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.