Friday, October 13, 2017

Humility Empowers: How CEOs’ Attitudes and Actions Cascade Down the Firm

Managers are often given advice that combines research-based buzzwords with fundamental misunderstandings. Empowerment is a good example. The word contains “power,” and advice is usually given to those who feel a need to improve, so it was perhaps inevitable that empowerment should be associated with ideas of individuals becoming or feeling empowered through some action of their own, such as attending a course or a coaching session on how to become empowered. That’s not what empowerment means or how it works: people are empowered when someone else gives them power and authority to make their own decisions.

The distinction is important because if empowerment improves organizations, then we should start by looking at the person who empowers others. That’s exactly what was done in research published in Administrative Science Quarterly by Amy Ou and collaborators. They looked at how a CEO’s humility could empower others in the firm. Their central insight is simple and powerful: a CEO’s humility makes it easier for the top management team to work together, because each feels empowered and comfortable, and that effect on the top management team cascades down the organization.


They found that the humble CEO is the opposite of the showy CEO in two key ways. First, the humble CEO does not dominate but instead is understated and makes it easier for the closest executives to stand up and perform. For example, the humble CEO does not make public performances and speeches to the whole organization but instead lets the empowerment of the closest executives cascade down. Second, humble CEOs encourage communication to give shared understanding, which in turn lets subordinates feel motivated and confident about their decisions and helps their managers trust their judgment and commitment. This cascading down of shared understanding and trust can bring whole organizations together more effectively than inspirational speeches by showy CEOs.

There is much about that research that appeals to us, because most of us share the suspicion that showy, self-promoting, narcissist CEOs must be flawed in some way. Yet such CEOs are very common, and part of the reason is that it is easier to imagine people who make a big impression also having big effects on the firms they lead. Humility is such a low-key behavior and such (what else can I say?) humble thinking that it is hard to imagine it having a big effect. But it does. How?

The keyword is empowerment.  Humble CEOs empower their top management teams. Empowered top management teams create an organizational climate that empowers workers all the way down. A top management team that has been empowered and in turn empowers others creates norms that are so strong that it is hard to be an authoritarian manager. That’s how humility has big effects on organizations: it creates an expanding circle of empowerment.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Post the Job or Slot a Person? It Depends on Whether You Want Performance

Five years ago, I posted a blog on award-winning research showing that firms pay more and get less when hiring from the external labor market. The reason is that managers know more about their current employees, and they overestimate the value of external hires because they focus on their formal qualifications. When it comes to filling jobs internally in the organization, a manager still has to choose between placing a known worker into a job or posting the job and assessing applicants, who may or may not be familiar to the manager. With internal hiring, do managers still undervalue the workers they know?

Research in Administrative Science Quarterly by JR Keller answers that question. He looked at the difference in job performance and pay between jobs that were filled through posting and applying, and jobs that were filled through the manager picking someone (slotting).  Managers could choose which way to fill each job, and naturally they used slotting when they knew someone who fit and posting when they were not so sure. This is the same as choosing between internal job mobility and the external job market, because managers pick internal candidates when they know someone who fits the job and hire externally when they are not so sure. They also have more candidates when posting, and they know less about the applicants because they are usually from other parts of the organization. In every way you can imagine, the choice between posting and slotting is similar to the choice between external and internal hiring.

So how wrong is it to fill an internal hire through posting instead of slotting? Here is the surprise: It is not worse to fill by posting, but better. Posting means higher job performance, both absolute and compared with others. It means lower chance of leaving the job, except for leaving for a promotion, which is more likely when filling through posting. Oh, and it also means higher pay for the employee filling the job. So, for the employee this looks like a good thing; more pay and better chance of a promotion. For the firm, it looks like paying more to get more, so the net effect depends on how much more the firm is getting. In this case the answer is easy because the lower turnover from the job alone shows that the firm benefits from using posting. The better job performance is icing on the cake.

But this raises the question of why markets work better inside an organization than outside it. What is it that the manager can see better when posting internally? The answer is, nearly everything. Organizations know a lot about their employees, and this knowledge is readily available when filling jobs through posting. Not only that, the posting process forces the hiring manager to think carefully about what information to use and how to weight it in the decision, giving a more systematic and higher quality choice. All the information is there, and posting gives more choices and a better choice process.

There is an important lesson in this that goes beyond filling positions. We often have beliefs about the benefit of markets relative to social arrangements like networks. We forget that there are many kinds of markets and many kinds of social arrangements, and ultimately decision making comes down to what to choose from and how to make the choice.

Posting and Slotting: How Hiring Processes Shape the Quality of Hire and Compensation in Internal Labor Markets. Administrative Science Quarterly: forthcoming. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

There Can Be Only One: Authenticity as Trope or Reality

We live long lives with many new experiences, yet popular culture tells us to be the same. Be true to yourself, they say. Managers have long careers with many roles, yet researchers and self-helpers tell them to be the same. Be the authentic you, they say. It is said so many times that it must be true. Except that things said too many times by too many people need to be researched, because they might be wrong and in consequential ways.


A new article in Administrative Science Quarterly by Brianna Barker Caza, Sherry Moss, and Heather Vough looks at the connection between being authentic and being the same, and it finds that what everyone says is not quite true. They asked whether consistency (being the same) is the same as authenticity (being one’s true self) and found that the answer is no. The problem with saying that authenticity demands consistency is that one’s true self is not a unified whole. We can think multiple thoughts, have multiple beliefs, and take on multiple roles, and each of these can be fully ours even though they are not consistent with each other. People are smart enough that they don’t have to be only one thing, and they are flexible enough that they don’t force themselves to be only one.

To do the research, the authors followed the careers of people who had multiple jobs at once and in some cases also changed these jobs over time. This is a strict test of authenticity because we understand and accept that people can be different at work and privately – like the quiet student who is a very outgoing and improvisational musician. Not surprisingly, the demands of authenticity were a burden for these people with plural careers. They knew that they were asked to be authentic, and that this implied being the same always, but they also felt these demands to be unnatural. Being authentic according to others was the same as being inauthentic according to themselves. So who wins this battle?

There can be no winner, but the subjects of this study usually found a truce that worked well for them. On the one hand, they had to draw lines between who they were and who they presented themselves as, but these lines did not involve acting – they involved presenting the part of themselves that belonged to the specific job they were doing at the time. Sometimes they could even present the more complete self, but they were careful about when. On the other hand, they incorporated the multiple roles and identities that belonged to them as part of themselves, and they saw this incorporation as authentic and valuable. “There can be only one” was a demand they did not have to follow because they could shape their careers and benefit (and let others benefit) from the learning and flexibility that these multiple identities gave them.

Think about the people around you. Some may seem unusual because they simply do too many things, or too different things, and we sometimes suspect that some of it is inauthentic – they act for some benefit. But you could easily be wrong, and you could underestimate their commitment to each activity and the value they add to it.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Harm to Similar People: What Awards Can Do

I recently discussed in this blog how status and prestige can do good things for a person, an organization, or a product. This effect has seen much study because it is a social fact that is very influential, and it seems arbitrary and illogical. Identical items are valued differently by supposedly smart people. We have lots of evidence that status gives benefits, including to those who are in some way connected to others with high status. To be seen with the elite is to gain some elite-ness, and casual observation of how people crowd the most prominent people in receptions will tell you they know that.


Can status also cause harm? A new article in Administrative Science Quarterly by Brian Reschke, Pierre Azoulay, and Toby Stuart found an example of this. They looked at the very prestigious appointment to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which marks appointees and their research as especially accomplished, so much so that it can be used to predict future Nobel Prizes. Receiving this appointment is clearly a good thing. But what happens to those who are doing similar research but were not appointed to the HHMI? Is the similar research a connection that lets them gain some status? Or does it mark them as losers in a race for who is most important and should receive attention? Even worse, does someone else’s HHMI appointment determine what the final answer to a research question is, so that others conclude that this question can now be ignored?

Of course the blog title gave it away: prizes harm the status of similar others. Once a prize is announced, their work is seen as less and less important—their influence erodes. This erosion increases over time, and it is greater for younger (so less established) similar work. This is important to learn about on its own, because it is so different from the positive “status contagion” that we are used to finding. But there is also an exception to this finding, and it is just as interesting. Circling back to the logic that being near the elite can give some elite-ness, a prize might be able to bring recognition to similar others, and through that give them status. Resche, Azoulay, and Stuart found that can be true, but only if the similar others have little recognition to begin with. Once their work is established enough to be seen as important, the prize has negative effects.

So, prizes can give status to the less established, lifting them up. More often, what prizes do is to settle who among the established are most important, bringing one up and pushing the rest down. Anyone working in an area in which prizes are given—and pretty much any occupation or industry that involves design has prizes—will appreciate this research, because it confirms a basic intuition. You should hope to get the prize and fear that the prize is given to someone like yourself. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Power from Arbitrary Places: What Awards Can Do

We have a general idea that status and prestige can do things – good things – to a person or organization. We are all familiar with how the prestigious classes of wine demand higher prices, even for a given quality level; there is evidence on this in research on French and California wines. Status effects are also well known from many other contexts, and a more-consequential example is financial markets, in which the most prestigious banks gain price and distribution advantages over all others.


A new paper by Anne Bowers and Matteo Prato in Administrative Science Quarterly gives interesting new details on the effects of status. They look at equity analysts, who seek to help investors in the stock market by issuing reports on firms and estimating their future earnings. This is difficult work, both in getting the estimates right and in gaining the confidence of investors, but some analysts are so highly regarded that their estimates can move the price of stock they report on. They have market power even though they just act as observers and forecasters. But how can an investor determine what analyst to pay attention to?

Conveniently, there is the magazine Institutional Investor, which caters to the large (and very powerful) institutional investors such as mutual funds and pension funds, as well as ordinary investors. The magazine has an annual All-Star award, given mostly for accurate estimates but also for other qualities such as high service to customers (again, institutional investors). This award is prestigious, but it is also a sign of quality. If the market could consider the quality and prestige aspects of the award separately, someone who was nearly good enough for the award should gain nearly as much power as someone actually getting it. You are probably guessing that this is not what happens. And you are right.

Bowers and Prato had a very clever way of finding this out. The award is given across many categories of equities, and these categories often change through addition, deletion, combination, and splitting.  This is neat because it means that an analyst could become an All-Star, or lose an All-Star award designation from a prior year, simply because the categories changed. Focusing only on these changes in awards, they found that the difference between having an award and not having one was a great deal of market power. Gaining an award meant that an analyst moved stock prices much more; losing one meant that an analyst moved prices much less.

The second of these effects should give you pause. Financial markets are supposed to be smart and to be able to predict the average outcome of many future events. But the loss of market power when an analyst loses the All-Star distinction because of a category change suggests that the markets are forgetting what they knew. The quality of an analyst doesn’t suddenly change, so if the market power changes, we know that the market has forgotten the quality. This is not good news for those of us who let institutional investors such as mutual funds or pension funds hold our pension investments.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Underselling Labors of Love: Why Give Discounts to Rich Tourists?

The world is full of people in creative occupations. Taking a broad view of creative occupations as those involving work with personal shaping of the product and service, about 40 percent of the world’s workers are in these occupations. Among them, artists and craftspeople are the ones we most readily associate with creative work because they instill their work not only with personal design and careful craftwork but also with a passion that makes each piece a labor of love. We recognize this most readily with artists making one-of-a-kind works, but many craftspeople turning out decorative items also make each piece an individual expression. They should get paid well for this, right?

Maybe not. In a new article in Administrative Science Quarterly, Aruna Ranganathan studied the pricing of wood bangles made by craftspeople in southern India, finding that the artistic ambitions of the craftspeople had a surprising effect on the prices they charged, relative to prices charged by traders selling exactly the same goods but not involved in their creation: they gave a discount to buyers who appeared to be especially appreciative of their work. The reason became clear from how they described their work. Unlike traders, who freely admitted selling crafted work just to make money, the craftspeople took personal pride in every piece they made and were especially attached to the best ones. Some items they refused to sell; others they made sure to sell to people who seemed likely to appreciate them and display them prominently.

This makes sense, because every artist wants to be acknowledged and wants the work to be appreciated. Indeed, this was especially important to the craftspeople Ranganathan studied, who saw their work as having such strong elements of the sacred that they viewed their workshops as being like temples. But what’s harder to understand is how craftspeople determine whether someone will appreciate their work. Not every transaction involves words, especially in an area that attracts many tourists who don’t speak the local language, as was the case in Ranganathan’s study. Instead, the craftspeople looked at the customers. And the financial decisions they made based on what they saw might be surprising.

If a customer wore handcrafted jewelry or clothing, or carried a handbag made from natural fibers, the craftspeople considered these clear signals that they would appreciate great craftwork. The craftspeople also believed that foreign tourists, who are fairly easily identified, would see their work as more exotic and be more likely to appreciate it. These two groups have something in common: they are likely to be wealthier than local customers wearing inexpensive items such as plastic jewelry and carrying synthetic handbags. Yet the craftspeople offered discounts to both of the wealthier groups and charged more—market price or even above—to the poorer customers. Market price (or higher) for the poor, discounts for the rich. It seems strange and unfair, but in creative work money is just part of the transaction—appreciation is the other part, and for the artist, this is a tradeoff.


In reporting evidence from social science, we often end up looking at behaviors that make sense on one dimension and not on another. I perfectly understand the artist who is willing to give a discount to have a piece appreciated. I don’t like the idea of the richest customers getting discounts. I suppose the best thing to do is not to bargain too much when buying art as a tourist. Hand-crafted items from local artisans should provide the artisan with both appreciation and a better standard of living.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

When Occupations Rule the Workplace, Which Matters Most?

 “The modern workplace” is an expression often used as if there is just one kind, while the reality is that workplaces are complex and differentiated. But if one workplace deserves to be ranked as increasingly important, it is the multi-occupational workplace that has not only multiple occupations creating a product or service together, but also no order in the form of top-down hierarchy or start–finish sequence. The occupations in such a workplace work together, and the potential for failure anywhere to ruin the output gives every one of them power. Think of the large and growing medical sector, the many new services using information and communication technology, and the increased customization allowed by computer-aided design and manufacturing.

So how do occupations interact when all are interdependent, all at once? Beth Bechky and Daisy Chung showed in a new article in Administrative Science Quarterly that it depends on how the organization acknowledges occupational power. They studied firms doing equipment manufacturing and film production: both places with multiple occupations interacting at a high level of expertise to achieve customized, high-quality output. It turns out that the procedures in the two types of workplaces were very different, although they shared the feature of each occupation having significant power over its own work and influence on the other occupations. This combination of having power and being influenced was not a battleground, but a complicated and pragmatic interaction.

The differences in procedures were clear. The equipment-making firm maintained the semblance of hierarchy and temporal order, with products starting out as engineering documentation and proceeding to test assembly and manufacturing, but the actual work involved feedback and adjustments that led to cycles as the later stages made clarifications and corrected mistakes. Importantly, everything was in theory documented formally, even the adjustments, and work was done “by the book.” Film production, on the other hand, did not seek to define a hierarchy among occupations and had simultaneous interaction as production proceeded. In film production, the power of each occupation over its own work was fully acknowledged, and interaction among various occupations was direct and egalitarian; in equipment production, the power of each occupation over its own work was hidden, and interaction among various occupations was channeled through the process of documenting the product specifications.

These differences also affected how each occupation functioned internally. Because some occupations in equipment manufacturing were formally seen as subordinate, they conducted close internal quality checks to ensure that their members’ work was perfect along the dimensions they controlled. That way they maintained as much control as possible. Because film production lacked such ranking, the emphasis was not on internal control to keep quality uniformly high, but more on recognizing each member’s specific strengths and mentoring junior members into the occupation.

Why the differences? Keep in mind that these occupations are working together in a pragmatic way to solve organizational problems. The main class of problem has to do with time. Any organization dealing with occupations with well-established hierarchies is dealing with historical time and must not deviate too far from how things were done before, when interdependence was less. So they make the documentation system work in ways that maintain history and handle interdependence. Any organization dealing with unfolding events is dealing with the event clock and must not slow down direct interaction among whatever combination of occupations has the capability to deal with the current emergency; even as the occupations have widely differing formal authority, scarcity, and pay, they interact as equals. Organizations operate to deal with time.

Bechky, Beth A. and Daisy Chung. 2017. Latitude or Latent Control? How Occupational Embeddedness and Control Shape Emergent Coordination. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming

Thursday, July 27, 2017

What Is Healthcare All About? Care, Science, or Just Cost?

I am writing this blog post while Congress is debating whether and how to change the U.S. healthcare system. This is something that, according to the news, will be determined in three days and will be decided by a simple majority without analysis of consequences by the Congressional Budget Office and without hearings involving the affected parties. This seems like a bad time to talk about long-term planning and a broader view of healthcare.

Let me do it anyway, starting with an important research paper by Mary Dunn and Candace Jones in Administrative Science Quarterly.  They looked at a central input to healthcare: medical schools, which educate the doctors who are in charge of providing the type of medical care that requires the MD degree and who direct the medical care done by others, such as nurses and lab technicians.  Although medical care is much bigger than doctors, they are at its core, so how they are educated is consequential. The paper found that medical schools have had an enduring division between two logics on how to think about healthcare, and one of these has become more influential over time. This view of education, and healthcare, is very new and needs some explanation.

Much simplified, the logics are as follows. One is that education is the transfer of scientific knowledge, so that this knowledge can be used in practice. So, medical school is about the science of medicine.  The other is that education instills values, and the guiding value for medicine is to care for people. So, medical school is about care, which can include care for people who are not yet patients and people who cannot be cured.

Dunn and Jones wrote a fascinating paper on how these two logics were in contention over decades. Advocates of each logic recognized the conflict with the other and fought for resources and attention to be devoted to their own logic. They saw an emphasis of their favored logic as essential for the health of medical education and the health of the nation more broadly. I don’t have room to describe their discussion here, but an important conclusion is that the care logic has grown in importance, and a key element of its growth was greater public discussion on managed care, with its emphasis on preventive medicine and focus on reducing costs.

This conclusion has become even more important in light of recent events. Managed care helped make the care logic more prominent, which facilitated useful initiatives such as thinking of public care more broadly to include prevention of disease and thinking of patients as individuals in need of care instead of just as cases with prognoses. But it also had two other effects that play a role in current politics around healthcare. First, the science part of medicine became less important, which now has become part of a greater movement against science having a role in state decisions overall. Second, cost is now a key consideration in health, which is clear given that estimates of tens of millions of people losing health insurance are acceptable as long as costs go down. Cost savings are even more important than the science behind estimating that tens of millions will lose their insurance, with the health consequences this will have.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Manager as a Temp: Preparing for the Modern Labor Market

The news keeps telling us that employment is becoming a more-temporary state, with job changes both the result of footloose employees and of firms treating their workers as easily replaced, downsized, and upsized as needed. Not to mention that many now work as contractors, not employees, like Uber drivers. In these stories, the managers are typically cast as the bad guys treating everyone else as expendables. There is some truth to that, but there is a flip side: managers are also temporary. They are quickly moved around or even fired, and they also try to use job changes to move up faster than they could by staying in place.

How can managers be temps? Not only are managers credible to their subordinates only if they are expected to stick around for a while, but their chances of being promoted depend—ironically—on being able to signal that they are in it for the long run, even in a firm that habitually lets managers go. Well, for every problem that can’t be solved, there is a business school claiming to solve it. Research in Administrative Science Quarterly by Gianpiero Petriglieri, Jennifer Petriglieri, and Jack Denfeld Wood looked at how the participants in an MBA program used their education to make themselves more portable across firms and jobs. They were learning to turn themselves into managerial temps and use it to benefit their careers.

Like any education, business school is a journey, and the path and destination are unique for everyone. But there were clear patterns that tell us a lot about careers, and about management, in the current labor market. One path was to use the education to adapt both skills and identity to how firms now treat their workers, including managers. This is an instrumental pathway, where the idea is to understand the rules of the game and play it well. The other path was to use the pathway to explore one’s own preferred role in this world, and shape an identity that matches this discovery. This is a humanistic pathway, where the idea is to understand the parts available in the play and audition for the one that is the best fit.

These paths cannot easily be taken while working, because the everyday demands of actually managing make the learning process difficult, and changing identity isn’t possible either because everyone looks for and values constancy. So education acts as a valuable hiding place—a bubble, or a deep dive—where changes can happen and it is possible to emerge fully formed, or at least nearly so.

The next question is of course what the manager temps will do when they manage worker temps. Will work get easier when both manager and managed understand that they are not in the firm to stay, and the most stable part of their identity is its portability? To know that we have to wait for more research.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Committing to Change: How Change Agents Become Effective

Management practice has its fair share of cynics, and one story that many cynics will tell is that there are three sources of inefficiency in organizations. The first is that they can’t change into better practices, the second is that they pay for consultants who can’t help them change into better practices, and the third is that they pay for business schools to teach their managers, who end up not being able to change them into better practices. As a faculty member of a school that benefits a lot from the third source, I can at least say I agree with the cynics on the first two. But then, what can be done?


New research by Melissa Valentine in Administrative Science Quarterly has looked closely at consultants and organizational change, and offers some very helpful insights. She studied efforts to improve a cancer treatment center, so the changes were not just simple matters of reducing cost but had significant health outcomes. What did she find? First, it is completely true that significant consultant effort can be invested with no real change as a result. Money wasted, in other words, but perhaps worth trying because it is likely that nothing would have happened without the consultants either.

But consulting changing nothing was just one result – there were also some consultant efforts that did produce better practices. Importantly, the difference in how the consultants and the cancer center interacted in the unsuccessful  and successful cases was so systematic that this research gives clear guidance on what needs to be done to improve organizations. The difference can be summed up in one word: commitment.  And I will write the rest of the blog without any reference to interpersonal relationships, although I admit to being tempted.

Consultants hear from organizational members what works well and what does not, and they collect ideas on how improvements can be done and who would be in favor of them and under what conditions. This is done every time and has nothing to do with success or failure.  The success came from taking one more step. Whenever possible improvements were suggested and had some level of support across the organization, the managers who would be responsible for making changes were asked to renegotiate their obligations to each other and to implement the necessary changes. The renegotiation is needed because changes in complex organizations typically cross boundaries of managers and are most effectively handled by direct negotiation, not by referring up to the shared manager. Immediate implementation is needed because it is easy to give nice-sounding promises without accepting the cost of actually following through.  In other words, the success came from making managers decide what to commit to and then making them commit.

This was not just done as a final set of activities after delivering a report. It was a continuous effort, step by step, in which managers made adjustments and re-adjustments, set time tables and expected commitments, set new goals and measures, and followed up. The process also went far beyond managers, because hospitals also have another very powerful group: the doctors. Efforts to integrate their concerns were made in both the successful and unsuccessful project, but again, the successful project pushed all the way to commitment. In the successful case, the key decision makers ended up feeling obliged to fulfill promises they had made to others in the organizations – not to the consultants – and as a result, the organization changed.

The implication is clear. Consulting is often seen as an effective way of making changes because changes require a time investment, and organizations typically don’t have the resources to do their regular work and make time investments all at once. But increasing the capacity to propose change does not relieve the organization of the responsibility to negotiate, decide, and commit. Without those added activities, it is paying for nothing.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

In the Fight: What U.S. Army Mental Health Tells Us about Goal Conflict

Goal conflict is a necessary and central part of how organizations work. This is true even if we ignore personal goals that may differ from the organization’s and focus only on the goals that all have to meet, at the same time, for the organization to function well. Cars are made in production lines that require quality, speed, and low cost. Airlines require safety, service, and low cost. Health care requires personal attention, standardized procedures, treatment of all possible conditions, and again low cost. And finally, important for this blog, an army requires its soldiers to inflict injury on others, risk or experience injury themselves, and maintain mental health good enough to go out and do it all over again.

A paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Julia DiBenigno looked at the goal conflict between the U.S. Army’s commitments to providing mental health care and keeping its force mission-ready, and her findings are important for any organization. She addressed a fundamental problem of goals that are in conflict: usually each goal is assigned to specialists with expertise in that specific goal, so resolution does not happen inside someone’s head but rather as an interaction between the people in charge of each specific goal. Usually that is done by prioritizing one goal and assigning the other goal to a service-providing or supervisory function in the organization.

The U.S. Army exists for fighting, and naturally commanders are in charge. But mental health care is also a high-priority goal because the recent wars have put a heavy load on each soldier, and post-traumatic stress disorder and affiliated conditions take highly trained soldiers out of action. Many even commit suicide, spreading the pain more broadly to also affect families of military personnel. This is recognized as a key problem by everyone involved, but solving it involves negotiation between specialists. This leads to push-and-pull with two frequent results: the health care provider is coopted by the commander and serves the commander’s purpose, or the health care provider stays anchored in the care identity and interferes with the commander’s purpose. As a result, most conflicts are poorly solved: analysis found that 5 percent ended with a good mutual solution, in 85 percent either the commander or the health care provider won the battle, and in 10 percent both lost out.

But here is the key message of the article. The statistics I cited were for only two of the four brigades DiBenigno studied. In the other two, 89 percent of conflicts led to a good mutual solution, in 7 percent one party won but not the other, and in 4 percent both lost. This is a really large difference, and the reason for it boiled down to one minor change in organizational structure with major consequences for the process. In the successful brigades, each health care provider was embedded in the clinic but also assigned as a point of contact with specific commanders, which led to longer and more personal interactions than in the other two brigades. The result was an anchored personalization: the provider was anchored in a group of other mental health professionals who shared knowledge and norms, and the provider had a personal network of commanders that allowed learning each commander’s needs and earning trust as well.

The personal interaction proved to be central to understanding each other’s thinking and finding adaptive actions in each situation. It had a massive effect on the ability to find good solutions, especially because the goal conflict was unique in each case. Mental health issues are complex, but so are the needs of military units and their commanders. Perhaps most remarkable is the origin of the difference in problem-solving capacity: just a simple change in organizational structure that regulated which care providers interacted with which commanders created a total change in how these interactions were done. It’s an important lesson for organizational design – how it is done determines what happens later.

DiBenigno, Julia. 2017. "Anchored Personalization in Managing Goal Conflict between Professional Groups: The Case of U.S. Army Mental Health Care." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming: 0001839217714024.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Protest Outside, Protest Inside: How Social Movements Create Labor Unions

Occupy Wall Street protest with union members
Executives of large firms have been known to worry about social movement activity of three kinds. There are movements that encourage various kinds of costly state actions, such as cleaning up pollution or reducing carbon emission, which at some level will lead to taxation to cover the cost. There are movements that engage in boycotts and other actions to discourage firms from various cost-saving misbehaviors such as farming out production to nations with very loose labor and environmental protections. And inside the firm, labor movement advocates take action through established unions or through trying to form new unions where none yet exist. Responding to all this activity can exhaust executives, and they might not like to hear that these movements are related to each other.

How they are related is the topic of an article in Administrative Science Quarterly by John-Paul Ferguson, Thomas Dudley, and Sarah SouleThey look at how social movements outside the firm but in the same city influence unionization drives inside the firm. This is interesting because social movements and unions operate very differently, with unions under much stricter rules and restrictions, so the influence is not a result of workers learning anything useful about unions by taking part in social movements. In fact, it is not even clear that they do take part in social movements, because the mechanism behind this effect requires only that workers can see social movements, not that they participate.

Unions are built on procedures and ideas, with workers’ rights and equal opportunity among the most important ideas. It would make sense that the presence of similar progressive ideas in social movements in the same community could inspire union activity in firms, whereas social movements with more conservative ideology might have less effect on unionization because they have much less overlap with the ideology driving unionization.

This is exactly what the authors found to be true in U.S. cities. Protests in a city led to unionization drives in the same city, and this effect was stronger when the protests were related to progressive causes, including civil rights and gender equality. So protests outside a firm filter into unionization inside, specifically when the outside protests concern issues that workers inside also care about.  But there are additional details that make things even more interesting. Unions are not the only way for workers to solve problems. The Civil Rights movement and the women’s movement also had successes with changing the law, which meant that workers could contest gender or racial discrimination through the legal system rather than through unionizing. As a result, these movements’ effects on unionization were significantly reduced after the legal changes. So ideology matters, but competition from the law does as well.

Protests outside create unions inside, except when there are laws outside that make unions less necessary. What does that mean for our situation now? The laws outside are being weakened, and protests are getting stronger. Could it be a time for more unions?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Action, Embodiment, and Mission: How Leaders Can Make Work Meaningful

Here is a story that may or may not be true: John F. Kennedy met a custodian mopping floors in the NASA headquarters after normal work hours and asked, ‘‘Why are you working so late?’’ The custodian responded, ‘‘Because I’m not mopping the floors, I’m putting a man on the moon.’’ The story is almost too perfect to be true, but it is a close match to historical events that show how the U.S. space program gained its remarkable success, and it offers important lessons in leadership.

In a new article in Administrative Science Quarterly, Andrew Carton reports on Kennedy’s leadership of NASA in the 1960s, which culminated with the moon landing, and key lessons it offers to leaders today. At the center is the knowledge that when people find meaning in their work, everyone benefits: the organization benefits because its employees work harder and smarter, and they benefit because work is a big part of life and success and meaning at work increase well-being. So what’s the dilemma? Usually meaning is best gained from a great goal, but such goals are often abstract and distant from any one task at work. Linking lofty goals to concrete actions is difficult to begin with, but it gets harder as the goal gets loftier. So meaningful work is wonderful, but it’s hard to create.

Here are two examples. First, Amazon seeks to give meaning through its goal of being the earth’s most customer-centric company.  How easy is it for this mission to give meaning to one of its distribution center workers, who could be pulling products from shelves or overseeing a robot pulling products from shelves?  Second, it is part of INSEAD’s mission to reduce poverty in the world, because economic growth is the cure for poverty, and improved management helps economic growth. But the daily work of INSEAD professors and staff is still education.

Kennedy found a way to direct NASA that provided a simple, powerful, and very general way to address this dilemma. First, he distilled NASA’s mission to one of advancing science. But advancing science is not the daily work of a custodian, or even of an expert in electronics who is designing control circuits, so the gap between the lofty goal and concrete actions remained. So in between he placed the concrete objective of a manned mission to the moon before 1970. That concrete objective was not the same as advancing science, but it was an embodiment of the advancing science mission that staff members could more easily relate to. From that embodied objective more concrete plans and projects could be rolled out, and anyone working for NASA – even outside NASA – could gain meaning through connecting to them.



There are other important leadership lessons in the article, but the idea of finding a way to embody an overall mission in a more concrete objective is the most important one. It is also related to an essential insight in management. Much management practice centers on fluffy performances such as missions, speeches, goal statements, and quick tours and interactions. None of this helps if it is disconnected from the activities and meaning of organizational members.  All of it contributes to success if it is oriented toward the embodiment of concrete activities that people can use to choose actions and construct meaning. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Trailblazers or Tokens? Women in Top Management and Boards

A famous career effect on women is the glass ceiling – at some point in the career, women find that it is hard to get promoted, harder than it is than for comparable men. Because this has been known for a while and is known to be an unfair and poor use of human capital, there is increasing pressure from institutional investors for firms to promote women’s advancement. This has created a paradox where many, but not all, firms are still set in their usual ways of treating men and women differently, but their owners are seeking change. What are the effects?

A new paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Eunmi Mun and Jiwook Jun has now discovered what happens as a result of these pressures for fairness. It turns out that they come from two places. One is institutional investors, who are concerned with fairness and best use of human capital. The other is corporate social responsibility (CSR) associations and employees, who see fair treatment of employees as an important corporate responsibility.  Both of these help women gain higher-level positions in firms that they would otherwise not have received. But there is a catch, or more accurately, two catches.

The first catch is that at least now, the benefit of having institutional investors and CSR representation in a firm mainly leads to a few women entering the very top positions. So, it can give a board membership that otherwise would not be possible, or top executive level position which would be difficult otherwise, but at any lower level they simply don’t have any effect. That’s why women in the top levels could be tokens to show outsiders that the firm is fair, but without really changing the inside of the firm.

The second catch is that the emphasis on breaking the glass ceiling is not an international trend. Much of it is driven by Europe and North America, and has effects worldwide because so much of the world’s capital, and hence institutional investors, comes from these nations. In fact, I did not mention that this research is on Japanese firms, and the effect of institutional investors is from foreign institutional investors, not domestic ones. The domestic ones don’t help women’s careers. That does not mean that the token effect is only outside Europe and North America – this research is pioneering in showing that it exists precisely because Japanese firms are more open about their internal hiring at lower levels than firms in most other nations are.

So where does that leave women’s careers? A few token hires do not really break the glass ceiling, they just hide it. In many of these boards, one out of 12 members was a woman. But the research suggests that they could be trailblazers too. Another finding in the paper is that women in the board also helped women in non-managerial positions, so maybe they are the start of more equal careers. Although we should be careful about drawing too optimistic conclusions – women in the board had no effect on women in managerial positions. We need to wait and see before we know how this unfolds.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Reaper is Sociable: Leadership of Extravert CEOs

There are two important trends in the world of business today.  The first is that traditional large corporations are gradually becoming less important, as new technologies, improved markets, and better financing allow smaller firms to be founded and operate more easily. My predecessor as editor of the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, Jerry Davis, has written a book on that. There is also another trend that seems to indicate that the opposite is happening. There is a small set of extremely large corporations in services, industry, and finance that are amassing exceptional power. Added up, these trends mean that the number of somewhat-large, but not the largest, corporations is declining.

One result of these trends is that researchers are now looking more closely at CEO personality, because in both the smallest and the largest firms any departure from rational decision making is very consequential. It can destroy a small firm, and it can wreak havoc on the world around a large firm.  A paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Malhotra, Reus, Zhu, and Roelofsen has now examined the extraversion of CEOs and how that influences mergers and acquisitions done by their firms. Extraversion is a personality trait and is one that we understand well and like a lot, at least at parties. Extraverts liven up the world around them because they are sociable, active, and very likable. This is a good thing, but also something that is hard to connect to management.

The connection lies in the less well known side of that personality trait. Extraverts are also agentic – it is very important for them to take care of their own interest and to get ahead of others. Sociability and likability are parts of that trait, because extraversion means that they get to dominate their surroundings.  And outside of parties, the same agentic traits can be reflected in them having clear goals to benefit themselves as much as possible, possibly at the expense of others, and of being skilled at persuading others that their initiatives are good. Does the extravert sound less appealing now, but also more consequential as a manager?

Acquisitions are a great way to test the consequences of extraversion because they eliminate the acquired firm and usually harm the acquiring firm, because on average, acquiring firms lose money by over-paying for the acquisition. As a result, a CEO with the firm’s best interest at heart will be very selective about when to acquire another firm and will typically focus on smaller acquisitions that help the firm acquire important technology, market access, and other missing pieces, while being relatively inexpensive because small firms are often overlooked, or even not listed in the stock market. But small firms are also boring, and not something an extravert wants to acquire in order to grow the firm fast and look good doing it.

So what did the authors find? Indeed extravert CEOs acquire more often, and they acquire larger targets. They are especially likely to do so when they have freer hands, such as when they are in less competitive industries or when they are powerful relative to the board of directors. Turn extravert CEOs loose, and you will see firms around them get eaten up. Of course, all of this would be OK if the acquisitions turned out to be a good thing. Do we know if they did? Well, extraverts got a more positive immediate reaction from the stock market than others, but let’s not believe that this means a lot. First, keep in mind that investors are just another set of people to impress, and extravert CEOs are good at that. Second, better reaction to one acquisition than others does not say much because most acquisitions are not welcome. Third, immediate reaction is very different from the long-term benefit of an acquisition.

So we know that extravert CEOs benefit themselves by getting attention from acquisitions, and by growing the firm so that they in turn can get paid more – a larger firm means better pay. We don’t know whether that helps the firm. And somehow, I can’t help but wonder whether our not knowing is something that the extravert CEO likes a lot.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Excellence in Research and Food: What we have learnt from Cattle Ranching

Administrative Science Quarterly is a research journal that for the last few years has published roughly 20 articles per year, which is slightly more than what some other journals will publish in 1.5 months. ASQ is very selective, yet we have found a way to be even more selective by also recognizing excellence in the articles we publish. Every year an award is given to one article for its scholarly contribution over the previous 5 years. These articles are available here, and I will give one example in this blog. It is about grass-fed beef.

Those who are into gourmet or health food dining will recognize grass-fed beef as specially produced to the cleanest, most environmental, and most original standards, and as being a premium product that can be obtained in the best restaurants and stores. They are unlikely to know that grass-fed beef used to be sold at a discount because it lacked the fat marbling and tenderness of beef from cattle produced the standard way, with a finishing period where the cattle were eating corn and grain in feedlots. How did the discounted product of the past become today’s premium product?

The answer is given in an ASQ article by Klaus Weber, Kathryn Heinze, and Michaela DeSouzey. It involves a social movement that helped drive forward activists and entrepreneurs who coalesced around the ideas of authenticity in farming, sustainable nature management, and using only natural materials and processes. All of these principles were in opposition to normal farming methods, which the activists saw as industrial, non-sustainable, and relying on artificial materials and approaches. These activists were a social movement, but they did not have a company, a set of customers, a way to market what was special about grass-fed beef, or even a clear way to earn a living. Instead, they produced a language, a social grouping, and a belief system that a set of entrepreneurs could organize around.

The next steps were creation of the new market for the now-premium product of grass-fed beef. Farms switched to grass-fed methods, often helped by other farms or by publications devoted to these methods. The entrepreneurs and other parts of the industry, including the social movement, created informal standards for how to conduct grass-fed farming. They sought out customers for the growing set of producers and volume of (now-premium) beef. Throughout this process, a social movement organized around ideas of protecting nature, preventing cruelty to animals, and promoting human health rallied resources in ways that created a new niche of an industry, and an opportunity for entrepreneurs.

The key insight from this research is the sequence of events: entrepreneurs with new ideas and products can in principle build markets through individual efforts, but it is difficult to accomplish. Once a social movement has made a cultural foundation, entrepreneurial effort is much easier, so it is accelerated and more likely to succeed. The sequence leading to the grass-fed beef you may be eating soon started with an idea and a language to use in making it a reality.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Is Women’s Liberation for Men Only?

I understand that the title of this blog post is confusing and borderline annoying, so I will come straight to the point: There is new research evidence that women’s career opportunities can be made more equal to men’s if their male bosses think they should be. Not if their female bosses do. I think this is surprising and worrying enough that I should explain what is going on.

This concern is based on research evidence from a paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Seth Carnahan and Brad Greenwood, and it is based on law firm careers. You might think that lawyers have specialized careers, and you would be right. They are specialized in ways that are useful for testing the theory, however, because the top-class law firms in the sample recruit very similar people, so there is little of the variation among employees that could be used to explain any differences between men and women. Also, heavy-handed discrimination is not possible here because lawyers know how to, you know, file lawsuits. As you can imagine, finding any discrimination at all between men and women in this context would be surprising and interesting. It gets especially interesting because we can use politics to find out what managers want, assuming that liberal lawyers have liberal views including gender equality and that conservative lawyers don’t. Donations to the Democratic and Republican parties are good measures of ideology.

So we know whether the managers (partners) are liberal or conservative, and we know the gender of the employees (associates), and that’s all we need. Carnahan and Greenwood went ahead and analyzed the data, finding that conservative offices hired fewer female associates. Liberals practiced equality in hiring, and the difference reached levels that can be measured even for these elite lawyers. Same story for assignments to task forces and for promotions: women are better off working for liberals.

But then the surprise comes: distinguishing between male and female managers, they found that the helping of women could be shown for only liberal male partners, not liberal female partners. So women’s equality in law firms seems to be for men only to decide. How is that possible? It seems unlikely that women partners care less, especially if they are also liberal. But how much change people make depends on how much they try and how much power they have. That’s where the men have the edge. There are more of them and they are in more senior positions, so ultimately what counts is how men view women’s careers.

Earlier I wrote one blog post on the book Lean In criticizing its depiction of women’s career opportunities and another blog post on research correcting this depiction. Lean In is too optimistic about women’s opportunities to make changes for themselves. This research presents one more problem for the Lean In idea because it suggests that what women think of themselves or of other women is less consequential because they have less power. Real-life careers are not about leaning in, but pulling up.

Friday, May 5, 2017

That Super Networking Coworker Really Is a Nuisance: Hurting (or Helping) Productivity

So let us start with a person we all know from work – the networking one, who not only knows all the coworkers who are natural to know, but also knows people far away in the organization. We often refer to people like that as brokers, because their position means that they can deliver useful information for work across the organization, in addition to gossip, of course. There are at least a few of them in any given workplace, and they can be a nuisance because of the suspicion that the networking they do helps them just as much as their work does – that they get ahead by talking, not working. Of course that suspicion is correct; researchers have known it for decades.

But there is more to the story, and there is new evidence from a paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Julien Clement, Andrew Shipilov, and Charles Galunic. They looked at how the brokers who connect to and also work in different communities affect the productivity of other workers in creative organizations – specifically, TV game show production. Now, creativity is one activity we know benefits from access to information elsewhere and from being a broker – again something we learned a decade ago, but only that the broker benefited, not whether the coworkers did. A study like this could show that the broker may seem like a nuisance but actually is a help because of the information brought in from afar.

That is almost true, but not quite. It turns out that brokers who also have commitments in the communities to which they connect help their nearby coworkers who are involved in creative tasks but not their other coworkers who need their contribution to production tasks. Most workers in any given organization are not creative workers; they do work that helps the operations of the organization. They make goods and services happen. Brokers are unlikely to be helpful for them, because they already know what they need to know, and the broker going around asking questions and sharing gossip is really not useful in any way. But maybe the broker is doing no harm, so their productivity is the same whether or not they have a broker nearby? Sorry, no such luck. It turns out the broker actually hurts the productivity of coworkers doing non-creative tasks.


Brokerage is an organizational task that helps the person doing it, helps creative people who are in touch with that person, and hurts the rest. The broker not only seems like a nuisance but is one too. This is a dilemma, of course, because organizations need ideas and action. Ultimately it is a familiar dilemma in all things organization: anything we can do to help one set of activities is likely to hurt different activities. Sounds like organizations need managers.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Putting It Together: How Organizations Handle Conflicting Goals

Airlines want to be safe, friendly, and profitable. Maybe not in that order, but all three are important.  Luxury brands in cars, clothes, bags, and watches all want to be exclusive and high-selling. Both at once, of course. These combinations involve conflict among different goals, which means that at some level there has to be a compromise. Saying that compromise is needed is not enough to understand it. How and when will United Airlines make a compromise between friendly and profitable without, for example, compromising the friendly part? And how does Rolex make a compromise between exclusivity and high sales?

The answers to these questions involve both a final outcome and a process of reaching a compromise. Now we know more about the process, thanks to a paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Carlo Salvato and Claus Rerup. They look at product development in Alessi, the Italian company making all those household items that either you or someone you know has purchased. They make products with great designs that are inexpensive relative to the price of many comparable products, and at least in principle it is pretty easy for other makers to produce legal (or illegal) variations of them.

How does Alessi combine the goals of artistic design and effective manufacturing? We can see the results – egg holders, for example, that are wonderfully playful and well designed but obviously inexpensively produced. The process is harder to see, and that is exactly why some firms like Alessi can put these goals (and products) together very well, but most competitors cannot. The process involves three steps, which function to blend goals and routines in a way that creates a balance between them. First, splicing means connecting routines associated with different goals – like bringing a visionary designer in contact with how things are made. Second, activating means using routines that make people take each goal into account and consider how they can be balanced. Third, repressing means using routines that simplify tasks that benefit some goals while drawing people away from other goals.

Splicing, activating, and repressing are actions that can be taken any time, one by one or in combination. That is not the way to create consistency in how an organization puts things together, however, because if they are done through improvisation the results will differ every time. That is exactly why routines are involved in splicing, activating, and repressing, because routines mean that the same or similar results can be expected every time. Managers can help design and redesign the routines so that employees handle goal conflicts well. 


The results are easy to appreciate. Alessi is consistent in how they do things, which means that every new product is an artistic surprise, but we know it will be economically made too. United Airlines is inconsistent, so flights don’t always avoid dragging passengers off, nor do they always involve passenger dragging (fortunately). We all understand that conflicting goals involve compromises.  As long as the compromises are consistent, we know what we are getting and can make informed choices. In the long run, the consistency is more important than the goal resolution itself.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Fair Play and Racial Bias in the NBA

In most National Basketball Association (NBA) games, we see a white coach on the sidelines and mostly black players on the court. We also see players being benched and put back in depending on how well they play, their foul trouble, and the matchup with the other team. Except for the oddity of having a league of mostly black players produce mostly white coaches, the NBA looks like it is ruled by performance only, because winning is so important and performance is so easy to assess. But it is ruled by more than performance. White coaches use white players more than they should, and black coaches use black players more than they should, compared with others who perform equally well.

This is not a special feature of the NBA. Favoring workers of the same race is well known and happens everywhere, for three different reasons. We now know more about it because a paper by Letian Zhang in Administrative Science Quarterly has looked at this unfair treatment and explored it in detail never before seen. The findings are important for any kind of business because they show the origin of same-race favoritism, how it can be reduced, and why there are limits to reducing it.

First consider the origins of this favoritism. Many people think that preferential treatment occurs because employers judge each person as being as good as the average person with similar characteristics. This explanation is often used for why women are treated less well (supposedly they are less stable employees than men) and can also account for racial preferences. But in this case, this explanation falls flat because black basketball players are on average better than white. A variation is that employers look at each person as being as good as they think the average is for someone with those characteristics, but they are wrong about the average. For example, managers may think that women are less stable, but their estimate is off because men, who (granted) get pregnant less often, quit more often than women. Both of these reasons for favoritism should adjust quickly once a manager gets to know an individual’s performance, which happens very fast in the NBA because of the excellent statistics on player performance.

But there is another reason for favoritism that is more insidious: racial preference. Simply put, people prefer to interact with others of the same race. Looking closely at the data, Zhang found that in NBA playoff games and close games, race no longer influenced someone’s playing time; only performance did. That’s exactly what we would expect from racial preference, because it is easier to treat workers unfairly when the stakes are low.

So how can this effect be reduced? Well, time reduces unfair treatment. In the NBA, the unfair playing time is reduced the longer a coach works with the same player, but it takes more than two years for a player to be treated almost fairly by a coach of another race. This length of time doesn’t match up with performance knowledge, but it matches something else: managers have a harder time treating someone unfairly when they get to know that person well enough to see him or her as an individual, not as a racial stereotype. This is the “good black player” effect in the NBA.

But if managers can start treating someone of another race fairly after a period of time, will they then start seeing others of another race as individuals, too, and treat them fairly sooner? The answer is no, at least in the NBA. Getting to know someone of a different race as an individual does not mean that fair treatment is extended to others; they still have to prove themselves one by one. And that should give pause to all organizations, because it says that even the NBA, with its highly integrated teams and its careful and timely objective performance measures (not to mention the high stakes), has a remaining racial component in the treatment of workers.

The conclusion is clear, and different from what many organizations do. Fair treatment is so hard that it is not possible to rely only on the immediate supervisor; there also have to be formal processes in place to make sure it happens.