Engineers should be taught to fight, not just get along with each other

Engineers should be taught to fight.

Listen to this Story or Read it

Instead of teaching your team members to get along, consider teaching them to fight. People need to learn how to collaborate with people unlike themselves because they tend to fight more with people unlike themselves.

Well-managed teams that encourage conflict can produce more creative solutions than conflict-free teams. The best team leaders teach that conflict about the work (not between people) is good for team productivity.

As an engineering professor at Northwestern University, I believe that that’s precisely what we should be teaching our students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects: how to collaborate with people not like them. Indeed, my research on teams in the tech industry found that teams with conflict were more productive than teams who worked happily together. This result has been replicated across all kinds of industry from entertainment to medical.

Right now we teach them how to work alone to get the right answers on the test. We give individuals points for measurable items. We avoid putting them on teams so we can easily attribute credit. If we put them on teams, it is with students in the same major and age and by doing so, we deprive them of the experience of dealing with the messiness of authentic, real world collaboration. As a result, they gain false confidence in their ability to collaborate. But none of them will graduate and work with teams that fully agree with them and if they do, these teams are unlikely to be sufficiently creative.

One of the critical reasons STEM educators don’t teach conflict and collaboration is because we are out of practice. To be hired at top-tier universities, we have been solo researchers, earning individual awards and individual speaking engagements with ease. We follow the rules of our solitary discipline to get ahead. We have often forgotten how to effectively collaborate with dissimilar others, much less how to teach others to collaborate. If we do collaborate, we carefully hide those collaborations from students and colleagues to preserve our individual reputations. As experts, we rarely venture afield to remember what conflict feels like. Too often, we don’t pursue interdisciplinary research collaborations that would put our prestigious disciplinary positions at risk. We work with people who know our fields and write papers for outlets in which we know we can publish. Much of the time we have become entranced with being experts in our fields rather than learners with others in new fields — and thus have distanced ourselves from the students we hope to teach.

Of course, collaborating with dissimilar others takes time. We need to learn other people’s language. When my colleagues in learning science and computer science want to collaborate with me, it requires understanding each other’s perspective and language. I don’t make as much individual progress in my own field in that time but find that the interdisciplinary collaborations that result are far more ground-breaking and impactful. So do we want to develop students who prioritize efficient, less creative solutions in the short term, meanwhile abandoning radically creative solutions that benefit our society in the long term?

So what should we do?

As STEM educators, let’s team up and start fights to develop better solutions. Let’s start class with stories of the team conflicts and efforts that led to great successes across our fields. Let’s go on field trips throughout the university to find collaborators in new disciplines. By doing so, we may not only gain empathy for our students and be better teachers, but we may also collaborate in ways that are necessary to really innovate across fields.

Elizabeth Gerber is an Associate Professor of Design in the McCormick School of Engineering and School of Communication at Northwestern University. She is the Faculty founder of Design for America.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Liz Gerber’s story.