make it for readers. Fifth, I promote my research and others’ in nonstandard ways – through media releases, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, and industry talks. What is the point of doing research if no one is reading and using it?

Last, while much of what I study is quite controversial, I am careful to not let controversy prevent the creation of common ground and solutions-based conversations. I choose my words and my outlets carefully. Many sustainability issues are painfully fraught with conflicting values, paradoxical framings, and heightened emotion. But rather than avoiding these issues (Don’t discuss politics at the family dinner table!), it is imperative that we examine the underlying root causes. We must find a way to have these difficult conversations if we are ever going to find solutions. I believe that as organizational scholars in universities, it is our unique responsibility to navigate and host such conversations.

Jenkins, S. H. (2015). Tools for critical thinking in biology. Oxford University Press, USA.
Lefsrud, L. M., & Meyer, R. E. (2012). Science or science fiction? Professionals’ discursive construction of climate change. Organization Studies, 33(11), 1477-1506.
Lefsrud, L., Graves, H., & Phillips, N. (2019). “Giant Toxic Lakes You Can See from Space” A Theory of Multimodal Messages and Emotion in Legitimacy Work. Organization Studies, 0170840619835575.
Meyer, R. E., & Hammerschmid, G. (2006). Changing institutional logics and executive identities: A managerial challenge to public administration in Austria. American Behavioral Scientist, 49(7), 1000-1014.
Rhodes, C. (2016). Democratic business ethics: Volkswagen’s emissions scandal and the disruption of corporate sovereignty. Organization Studies, 37(10), 1501-1518.
Wittneben, B. B., Okereke, C., Banerjee, S. B., & Levy, D. L. (2012). Climate change and the emergence of new organizational landscapes. Organization Studies, 33(11), 1431-1450.

Consider This: The Diversity Challenge

May 1, 2018


If Canada is to excel in the global knowledge-based economy, we have to call up all of our strengths to
build and maintain a strong, entrepreneurial science culture that maximizes all of our human resources.
— Arthur J. Carty, Canada’s Former National Science Advisor

The value of diversity is well known. Women’s increased participation and advancement in the workforce bring significant economic benefits to organizations and to Canada. Besides solving skill shortages, enhancing market development, and creating stronger financial and governance performance (WinSETT, 2016), teams with more women have a greater collective intelligence (Woolley, Malone & Berinato, 2011). Enhancing the participation and leadership of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields specifically, will generate even greater positive impacts in our knowledge-based, technological and highly competitive global economy.

Yet, women in STEM face additional challenges and women of colour face even more (Henry et al., 2017; Williams, 2015). These include having to provide more evidence of competence, pressure to work fewer hours after having children, pressure to act stereotypically feminine, distancing themselves from other women, and being mistaken for administrative or custodial staff.

Despite knowing the value and challenges of diversity, making workplaces truly fair and inclusive takes more than aspirational statements. And bias training alone does not work, but can actually inflame hostilities. Instead, focus on interventions (Pruitt et al., 2018); how could employees respond when they hear a racist comment or a sexist joke? Foster inclusivity throughout the organization with formal ice-breaking and introductions, adopt a learning orientation that demonstrates the value of different perspectives, and establish an informal mentoring or buddy system (Phillips, Dumas & Rothbard, 2018). Recruit diverse candidates at all levels to increase contact with women and minorities across the organization and more quickly promote positive cultural change (Dobbin & Kalev, 2016). Support ongoing discussion through workshops, outreach, and one-on-one meetings by tailoring the content to match the needs of the group (Pruitt et al., 2018).

To be part of the diversity discussion, we invite you to attend CCWESTT2018.com. We have three exciting days of workshops, a policy forum, learning, networking, and inspiration in the heart of downtown Edmonton. Our theme of “Learn. Grow. Act.” focuses on what we know about diversity and inclusion, how can we best promote it, and how can we all flourish as a result.

Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016). Why diversity programs fail and what works better. Harvard Business Review, 94(7), 14.
Henry, F., Dua, E., James, C. E., Kobayashi, A., Li, P., Ramos, H., & Smith, M. S. (2017). The equity myth: Racialization and indigeneity at Canadian universities. UBC Press.
Phillips, K.W., Dumas, T.L., & Rothbard, N.P. (2018). Diversity and Authenticity. Harvard Business Review, 96(2): 122–136.
Pruitt, A.S., Brinkworth, C. Young, J. & Aponte, K.L. (2018). 5 Things We Learned About Creating a Successful Workplace Diversity Program. Published on HBR.ORG, March 30, 2018.
Williams, J. C. (2015). The 5 biases pushing women out of STEM. Published on HBR.ORG, March 24, 2015.
WinSETT (2016). Increasing Women in SETT [Science, Engineering, Trades & Technology]: The Business Case http://www.winsett.ca/GetSiteFile/BusinessCaseBrochureEn.pdf
Woolley, A., Malone, T. & Berinato, (2011). What Makes a Team Smarter? More Women. Harvard Business Review, 89 (6): 32–33.


Dr. Lianne Lefsrud, Ph.D, P.Eng.

Engineering Safety and Risk Management, Faculty of Engineering
12-287 Donadeo Innovation Centre for Engineering 9211 116 Street, Edmonton, T6G 1H9

Phone: 780.492.8351 (office) | 780.951.3455 (mobile)
lefsrud@ualberta.ca  |  LinkedIn |  Twitter


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