Engineering stereotypes drive counterproductive practices

Jun 08, 2009

To engineering students, scenes like these might sound familiar: students splitting up group projects so they don't have to work together. One student bragging that he did the problem without following the directions but still got the right answer. Another student bragging about how he did the whole project in the hour before class.

It's practices like these that many believe will help them become expert engineers — but it's the same practices that are the ire of managers who hire recent engineering graduates.

These are the findings of a study done by Paul Leonardi, the Breed Junior Chair in Design at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, with colleagues at the University of Colorado. The study was recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.

"Industrial advisory boards are always saying engineers come to the workplace with good technical skills but they don't work well on team projects," says Leonardi, assistant professor of industrial engineering and management sciences and communication studies. "We wanted to know why. It's not a lack of skill — engineering students are smart people. So why aren't they working in teams?"

The study, conducted over several years, included interviewing more than 130 undergraduate engineering students and observing lab sessions and group project work time in order to study the culture of undergraduate engineering.

What they found was that when students entered engineering schools, they already had an idea of what an engineer should be from television programs and other media.

"There's a stereotype that engineers do things by themselves," Leonardi says. "So when students are asked to work in teams, they think, am I going to be disadvantaged? When I go to the workplace am I not going to be as valuable?"

In other words, students believed that if they weren't able to do a project alone, they couldn't consider themselves an expert engineer. Leonardi and his colleagues often saw groups splitting up group work, even if they were specifically asked to work on it together at the same time.

Researchers also found that when professors gave out documents that detailed exactly how to build something, students would often throw them away and try to figure it out on their own — another practice that stems from the stereotype that engineers should be able to figure out problem solutions on their own.

"They would figure out workarounds and try to reintroduce more difficulty into the task," Leonardi says. "It was a mark of distinction not to follow the task." This was often partnered with what researchers called "delayed initiation" — i.e. procrastination. But students didn't procrastinate because they were lazy — they procrastinated in order to prove that they could figure out the problem in a short period of time.

"All these practices were very counterproductive to working in a team," Leonardi says. Researchers even found that freshmen at first wouldn't engage in such practices; once they saw older classmates doing it, however, they, too, would take the social cues and engage in the practices. All the while, students would continually justify their actions as "that's what engineers do," and continued justification made the practices seem that much more natural.

To combat this, professional societies often say that engineering schools should put more team-based projects into curriculum, but Leonardi argues that isn't enough.

"The change we need is helping to put new kinds of stereotypes and images of what it means to be an engineer into the culture so students can reflect on those and think about changing their work practices to align with what we really want engineers to be," he says. "It's important for organizations to get involved with engineering education, providing internships and co-op opportunities, because it allows students to see early on other images of engineering so they can see that there are images of engineers out there other than the expert loner."

Source: Northwestern University (news : web)

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User comments : 9

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3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 09, 2009
Actually its more like the saying "If you want a job done right, do it yourself." Why should I want all these other people trying to engineer with me when it is possible they could muck things up / do things differently to what your idea is. Engineers strive for creative control.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 09, 2009
in my experience as an engineer student at the university of colorado. . . teams are put together randomly without proper consideration or even the basic understanding of how to make teams work. students are divided into groups usually at random and told to work together. This doesn't work of course as anyone who's studied group behavior, management theory or game theory could diagram. Team work requires choosing a successful team and establishing a reward system that successfully encourages teamwork is clearly a very difficult and complex skill. Simply throwing a bunch of randomly chosen engineers together and expecting them to be a great team is like throwing a bunch of random car parts in a pile and expecting to get a race car.
not rated yet Jun 09, 2009
Teamwork isn't just something that happens because you had a roomful of people a plan and say go for it. It takes practice and work and its not just engineers its a problem with all groups. It just appears to be more important with engineers as a skilled labor force they have a greater impact
not rated yet Jun 09, 2009
Engineers are are not financially rewarded for working on teams.
The manager deciding pay raises and promotions is never on the team and seldom observes the engineer's performance.
not rated yet Jun 09, 2009
I find deep concentration and creativity are very different mental activities than communication and negotiation. I also find that one undermines the other. There is a time for brain storming with the group and then there is a time for logical focus. A good team can do both. But they dont do them at the same time.
Huge amounts of time and effort are spend trying to figure out and put structure around this simple concept. How many management theories dejure have you seen that try to make groups work together and apart to try to find a balance between the two? They all sort of do the same thing.
not rated yet Jun 09, 2009
the word is "de jour", (of the day) from the french for "day" (jour)
3 / 5 (2) Jun 09, 2009
Actually its more like the saying "If you want a job done right, do it yourself." Why should I want all these other people trying to engineer with me when it is possible they could muck things up / do things differently to what your idea is. Engineers strive for creative control.

The other thing to remember is that a Engineer is not a solutions person, outside of 'known quantities'. meaning, they get to dip from predigested manuals called textbooks and engineering limitations, etc. Theoreticians and scientists innovate on the basic level.

Engineers are trained to operate from limits, not exploration in basics. Engineers sometimes have to remember that. If not, then they should have got into theoretical work, and/or declared that as their internal prime mover.

I have no problem with an engineer arguing theory with me if they want to be creative, but they cannot argue from set positions. Theoreticians are there to upset the applecart into a new one: It's their job! Engineers are designed to ~not~ use, create, or indicate any sort of 'new theoretical applecart'.

This small but important point is a fundamental component of this engineering student 'mental orientation' issue mentioned here in this article.

Also, I need to check. is this an American Study? Americans are prone to the 'me first' lone wolf behaviour. Part and parcel of the non-existent 'American Dream' mentality. Hard to get anything done as a team....when people are small minded and galloping off in multiple isolated egoic directions.
not rated yet Jun 14, 2009
Australian Engineering student: same thing here.
not rated yet Jun 14, 2009
For a 'team' to work, someone has to take the lead. I saw the same problems in engineering classes as in my MBA classes. If no one takes the lead, or the wrong person (or a person who is wrong) tries to control the team, it fails. Most people will chose to do the job themselves under those conditions and because the 'team' task isn't complex enough or difficult enough to require teamwork, they succeed on their own.

I remember one team exercise in a business class, where my 'team' got a lowest score in the class, despite my having the highest individual score. We did the exercise first by ourselves, then as a team. My team was dominated by a woman who was wrong and blocked everything except her solution. Since the 'team' had to agree 100% on the solution, my team failed.

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