An exploration of whether engineers differ from non-engineers in their approach to negotiations

Barry Goldman (Department of Management and Organizations, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA)
Dylan A. Cooper (Martin V. Smith School of Business and Economics, California State University Channel Islands, Camarillo, California, USA)
Cagatay Koc (Northern Trust, Tempe, Arizona, USA)

International Journal of Conflict Management

ISSN: 1044-4068

Article publication date: 26 June 2019

Issue publication date: 4 September 2019



In this investigation, the authors aim to ask whether engineers, as a profession, share distinct characteristics in their attitudes and behaviors relating to negotiations. Based on a review of the literature, the authors answer in the affirmative. Generally speaking, the existing studies on individual differences of engineers conclude that they are more conscientious, more goal-driven, more competitive and less people-oriented than non-engineers. The authors suggest that these differences have significant consequences on how engineers engage in negotiations. In particular, the authors propose that engineers’ approach to negotiation includes differences related to distributive versus integrative negotiation, emotional intelligence, perspective-taking and preferred persuasion techniques.


This paper involves an integrated literature review, combining research in management, psychology and engineering to investigate whether engineers approach negotiations differently from non-engineers.


The authors suggest that individual differences between engineers and non-engineers have significant consequences for how engineers engage in negotiations. In particular, the authors propose that engineers’ approach to negotiation includes differences related to distributive versus integrative negotiation, emotional intelligence, perspective-taking and preferred persuasion techniques.

Research limitations/implications

The authors offer 11 research propositions in areas relating to how engineers engage in distributive versus integrative negotiations, emotional intelligence, perspective-taking and their preferred persuasive techniques.

Practical implications

There are important implications for how engineers and their supervisors should be aware of these differences between how engineers and non-engineers view negotiations and how these differences may affect them and their employing organizations. There are also cultural implications, particularly for organizations for which engineers comprise a majority or a minority of the workforce composition.

Social implications

There are important implications for diversity in the engineering profession, especially as it relates to the hiring of women in engineering (as they now comprise a small minority of the profession).


To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study that investigates how engineers negotiate. Because engineering is a hugely important contributor to society, the results of this have important implications for the society.



Goldman, B., Cooper, D.A. and Koc, C. (2019), "An exploration of whether engineers differ from non-engineers in their approach to negotiations", International Journal of Conflict Management, Vol. 30 No. 4, pp. 420-440.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

Engineers have a crucial role in modern society. They design planes, connect roads via secure bridges and make computers operate; they created television, the internet, health monitoring systems and sewage systems. In short, they invent, design, build, analyze and test the machinery and systems that make society operate. However, technical tasks are only part of their job. Most working engineers also identify negotiation as a significant aspect of their work (Trevelyan, 2014). Resolving disagreements within engineering teams and with contractors, as well as getting others (including in their own organizations), to accept their solutions is an important aspect of bringing these technologies to life. Practicing engineers often state that an engineer is hired for her or his technical skills, fired for poor people skills and promoted for leadership and management skills (Farr and Brazil, 2009; Russell and Yao, 1996). This has led to criticism that engineers are too often trained for technical skills, while leadership and management skills, such as negotiation, are neglected (Farr and Brazil, 2009). Recently, engineering scholars have called on engineers to improve their negotiation skills, an area that these scholars claim has been neglected (Trevelyan, 2014). Yet, little is known about how engineers, as a profession, negotiate and whether it differs from how non-engineers negotiate. This area has been largely unaddressed by scholars for two primary reasons:

  1. negotiation researchers have generally maintained that individual differences are not significant factors in understanding negotiation; and

  2. although engineering researchers are open to investigating individual differences, including personality, they have paid little attention to negotiations as of yet.

Engineers are typically employed within specific organizations. Some of these are engineering-centric organizations but others are not dominated by engineering; in these cases, engineers are only part of a larger organizational skillset. However, a recent article stated that as many as 75 per cent of those with engineering degrees are not working in engineering disciplines (English, 2016). For this paper, we will focus on practicing engineers, regardless of the type of employing organization. Approximately 1.82 million engineers are expected to be employed as engineers by 2026, as compared to 1.68 million in 2016. (This compares to 867,000 lawyers and 820,000 physicians and surgeons projected in 2026.) (Sargent, 2017). Thus, engineers account for a sizeable portion of the workforce.

The purpose of the present paper is to provide an integrated framework to investigate whether there are reasons to believe engineers differ from non-engineers in their approach to negotiation. In doing so, we adapt research from engineering psychology and the psychology of negotiations to offer propositions describing specific ways in which engineers may differ in their negotiation-related skills and preferences. In a broader sense, we hope that this paper may begin to raise questions about different approaches to negotiations by others in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, as well as to suggest whether those in certain specific professions may engage differently in negotiations from those in other fields.

Negotiation and individual differences

The role of individual differences, including aspects of personality, have a long and complicated history in negotiations’ research. Although early practitioners stressed the importance of selecting negotiators based on personal traits (von Bismarck, 1899), modern scholars concluded that individual differences are irrelevant in negotiations (Rubin and Brown, 1975; see also, Bazerman et al., 2000; Sharma et al., 2013). For example, an influential review stated “personality and individual differences appear to play a minimal role in determining bargaining behavior” (Thompson, 1990, p. 515). Based on these and other reviews (Bazerman et al., 2000), a great many negotiation researchers remain skeptical about the effects of personality and individual differences on negotiation outcomes. Nevertheless, recent research has revisited this issue with some success by focusing on flaws in earlier research methods (Sharma et al., 2018, 2013). This recent work, coupled with the observation that career choice is influenced by individual differences, suggests there are reasons to believe that members of specific professions may have common individual differences (e.g. personality traits) that lead to differences in negotiation approaches and outcomes. In this section, we review the arguments for why individual differences my influence negotiations. In the next section, we identify traits in which engineers may systematically vary from non-engineers.

First, the recent research referenced above has reexamined past studies on individual differences and concluded that methodological issues may account, at least in part, for the prior negative results. Sharma et al. (2013, p. 4) observed that previous studies have:

[…] drawn almost exclusively from experimental traditions in social psychology, using laboratory methods that necessarily stress certain aspects and phases of the negotiation process while controlling for or greatly curtailing others.

This observation is supported by a comprehensive study on negotiation research methods that reported that 60 per cent of negotiation articles involved laboratory or experimental methods, with the bulk of the remaining articles being non-empirical, with a paucity of field studies (Buelens et al., 2008). This may bias results because, although experimental studies are very good for control and confirmation of assumed variables, they sometimes obscure real-world phenomenon. For example, Sharma et al. (2013, 2018) observe that the social psychological studies that found no effect of individual differences in negotiations often focused narrowly on economic outcomes (Lax and Sebenius, 1986) at the expense of psychological variables of more recent emphasis (e.g. subjective value, emotional intelligence and creativity), treated negotiations as isolated events rather than as those embedded in dynamic social contexts and often used economic games (e.g. prisoner’s dilemma) rather than realistic negotiations in which choices are not so constrained. Negotiation research occurs primarily in business-school classes, particularly MBA classes, where students often engage in negotiation scenarios with strong (competitive) beliefs and with structured constraints (De Dreu and McCusker, 1997; Kasser and Ahuvia, 2002; Sharma et al., 2013). All of these conditions work to suppress expression of individual differences, because they create strong situational constraints (De Dreu and Carnevale, 2003; Mischel, 1977) which do not appear representative of negotiations encountered outside of the laboratory.

Second, substantial research in psychology supports the role of individual differences – including intelligence, personality and integrity – in job performance, which makes the lack of influence on negotiation appear somewhat odd. Schmidt and Hunter (1998) report the validity of general mental ability and job performance to be 0.51 for jobs of medium complexity and 0.58 for jobs of a professional or managerial nature. Other research reports that personality provides incremental predictive validity for job performance beyond general mental ability (Mount and Barrick, 1995; Ones et al., 1993; Rynes et al., 2007). For example, Mount and Barrick (1995) report the validity for conscientiousness and job performance at 0.31. Ones et al. (1993) estimate the validity of integrity and job performance at 0.31. Sharma et al. (2013, p. 296), after reviewing the research that reports the robustness of individual differences and personality factors on job-related performance across a broad spectrum of work situations, observe wryly, “[T]raits and abilities matter across widely generalizable areas of work life, but just not in negotiation”.

Third, much of the research investigating the relationship between personality and negotiation utilizes the higher-order traits, such as the Big Five (Elfenbein et al., 2017; Funder, 2009). Identifying these higher-order traits has been undeniably helpful for developing a standardized approach to studying the influence of personality on behavior (Barrick and Mount, 1991; Judge and Ilies, 2002). However, a relationship between the Big Five personality dimensions and negotiations’ research have generally been difficult to find (Sharma et al., 2013). Looking for effects of lower-order traits may be a more fruitful approach (Elfenbein, 2015; Elfenbein et al., 2008, 2017), because traits best predict behavior when specified at a similar level of specificity as the behavior (Ashton et al., 1995). For example, Costa and McCrae (1992) divided each of the Big Five dimensions into six facets, leading to 30 individual facets. In a study using negotiation scenarios and full-time MBA students, Elfenbein et al. (2017) report that lower-order personality dimensions relating to “asserting the self” were substantial predictors of negotiation performance. This research raises the question of whether the lack of research supporting a relationship between personality and negotiation performance is related to using overly broad personality measures.

Still, it is also possible that better negotiators are not merely those with a better mix of individual traits. Although some traits may be ideal for particular types of negotiations, it is possible that good negotiators are skilled at adapting to different situations with responses tailored to each, although this adaptability may be, in and of itself, an individual trait that varies across individuals. Behavioral negotiation theory (Neale and Northcraft, 1991) proposes that negotiated outcomes result from qualities of the static negotiation context in addition to negotiator cognitions and dynamic interplay. Indeed, common negotiation experience strongly suggests that individuals customize their behavior depending on the situation, including their particular negotiation partner and research that has examined the role of personality in various work outcomes via the person × situation interaction, rather than just through the main effects of individual differences, has resulted in promising results (Barrick and Mount, 1991; Berry et al., 2007; Judge and Ilies, 2002).

What is really at issue is whether individual differences can account for negotiation outcomes after accounting for the variance attributable to the situation. Several recent studies have attempted to address this question. For example, Dimotakis et al. (2012) developed and tested a model proposing that negotiator personality (specifically agreeableness) interacts with the negotiation situation to influence physiological, affective and behavioral negotiation processes and outcomes. The situation they addressed was participation in either a distributive or integrative negotiation. A distributive negotiation is one where the goals of the parties are mutually opposed, typically leading to competitive behavior in which each party attempts to maximize their portion of a fixed amount of resources. An integrative negotiation is one where the parties value one or more issues involved in the negotiation differently, which has the potential to lead to a mutual (or joint) gain, often referred to as a “win-win” solution, for each of the parties. Therefore, an integrative negotiation is typically viewed as a cooperative negotiation (Lewicki et al., 2006). In two studies, the authors found that negotiators high in agreeableness were best suited to integrative negotiations and that negotiators low in agreeableness were best suited to distributive negotiations. This supports the person × situation argument. Relatedly, Funder (2008) argued that person × situation research has been handicapped by the inability of researchers to come up with variable descriptors for situations that are comparable in detail and constancy to that of variables to describe personality factors. In summary, if descriptions of negotiation situations and personality traits are matched at similar, and not over-broad, levels, the effects of personality in negotiations may be easier to identify (Ashton et al., 1995).

Personality and engineers

If individual differences do influence negotiations, it remains to be seen if engineers share certain traits and whether those traits are relevant to negotiations. The stereotype of an engineer is that he (and, indeed, most engineers are male) is more interested in technology than people and has undeveloped communication skills as a result (Li, 1994; Van Der Molen et al., 2007). But how much (if any) truth is there in this stereotype?

The word “engineer” has its roots in the Latin word “ingeniator,” which means ingenious, to devise in the sense of construct, or craftmanship. The National Academy of Engineering (2004) aspirationally reports that engineers should possess the following qualities:

  • Strong analytical skills: These skills involve using principles of science, mathematics and the domains of discovery and design for a particular challenge and a practical purpose.

  • Practical ingenuity: It is important that engineers use science and practical ingenuity to identify problems and find solutions.

  • Creativity: Qualities such as invention, innovation, outside-the-box thinking and even art are indispensable qualities for engineers.

  • Communication: Engineers have always been required to communicate effectively with multiple stakeholders, including other engineers, as well as governmental actors, other segments of private industry and the public.

  • Principles of business and management: Engineers who understand these principles often rise to leadership roles. These principles allow engineering leaders to understand the limits of science and technology in society.

  • Other leadership qualities: In addition to understanding business and management principles, engineers need to adhere to a strong sense of ethics and professionalism, buttressed by boldness and courage.

  • Lifelong learners.

Most would agree that the above qualities are valuable for engineers. However, it is not clear how descriptive this list is of actual engineers. We will review the research that has investigated what traits engineers actually possess.

Sayeed and Jain (2000) compared the interpersonal skills of students with and without an engineering background. They reported that those without an engineering background were more open and empathetic and more focused on feelings of other people than those with engineering backgrounds. Harris (1994) compared both self- and peer-judgments of personality in students of engineering, nursing and psychology. The groups differed on three personality dimensions. Engineering students were more persevering and higher on “cognitive structure.” Nursing students were most caring and engineering least so, with psychology students falling between the nursing and engineering students. This study did not control for gender. However, Brown and Joslin (1995) failed to find any significant personality differences between male and female engineering students across a number of traits; they both scored significantly lower on “need for independence” and higher on measures of responsibility, productivity, perseverance, goal orientation and decisiveness compared to non-engineers college students.

Much research in engineering and engineering psychology has demonstrated distinct personality characteristics of engineers. Williamson et al. (2013) examined the personality traits of 4,876 engineers versus 75,892 non-engineers drawn from an archival source representing responses collected on the internet as part of a personality assessment and career planning services offered by an international strategic human resources company. The personality measure used in the data source was the “Personal Styles Inventory,” a work-based personality inventory that has been used in a variety of settings internationally, primarily for career development and pre-employment screening purposes (Lounsbury and Gibson, 2012). Engineers scored significantly lower than non-engineers on assertiveness, conscientiousness, customer service orientation, emotional stability, extraversion, image management, optimism, visionary style and work drive, while scoring significantly higher than non-engineers on intrinsic motivation and tough-mindedness. There were no significant differences between engineers and non-engineers on openness and teamwork.

Three studies included measures of the Big Five personality dimensions. Kline and Lapham (1992) studied students from five English universities. Physics and engineering students scored higher on conscientiousness, tough-mindedness and conventionality than other disciplines’ students. They report no differences with respect to extraversion and emotional stability. Van Der Molen et al. (2007) used the Big Five personality test to assess practicing engineers. They report that Dutch engineers scored lower on agreeableness and higher on extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability and autonomy than a national comparison group. Furthermore, they report than engineers with lower degrees were more conscientious than engineers with higher degrees. Finally, a study conducted in China (Dai, 2003) reported that engineers scored higher on scales for emotional stability and conscientiousness than the general Chinese population. Note that these results are different than the other two studies using Big Five personality traits, as well as the study using the Personal Styles Inventory. It may be that cultural differences in China, or perhaps Asia, represent a boundary condition on the personality differences between engineers and non-engineers in other samples.

Taken together, these studies suggest that subjects with an engineering background, at least in Western cultures, are generally more conscientious, goal-driven and competitive, and somewhat less people-oriented than those without an engineering background. If these traits influence negotiation, either generally or in specific situations, we can identify ways in which engineers may negotiate differently than others.

Gender and engineers

The above discussion of the personality of engineers as compared to non-engineers should be qualified by an important distinction between engineers and others: to date, engineers are disproportionately of the male sex. This may, at least in part, affect aggregated personality differences between engineers and non-engineers. For example, the National Science Foundation found that between 2000 and 2008, the total number of four-year engineering degrees awarded in the USA increased by about 10,000 to 69,895, with almost all of the increase going to male individuals. This reduced the percentage of women receiving undergraduate engineering degrees to 18.5 per cent from 20.5 per cent. According to the most recent report from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of women in various engineering fields is as follows: industrial – 21.4 per cent, chemical – 19.8 per cent, civil – 10.0 per cent, electrical and electronics – 9.6 per cent, aerospace – 8.1 per cent, mechanical – 7.2 per cent and all other engineers – 12.8 per cent (BLS, 2019). This gender disparity is all the more noteworthy because it comes at a time when women’s representation among US scientists is on par with or greater than men’s in many other areas of science (Smyth and Nosek, 2015). Yet, studies find little personality difference between male and female engineers. For example, Brown and Joslin (1995) assessed male and female engineering students on 37 personality dimensions. They report that none of the 37 scales showed significant differences between matched female and male samples. Nevertheless, the large gender imbalance in engineering leaves open the possibility that individual differences found between engineers and other professions reflect the disproportionate number of male individuals in the field rather than something inherent to engineers.

Occupational environment of engineers

Research on person × situation interaction finds that each unique setting affects how individual differences express themselves (Dimotakis et al., 2012; Pervin, 1989). Therefore, an important question is whether the environment in which engineers work differs significantly from the work environment of non-engineers in ways that affect how they approach negotiations.

Broadly speaking, the two largest constraints that disproportionately affect engineers are technology and technological change. Technology is the outcome of engineering. Technological innovations occur when a need arises or a technical challenge is presented. Frequently, technological advances occur before the underlying science is developed to explain how they work, e.g. airplane, steam engine, internal combustion engine (NAE, 2004). Moreover, these innovations are now occurring at an astonishing pace, especially in information and communications, and this has implications for engineering. In the past, engineering has responded to change by increasing the number of specialized areas of engineering. However, nowadays, as more technological change occurs, the depth of individual knowledge increases but the breadth of this knowledge has dramatically decreased (NAE, 2004). Therefore, an ability to quickly deal with changing environment and narrow knowledge base could reasonably be viewed as a common hallmark of the successful engineers. This commonality in the engineering environment suggests another reason to believe that engineers may emphasize “things” over people. Or, viewed differently, when designing systems that involve interactions between people and tasks, the engineers’ emphasis may be on the interaction within the proposed system itself rather than on the individual people within the system (Wilson, 2014).

Do engineers differ from non-engineers in important negotiation attitudes and behaviors?

There has been very little investigation engineers and negotiation. However, Trevelyan (2014) recently called on engineers to examine how and why they negotiate, with particular emphasis on what distinguishes them from other professions. He particularly emphasized the need to negotiate effectively with subcontractors. Moreover, he stated that engineers often grapple with how to deal with issues that “involve emotions and apparently irrational beliefs and opinions” (p. 420). He suggests that this includes a wide range of negotiation situations that engineers face:

Even “purely technical” issues demand negotiation skills: they cannot necessarily be solved by logic alone, especially within teams working under time pressure. That is because, particularly among engineers, issues that seem to be purely technical actually carry a hidden agenda of emotions, including […] a fear of the unknown […] Negotiations […] are often conducted with varying degrees of mistrust and apprehension between the parties involved […] Engineers almost always face the twin constraints of budget and time which necessitate certain compromises: negotiating ability increased the chances that satisfying solutions can be found (p. 420).

Moreover, he notes that engineers often have difficulty acknowledging that other parties may view the same situation differently from themselves. This can be difficult for them because they tend to prefer rational arguments based on scientific understanding of issues. For example, if another party overestimates risks that can be scientifically proven to be negligible, their views may be simply dismissed as irrational and ignored or dismissed. Equally frustrating to engineers may be differences in values, which may be based in relative value frameworks. For example, engineers may value technical satisfaction, emergence, elegance, impact, innovation, challenge and humanitarianism. However, business people – with whom engineers frequently work – may emphasize efficiency, profitability, customer satisfaction, growth and outdistancing the competition. Engineers may have difficulty productively addressing such differences in values during negotiations. Finally, engineers sometimes struggle with emotions which they may perceive as having nothing to do with the technical rationality of engineering. Many engineers pride themselves on being “rational,” “level-headed” and “unemotional,” particularly in contrast to “other people” who, in their view, are easily swayed by human emotions (Trevelyan, 2014). Thus, we begin to see significant differences – typically unstated – in how engineers may approach negotiations as opposed to “other people”.

The preceding discussion suggests several important research questions related to whether engineers differ from non-engineers in their attitudes and behavior related to negotiations. In the following sections, we relate topics relevant to negotiations (e.g. perspective taking, emotional intelligence) to characteristics of engineers to propose how they may approach negotiations differently than member of other professions.

Distributive versus integrative negotiations

We propose that engineers are likely to prefer, and be more skilled in, distributive than integrative negotiations. Deutsch (1962, p. 276) provided the classic definition of distributive negotiations as those where “individuals are so linked together that there is a negative correlation between their goal attainments.” Owing to this property of negative correlation in success, distributive negotiation is also referred to as zero-sum or competitive negotiation. Negotiations in which parties attempt to divide limited resources (e.g. a pot of money) or address a single issue (e.g. a deadline) are distributive in nature. Integrative negotiations, by contrast, involve multiple issues where the parties value alternatives differentially on at least some of the issues, which allows for a positive correlation between the goals of the parties (Lewicki et al., 2010). This type of negotiation is also known as mutual gains or non-zero-sum negotiation. For example, suppose someone wants to buy a home from an existing homeowner. A distributive approach to the negotiation would focus on a single issue, often the price of the home. However, an integrative approach may reveal that there are several issues about which the parties care differentially. For example, although the parties may value a favorable price similarly, they may have stronger or weaker preferences for the closing date, the size of deposit, selling furniture along with the home or items noted in the home inspector’s report. Because these latter issues are more important to one party than the other, giving each party what they value highly (e.g. closing date) in exchange for compromising on another issue (e.g. size of the deposit) increases both parties total valuation of the transaction. Bargaining toward such an agreement would be an integrative negotiation.

The skills to be successful in distributive versus integrative negotiations differ. When a person perceives a negotiation as primarily competitive, they are likely to pursue distributive negotiations, especially if the other party is also competitive. However, if the parties or, not infrequently, just one of the parties sees the negotiation as involving one or more issues that the parties value differentially, the possibility of an integrative negotiation emerges. In this negotiation, a party can “expand the pie” by offering the other party more on an issue that the other party cares about in exchange for receiving more on a different issue that he or she cares more about. Thus, the total value of the negotiated agreement for both parties can be greater than if the parties assumed that each side cares similarly about each issue.

As discussed above, engineers tend to be more conscientious, goal-driven and competitive, and somewhat less people-oriented than those without an engineering background. These qualities – especially the competitiveness and less-than-typical orientation toward people – suggest that engineers should do less well in integrative negotiations, which emphasize cooperative information-sharing and better in distributive negotiations, which emphasize unilateral strategy over cooperation (Barry and Friedman, 1998). Moreover, as previously noted, most engineers are of the male sex. Prior research indicates that men tend to emphasize relationships and interpersonal skills less than women in negotiations (Amanatullah and Tinsley, 2013; Kray et al., 2001, 2014). This suggests that members of male-dominated professions are likely more suited for distributed negotiations, where interpersonal skills are less critical:


Engineers, as compared to non-engineers, are more likely to be successful when pursuing a distributive versus an integrative strategy in negotiations.

Relatedly, because engineers overall are more competitive than non-engineers, this attitude is likely to lead them to pursue an extreme first offer than non-engineers (Wang et al., 2008). Although the question of who makes the first offer – depending on the size of the offer – may work to the advantage or disadvantage of the offeror, an extreme (i.e. aggressive) first offer likely communicates that the person making the offer is a tough, aggressive opponent who is not likely to retreat (Barry and Friedman, 1998; Lewicki et al., 2010). When this occurs, the recipient of the extreme offer may moderate their negotiating objectives and be more inclined to make concessions (Barry and Friedman, 1998; Hamner and Yukl, 1977). However, extreme offers have the potential to limit the politeness of the offeror, leading to anger toward by the other party, which increases the likelihood that the other party will withdraw from the negotiation (Ames and Mason, 2015). Based on the preceding, we propose the following:


Engineers, as compared to non-engineers, are more likely to offer extreme offers in negotiations.


Engineers, as compared to non-engineers, are more likely to make offers that result in an impasse in the negotiation.

We expect engineers to be less likely to engage in integrative negotiations for the reasons noted above. Specifically, integrative negotiations allow both sides to win by expanding the available resources for both sides. This is achieved, in large part, by a careful and proportionate sharing of information by the parties. That is, cooperative information-sharing is a big part of integrative negotiations. This information-sharing, in turn, is useful to identify options for mutual gains (Lewicki et al., 2010). However, as noted above, information-sharing is not likely to be a strategy that is as widely-pursued by engineers as compared to others. Consequently, we predict the following:


Engineers, as compared to non-engineers, are less likely to pursue integrative negotiations.


Engineers, as compared to non-engineers, are less likely to engage in information-sharing during negotiations.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) has been suggested as a way to assess success in interpersonal interactions. A popular approach to measuring emotional intelligence is that of Mayer and Salovey (1997). In their approach, EI measures the:

  • ability to accurately perceive and express emotions;

  • ability to access emotions to facilitate thinking;

  • ability to understand and analyze the emotions of others; and

  • ability to regulate emotions in the self and others.

Recently, scholars and researchers have begun to investigate EI’s role in negotiations. For example, Fulmer and Barry (2004) propose that EI affects negotiations by providing “greater sensitivity to emotional cues” thereby minimizing the “negative effects of emotion on decision making, and it facilitates the implementation of emotion-based tactics in negotiation” (p. 257). Moreover, there have been a small but growing group of researchers empirically investigating EI as well (Kim et al., 2014; Schlegel et al., 2018). Kim et al. (2014) found that the abilities to recognize and understand emotions (both components of EI) are related to larger joint gains in negotiations that have possibility for integrative outcomes.

Relatedly, the ability to subtly infer the intentions, true or false, of a negotiating partner is difficult for anyone to achieve. Kraut (1978, 1980) in a series of studies reported that the layperson accurately detects lies 57 per cent of the time. Most studies report accurate lie-detection by laypeople 45 per cent to 60 per cent of the time, with the average accuracy being 54.27 per cent – barely above chance – among 79 studies (Vrij, 2008). Certain factors affect this up or down. Vrij (2008) reports that women are better at accurately assessing non-verbal behavior which, in turn, assists their ability to detect lies. Another difficulty in detecting lies is that the difference between truth-tellers and liars is very small. For example, “facial expressions or emotions may sometimes betray a lie but such expressions can be as brief as 1/25th of a second” (Vrij, 2008, p. 375). Thus, for two reasons engineers should be expected to be less likely to detect lies than non-engineers:

  1. It is a profession that is composed of relatively few women who, as noted, are generally better than men at detecting important non-verbal behaviors.

  2. It requires exquisitely subtle emotion-detection skills which engineers may be less adept at than non-engineers.

Although somewhat mixed with broader measures of emotions, prior research on engineers tends to consistently indicate that they are less empathetic to other people than the population as a whole (Lounsbury and Gibson, 2012; Harris, 1994; Sayeed and Jain, 2000). This quality suggests that engineers are less likely in a negotiation to accurately infer the emotions of their negotiating partner. This quality has an important application to negotiations with respect to information acquisition. The ability to infer the emotions of one’s negotiations partner is important to be able to detect the relative importance of information conveyed in a negotiation by allowing a negotiator to infer underlying interests or constraints (Fulmer and Barry, 2004; Kim et al., 2014) as well as the ability to infer the truthfulness of a negotiating partner’s story. The ability to infer interests or constraints is a particularly important quality to be successful at integrative negotiations which decreases the opportunity for the negotiation partners to achieve a joint gain. For these reasons, we predict the following:


Engineers, as opposed to non-engineers, are less likely to achieve joint gains.


Engineers, as opposed to non-engineers, are less likely to detect when their negotiating partner engages in lies.


Engineers, as opposed to non-engineers, are less likely to gather important information about a negotiation that is implicitly revealed by other parties.


Perspective-taking involves the ability to view a situation from another person’s point of view. In the context of negotiation, this can involve grasping the underlying, but perhaps unstated, interests underlying a negotiating partner’s stated positions, sensing when someone is hitting their resistance point (bottom line), or generally understanding a negotiating partner’s reasons, constraints, aspirations, or other frame of mind. To do this successfully, a negotiator must have both the cognitive ability and empathy to understand someone else’s perspective. The bulk of research has treated perspective-taking and empathy as essentially interchangeable constructs (Axtell et al., 2007; Calvard, 2010; Gregory et al., 2011; Mor et al., 2013). However, recent research has attempted to distinguish the cognitive and affective aspects of perspective-taking (Longmire and Harrison, 2018). It now seems likely that perspective-taking involves both cognitive and affective mechanisms, with the affective relating primarily to empathy; perspective-taking involves not only hearing the other party’s stated desires, but understanding the reasons why they want what they say they want. As noted, the engineers somewhat lessened empathy and tendency to downplay the perspectives of other people, likely reduces their ability to engage with, and fully grasp, the value of another person’s perspective.

Perspective-taking has been reported to increase understanding and cooperation between negotiations partners (Galinsky et al., 2005), reduce bias and stereotyping (Galinsky and Moskowitz, 2000) and increase the likelihood that the negotiator will come to a creative solution that meets both parties’ interests (Galinsky et al., 2008). It can also reduce the risk of impasse in negotiation, probably by increasing empathy between the parties (Trotschel et al., 2011). Owing to these benefits, perspective-taking has been reported to increase both integrative and distributive negotiation success. In integrative negotiations, perspective-taking can aid a negotiator to come to a mutually satisfactory solution by facilitating the negotiator’s ability to recognize and satisfy a partner’s underlying interests. In distributive negotiations, where the outcomes are not viewed as interdependent, perspective-taking aids negotiators who are able to gain insight into the other party’s viewpoint (Longmire and Harrison, 2018). For these reasons, we predict the following:


Engineers, as opposed to non-engineers, are less likely to report engaging in perspective-taking.


Engineers, as opposed to non-engineers, are more likely to report an impasse in negotiations.

Persuasive tactics: arguments versus active listening

The engineering literature is rife with recommendations of techniques STEM professionals can use to increase their persuasive ability through various “arguments” (Rahwan et al., 2005, 2004; Jin et al., 2007). This literature tends to define “arguments” as a “piece of information that may allow an [individual] to:

  • justify its negotiation stance; or

  • influence another [individual’s] negotiation stance.” (Rahwan et al., 2004, p. 347).

Jin et al. (2007, p. 181) argue that “argumentative negotiation” is an “opportunity for the participants to argue about their respective positions and expectations and achieve mutually beneficial agreements”. An important impetus for this argumentation movement appears to be an attempt to automate negotiation, i.e. to adapt negotiations for e-commerce by deconstructing the negotiation process to its perceived essentials, with one of those essentials deemed to be the construction of arguments (Kersten, 2002).

It is not clear whether this call for argument-based negotiation is because of the personality characteristics common to engineers or because of the occupational environment in which engineers work, i.e. an emphasis on technology and “things” over people, as well as a focus on systems rather than individuals. Nevertheless, the appeal of this approach appears unchallenged in the engineering literature. It is also possible that the gender-skewness of engineers (i.e. relatively few women) may contribute to the tendency of engineers to embrace arguments, a tactic favored by men, versus active listening, a tendency favored by women (Tannen, 1990).

By contrast, the social sciences literature reports limits in the argument-based approach to persuasion and negotiation. For example, Petty et al. (2004) report that arguments often lead the listener to construct “counterarguments,” which in turn can decrease the likelihood that the listener to accede to the demands of the arguer. Similar findings are well-established in social sciences (Brinol et al., 2004; Brock, 1967; Knowles and Linn, 2004; McGuire, 1964; Rucker and Petty, 2004).

While there is, of course, a place for arguments in negotiation, there is an alternative to this that is often mentioned in the negotiation literature – active listening. Athos and Gabarro (1978) distinguishes “active” from “passive” listening as involving these five features:

  1. a greater emphasis on listening than on speaking;

  2. responding to personal rather than abstract points (i.e. feelings, beliefs and positions rather than abstract ideas);

  3. following the other rather than leading then into areas the listener things should be explored (i.e. allowing the speaker to frame the conversation process);

  4. clarifying what the speaker has said about his or her own thoughts and feelings rather than questioning or suggesting what he or she should be thinking or feeling; and

  5. responding to the feelings the other has expressed.

Lewicki et al. (2010, p. 194) embraces this definition and observes that active listening is a:

[…] skill that encourages others to speak more fully about their feelings, priorities, frames of reference, and, by extension, the positions they are taking. When the other party does so, negotiators will better understand the other’s positions; the factors and information that support it; and the ways the position can be compromised, reconciled, or negotiated in accordance with their own preferences and priorities.

It is not our intent in the present paper to suggest whether arguments or active listening are more effective in negotiations. Rather, our goal is to suggest that engineers are more likely to embrace argument-based negotiation rather than active listening based both on their personalities and the culture in which they work. This culture includes the dominance of argument-based negotiation in their literature. Consequently, we propose the following:


Engineers, as opposed to non-engineers, are more likely to utilize arguments as a persuasive technique in negotiations rather than active listening.


In this paper, we challenge the traditional view that individual differences in personality are relatively unimportant in negotiations. In this regard, we embrace the recent view of a growing group of scholars and researchers that personality can be an important factor in assessing negotiations attitudes and behaviors. Moreover, we also propose that engineers – because of distinct personality factors, perhaps in conjunction with their unique environmental considerations – negotiate in a way distinct from non-engineers. It is also possible that some of these distinctive features of engineers in negotiations may be related to the disproportionately low rate of women in engineering. As noted, depending on the particular field of engineering, women compose between approximately 7 per cent and 21 per cent of the particular branch of engineering. To the extent that women share distinct differences in personality and reactions to various situations than men (Brown and Joslin, 1995), the disproportionately low number of women in engineering may account for at least a portion of the differences in how engineers react to negotiation. This is likely all the more true because of significant work by negotiation researchers that reports distinct gender differences in negotiation (Kugler et al., 2018).

Summary and some implications for theory testing and practice

We focused on potential differences between engineers and non-engineers in four areas related to negotiation:

  1. distributive versus integrative negotiation;

  2. emotional intelligence;

  3. perspective-taking; and

  4. persuasive tactics of arguments versus active listening.

In this section, we discuss below our summary of the research as well as some suggestions for theory testing and future research.

Research studies state that individual differences predict differential success in distributive versus integrative negotiations, with qualities that suggest an orientation towards other people (e.g. extraversion and agreeableness) being a liability in distributive negotiations (Barry and Friedman, 1998) but an asset in integrative negotiations (Lewicki et al., 2010). We forward a number of propositions related to the above based on a number of studies suggesting that engineers are more competitive and less extraverted and people-oriented than non-engineers (Williamson et al., 2013). These propositions state that engineers are likely to:

  • be successful using a distributive (versus an integrative) strategy;

  • use extreme offers as a tactic;

  • reach impasses in negotiation because extreme offers can alienate their partners;

  • use integrative negotiations less likely than non-engineers; and

  • use information-sharing less frequently than non-engineers.

This tendency to prefer distributive over integrative approaches to negotiation is likely to help engineers in competitive negotiations where this strategy is appropriate but should hurt them in situations where a cooperative approach is more appropriate. However, as Trevelyan (2014) notes, one of the most common types of negotiations in which engineers engage is in negotiations with subcontractors. Frequently, these negotiations involve repeat negotiations and, as such, are – or have many elements of – integrative negotiations. Social cognitive theory suggests that humans have a tendency to default to those approaches in which we will feel more competent or have greater self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986). As such, it is likely that engineers overuse a distributive approach to negotiations, especially in repeat or cooperative situations. However, we cannot eliminate the possibility that the numerous studies that note the distinct personality of engineers were not affected by the gender-skewness of the profession and also by the unusual technical environment in which they commonly work. This technical environment may impose unique pressures and cultural stressors that exacerbate individual differences. We note that virtually all of the existing studies examining individual differences of engineers use a survey methodology in which these factors cannot be ruled out and we encourage future researchers find ways to account for these differences while preserving ecological validity.

The second area we examined involves emotional intelligence. Numerous studies indicate that engineers have high cognitive intelligence (Huang, 2013). However, as noted, their ability, when measured as a group, to relate to other people is sometimes in doubt. This extends to their ability to accurately infer emotions from others, as engineers can have problems with empathy (Platt, 2015). This can put them at a handicap during negotiations because they may not accurately infer underlying interests or constraints (Fulmer and Barry, 2004; Kim et al., 2014). Our propositions relating to emotional intelligence (EI) state that engineers, as opposed to non-engineers, are less likely:

  • to achieve joint gains because their less reliance on EI makes integrative negotiations (where, by definition, joint gains are achieved) less likely;

  • to detect when their partner lies during negotiations; and

  • to gather important information during a negotiation because EI has been demonstrated to help in this process.

One intriguing area for future research is whether EI differs by gender between engineers and, whether woman engineers share a similar EI to female non-engineers.

The third area we examined related to perspective-taking, which involves the ability to view a situation from another person’s point of view. This is related to empathy but involves a cognitive component as well. It has been reported to increase both understanding and cooperation in negotiations. But, as noted earlier, on average, engineers struggle with empathy, which suggests that they struggle in the use of perspective-taking as a tool to avoid and overcome misunderstandings. The related propositions suggest that engineers are:

  • less likely to report engaging in perspective-taking; and

  • more likely to report an impasse in negotiations because they are limited in their ability to understand their negotiating partner’s perspective.

The final area we examined relates to differences in some persuasive tactics. We suggest that engineers, based on individual differences and, perhaps, occupational culture are more likely to believe, and therefore utilize, the efficacy of arguments, which the engineering literature champions as a useful tactic in negotiation, as opposed to active listening, which is often stated as being beneficial in the social sciences literature.

While not within the scope of this paper, the question of how engineers approach risk, in general, and as it relates to negotiation, in particular, presents future researchers with some interesting research questions. Engineers are often involved with projects that impose a high degree of risk (Murphy et al., 2011; Ross and Athanassoulis, 2010). This relates to both risk identification and risk estimation (Shrader-Frechette, 1986). Yet, there is little research investigating how engineers approach risk and whether they do so differently from the general public. However, there are reasons to believe that engineers may approach risk differently, whether because of reasons related to personality, their work environment, or an interaction of the two (Ross and Athanassoulis, 2010). We encourage further research in this important area.

Practical implications

This research has several implications for practice. First, engineers and their supervisors should be keenly aware when engineers negotiate both internal and external to the organization, that they may approach negotiations differently from others. Training programs should be specialized to expose them to all different negotiation approaches, with a focus on their likely weaknesses, such as considering the other party’s emotional as well as rational positions and listening for clues of that provide insight into their negotiation partner’s perspective. This is particularly important for integrative negotiations in which, if our propositions are borne out, engineers are likely to struggle. In particular, the importance of mutually beneficial outcomes in continuing relationships with suppliers and others for whom repeat negotiations occur should be emphasized.

Second, the role of the engineer as a contributor to the corporate culture should be made salient. If engineers are a dominant part of the organizational culture, top management may need to ensure that they are fully integrated with the rest of the culture. Conversely, if they are relatively few in number, top management should ensure that they are made comfortable with the larger culture. This takes on particular importance in relation to the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the engineering profession. Engineering is a hugely important profession in society. Yet, particularly in the USA, we struggle to train and retain the numbers that are needed in ever increasing numbers. Woman and minorities are significantly underrepresented among engineers (Chubin et al., 2005; Funk and Parker, 2018). These groups represent potentially large recruitment pools to increase the numbers of engineers. Yet, part of the struggle to increase their enrollment in the field may be the strong culture existing among present engineers. It is certainly possible that implicit bias by the dominant pool of engineers represents an important hurdle that, if properly addressed, may allow for increases in the number of qualified engineers (Jackson et al., 2014).


In this investigation, we ask whether engineers, as a profession, share distinct differences in their attitudes and behaviors relevant to negotiations. Based on our review of the literature, we concluded that engineers are generally more conscientious, goal-driven, competitive and less people-oriented than non-engineers and this has significant consequences for how they engage in negotiations.


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The authors gratefully acknowledge Ruby F. O’Brien-Metzger for inspiring this paper.

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Barry Goldman can be contacted at: