UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Engineers are known for their expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). By applying their STEM knowledge to solve complex problems, engineers find innovative answers to some of the world’s most puzzling questions. While their technical expertise is extraordinary, some engineers may lack the necessary leadership training needed to excel in industry.
The School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Program’s Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) program hopes to change this through a better understanding of engineering leadership styles and an increased focus on the leadership styles critical for an engineer's success.
Led by Michele Fromel, a doctoral candidate in chemical engineering, a research team completed a study focusing on engineering leadership styles. The team interviewed eight engineers who completed an engineering leadership minor during their undergraduate education.
By exploring the engineers' understanding of behaviors related to leadership, the study aims to lessen a leadership knowledge gap that is said to exist between an organization’s values and an entry-level engineer’s leadership preparedness. Additional researchers include Matthew Bennett, mechanical engineering alumnus; Lei Wei, engineering leadership and innovation management graduate student; Meg Handley, associate director of engineering leadership outreach and assistant teaching professor; Dena Lang, associate director of engineering leadership research and associate teaching professor; and Mike Erdman, Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development and professor of practice.
“As an engineering student and hopefully a future engineering leader, I believe it is important to understand what is required to effectively lead both individuals and teams in an engineering setting,” Fromel said. “There is substantial research on leadership styles in general, but such studies have rarely been applied to specific disciplines, especially engineering. I think a better understanding of the types of leadership to which engineers respond favorably can help advance engineering projects and keep workers engaged and energized, cultivating innovative thought.”
To begin the study, Fromel and the team reviewed different leadership theories and their associated leadership styles. They found three major leadership theories with corresponding research: behavioral theory, situational theory and power and influence theory. Each theory includes numerous leadership styles with various behaviors. The behavioral theory of leadership believes that leadership capabilities can be learned, and leaders can be made. Situational theory suggests that no one leadership style is best — each situation may need a different style of leadership. The power and influence theory highlights how different leaders use power and influence to accomplish goals and complete tasks. The team chose to focus its study on the behavioral leadership theory due to its emphasis on the broad actions of leaders and their leadership direction, specifically related to whether or not they focus on tasks, people, changes or resources.
“We wanted to choose a single theory with a broad range of component styles rather than attempting to address all of the numerous and overlapping leadership theories available,” Fromel said.
She added that the behavioral theory’s Blake Mouton Managerial Grid, a model of leadership style developed by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton to identify a manager’s concern for people and production, offers a concise platform for organizing the leadership styles in the behavioral leadership theory. These styles include the impoverish, country club, produce or perish and team leader styles. The grid plots these styles on the x-y axes. Ranging on a scale from one to nine, the x-axis registers concern for people and the y-axis represents concern for production.
The team completed multiple interviews with the eight engineering leaders, collecting information on their practiced or experienced workplace leadership styles. After transcribing the interviews, the researchers analyzed the information and developed codes based on an open and axial coding strategy. The team created a codebook with the most common words and phrases used by the engineers during their interviews. Examples of commonly used words and phrases include: “active listening,” “hands-off approach,” “teamwork,” “people-centered” and “empowerment.”
“We assigned each word or phrase a definition and interpretation to maintain consistency among team members when analyzing the data,” Fromel said. “This is an important step in qualitative research studies where unique interpretations of different researchers could otherwise impose biases and lead to conflicting conclusions.”
The team placed the codes in general locations on the Blake Mouton Grid to roughly illustrate how engineering leadership behaviors relate to the behavioral theory. Grid results showed positive opinions of leadership skills with both high concerns for people and high concerns for production, or the team leader style. Researchers found these behaviors tend to reflect empowerment, recognition, active listening and sharing a vision — the most often used words and phrases in the codebook.
Fromel said that though the study confirmed most engineers prefer a team leadership style, different engineers work, learn and excel in different ways.
“As a leader, it is important to recognize this and to be well-versed in leadership theory to tune leadership styles to fit the needs of those being led,” she said. “However, it was clear that in general, engineers want to be trusted and empowered. Innovation is enhanced by freedom and reinforced by recognition.”