Date of Award

May 2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mechanical Engineering

Committee Member

Joshua D. Summers

Committee Member

Gregory Cranmer

Committee Member

Oliver Myers

Committee Member

Marissa Shuffler


The objective of this research is to develop an understanding of the emergence and distribution of leadership behaviors in engineering design teams. This research was conducted with undergraduate engineering students and explored leadership behaviors within design teams in a variety of contexts. Undergraduates were selected for the study since they possessed similar education and skills as a novice engineer in industry. A mixed methods approach incorporated qualitative and quantitative techniques including interview, case study, and protocol study instruments. The use of these methods enabled the exploration of leadership in both natural and controlled environments to capitalize on the research advantages of each.

Interviews were employed to understand faculty perceptions of leadership in design teams. The case study enabled the identification of leadership in a natural context without the need to control the multitude of variables in collaborative design. The protocol study provided a more focused and controlled study to identify patterns of leadership emergence and distribution of functions within a specific conceptual design activity: function modeling. The teams examined ranged from three to four-member design teams in the protocol study to ten-member teams with behavior resembling multiteam systems in the case studies.

The resulting insights provide increased understanding of the emergence of leadership and the distribution of leadership functions within design teams. Interviews manifested faculty perceptions that formal structures are developed early and that informal roles emerge throughout projects, with communication skills playing an important role. Faculty perceptions on leadership covered a broad range of leadership functions including “performing task” and “consideration.” The density of leadership networks during case studies confirmed the emergence of informal leadership functions among designers and indicated variations in function distribution at sampling points. Protocol studies indicated that informal leadership was established early, and that leaders active early remained active throughout these focused sessions. A single instance of variation in protocol study team size demonstrated a structural parity in a three-member team that was not observed in four-member teams. This supports faculty perception that larger and multi-dimensional teams also provided different opportunities for leadership development. This understanding will form the basis for further research into leadership of design teams and may assist in the development of leadership interventions in engineering design teams and design education.



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