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Study: Lone Wolves Don’t Make Good Engineering Teammates

The image of an engineer single handedly finding solutions or tossing out the rulebook to solve problems their own way can make for entertaining reading, and apparently has become the way many engineering students believe work in their field gets done. But the lone-wolf approach can hurt engineers’ chances of succeeding in the real-world workplace, where teamwork is more highly valued than many students realize, according to a study published in April.

In a study published in the Academy of Management Journal, Paul Leonardi, a faculty member at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and his team interviewed 130 engineering students over several years and observed their lab and group-project behavior. Leonardi found that when students entered engineering school, many believed that good engineers work alone, not in teams. He found that students, when asked to work in a team, would often split up work rather than collaborate. He also found many students would ignore instructions from their professors and find solutions their own way, even if finding a solution on their own meant more work.

Leonardi also found that many student engineers procrastinated on problems–what Leonardi calls “delayed initiation”–in order to prove they could figure out the problem in a short period of time as a way of demonstrating their prowess.

These practices and values can quickly become liabilities in the workplace, particularly in industry, where as Leonardi and others have noted, teamwork is highly valued. Last May, for example, Dave Jensen described for Science Careers how some academic scientists encounter difficulties in adjusting to the team culture encouraged by many companies.

To break down this culture, Leonardi recommends that companies hiring engineers get more involved in students’ training. He suggests programs like internships and work-study programs to give students first-hand experience in the workplace before they start their careers for real.