An Interpersonal Behavioral Framework for Early-Career Engineers Demonstrating Engineering Leadership Characteristics Across Three Engineering Companies

Open Access
Handley, Meredith Holland
Graduate Program:
Workforce Education and Development
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
April 17, 2017
Committee Members:
  • William J Rothwell, Dissertation Advisor
  • William J Rothwell, Committee Chair
  • Edgar Paul Yoder, Committee Member
  • Wesley Edward Donahue, Committee Member
  • Albert Vicere, Outside Member
  • Leadership
  • Engineering
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Interpersonal
  • Engineering Leadership
  • Professional Skills
  • Engineering Management
  • Early-Career Engineers
  • Interpersonal Framework
National organizations such as the National Academy for Engineers and the accreditation bodies like ABET are increasingly stressing the importance of leadership in engineering education. Since 2000, with ABET’s updated curriculum requirements, and NAE’s Engineer of 2020 report, engineering educators have struggled to figure out a way to fit leadership into already packed curriculum (NAE, 2004). Engineering leadership programs and research on the subject emerged. Engineering leadership research has evolved from describing effective practices in the classroom for engineering leadership knowledge development to empirical studies attempting to define the concept of engineering leadership. Findings suggest that traditional notions of leadership do not sit well with engineers (Rottmann, Sacks, & Reeve, 2014). One aspect of traditional leadership theory and development includes the importance of interpersonal competencies. Interpersonal competencies have been identified in recent research focused on the construct of engineering leadership (Cox, Cekic, Ahn, & Zhu, 2012; Hartmann, Stephens, & Jahren, 2015; Rottmann et al., 2014). However, the interpersonal behaviors associated with engineering leadership have not been explored. This study explores the behaviors associated with interpersonal competencies of engineering leadership during the early-career stage. This qualitative study describes the interpersonal behaviors that are important for demonstrating engineering leadership during the early-career stage. A qualitative approach, utilizing in-depth interview techniques, was utilized due to the need for an exploratory analysis of interpersonal competencies within the context of engineering. Nine engineering leaders across three large engineering firms participated in in-depth interviews to produce four engineering leadership characteristics important for early-career engineers and six interpersonal behavioral themes. Findings also focus on the importance of technical knowledge and abilities and generational stereotypes that impact leadership and interpersonal competencies within the engineering context. The results from this study suggest a framework for interpersonal behaviors associated with engineering leadership and relate to Emotional Intelligence. Findings from this study help to inform Human resource professionals, engineering managers, and engineering educators as to the interpersonal behaviors that are important for engineering leadership at the early-career stage and can help to inform training programs, coaching techniques, and engineering leadership curriculum.