Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Motivating (Soccer) Teams: What Price Success, or Failure?

Here is something we would like to know about teamwork: What is the effect of successes along the way? Or failures? The answer is important because teams often have partial goals that they either fulfill or not at the designated time, so a team may be encouraged by a success or disappointed by a failure. And those effects, in turn, may affect their work, though it is by no means certain that teams work better after a success. 

Jo Nesbø, Nils Rudi, Marat Salikhov, and me investigated this question in an article published in PLOS ONE, picking a context that has very literal teams and goals – top national leagues of professional soccer (known as football in most of the world). The idea was that a goal scored is a success for scoring team and a failure for the conceding team, so each goal changes the dynamics of the game. The question, then, is how that affects the likelihood of a victory or the full-time goal difference in the game.

To start with the obvious, soccer games have few goals, so simply scoring a goal makes a big difference. But here is also something less obvious, and potentially important. Usually the play goes on after a goal, but an important exception is when the goal is just before halftime. For example, in the last minute before halftime, which is what we investigated. In that case, the referee blows the whistle soon, and the teams go to their locker rooms. Then what?

The halftime break is when managers (coaches) make adjustments and motivate their teams, and team members rest and prepare for the second half. A goal just before the break is supposed to be demoralizing for the team that conceded the goal, and managers try to counter that effect. If they fail in doing that, a goal just before halftime influences the game much more than one at any other time. And indeed, that is what we found – halftime goals by the home team are influential; halftime goals by the away team are not. The difference is interesting because away teams are playing at a disadvantage to begin with, and conceding a goal at a bad time just makes things worse.

So, is the conclusion that successes are good, and failure are bad? It looks that way, and in fact it is quite likely that success just before the break gives the team a better start. Actually, it is not so simple that we can draw that conclusion. You see, another possibility is that successes produce overconfidence that makes a team more vulnerable to mistakes for a (short) while after. If that is true, halftime goals are great simply because the halftime removes the vulnerable period. That would affect home team more because away teams play in front of hostile fans and feel vulnerable even after scoring a goal.

What is the real explanation of this effect? We cannot be sure, because team dynamics are complicated and difficult to dissect very accurately. That, along with how important teams are for work in many kinds of organizations, means that we have to be very careful in the research before drawing final conclusions. That sounds like a reason to do more research on goal scoring in soccer, and on teams having successes and failures more generally.

Greve, H. R., J. Nesbø, N. Rudi, and M. Salikhov. 2020 "Are goals scored just before halftime worth more? An old soccer wisdom statistically tested." PLOS ONE, 15: e0240438.


Monday, October 19, 2020

Making It Easier for Firms to Adapt to Social Norms: The Art of Facilitation

Organizations are often asked to change so that they become more in sync with societal norms. Social movements, activist employees, and even the state can ask for change, but as we have discussed already, change often meets with resistance. What to do in the face of resistance? The usual response has been to push harder when an organization resists, just as battering rams were used to get through fortress gates.

In an article published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Lisa Buchter documents another approach that has been overlooked: facilitating the change. This approach is built on the principle of creating mechanisms that make it easier for the organization to change, by creating models for how change can be implemented and setting examples showing its success. The reason this works is that resistance to change is partly motivated by the effort of changing structures and processes and partly by the uncertainty of its success. The reason this works smoothly is that it is a way of reducing rather than overcoming resistance.

How did Buchter discover this approach? She studied French organizations adopting policies that accept LGBT rights. This was a complex initiative because French law had been written to ensure the rights of diverse groups, mentioning disability, sex, age, and ethno-racial categories but omitting sexual orientation. The task facing LGBT employees was to become recognized as a group that also deserved equal treatment and to have policies implemented.

To accomplish this, employee activists made use of implementation resources – including documentation of the need for fair LGBT treatment but focusing on creating preconfigured policies and procedures that the organization could adopt directly or with simple modifications. They did push for change, but there was a clear emphasis on making the change easier to implement. They could do this because LGBT activists shared information among themselves on what had been done successfully in pioneer organizations, and activists in each organization could point to successes when advocating change in their employer.

While one benefit of this approach was to accelerate change by making it easier to do, another was to ensure that the policy adoptions actually worked as intended. Organizations often react to changes in societal norms by doing as little as possible because they favor stability – not necessarily because they dislike the new norms. But presenting preconfigured policies meant that the new policies would not be minimal and symbolic changes but changes that actually led to fair treatment of the LGBT community.

Notice that the keys to success were that the initiatives were systematically spread among organizations and that in each organization insiders – employees – had prime responsibility for helping implementation. Employees need to learn what are the most effective implementation approaches, and they already know which leaders in their organization are best to approach. History offers few examples of the successful use of a battering ram but many more of successful castle sieges in which the gate was opened from the inside.

Buchter, L. 2020 "Escaping the Ellipsis of Diversity: Insider Activists’ Use of Implementation Resources to Influence Organization Policy." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Friday, October 16, 2020

What Happens When Firms Adapt to Societal Norms? Resistance

We have seen many changes in how society thinks about the workplace—changes that started long before the current pandemic and have become especially important now. One key change is the new and critical view of all-consuming jobs and professions, which are widely seen as a relic of the days with a breadwinner husband and a stay-at-home wife. Strangely enough, these types of jobs are quite common in occupations that require higher education, such as law, finance, and consulting. In all of them, many employees face rigid promotion schemes that require very long workweeks both before and after promotion, with the up-or-out promotion to partner being particularly out of touch with current societal norms.

Naturally, some firms have decided to adapt to the societal view and introduce an alternative career path. What happens after those decisions is the topic of an article in Administrative Science Quarterly by Namrata Malhotra, Charlene Zietsma, Timothy Morris, and Michael Smets. They studied law firms that added the position of council as an alternative to the partner position, with the idea that a council did not need to face the same demands before or after promotion as a partner would. So far so good, right? Firms ought to conform to societal norms, especially when these are turning against exploitation of employee time budgets, and employees should welcome such changes.

Wrong. The introduction of the council position met with significant resistance from the employees it was supposed to help, even though many of them would agree with its goals. Of course, organizational change is always difficult because it involves calculations of who wins, who loses, and what is at stake. This change was especially problematic for a different reason. Societal norms favored the change, but as members of the profession and the firm, the lawyers saw the old norm of rigid and demanding up-or-out promotion as correct.

What followed was a battle in which resistance was expressed as concerns about the change being too great, too ambiguous, and too contrary to current norms and practices. Each of these were met with counterarguments from those driving the change. The change is too great? But instead of focusing on what’s different from current practice, focus on how the change improves life—family life. The change is too ambiguous? Focus on how some goals are still shared between old and new practices. The change is contrary to current norms? Focus on reassuring employees that there are pragmatic solutions to the contradictions. Through these three moves, the law firms were able to establish some degree of acceptance of the council position.

The big irony is that the introduction of a council position removed nothing of the old system of associates and partners; it just added a third position of council with a different career track. It could benefit both firm and employee by preventing the firing of employees who held valuable skills but could not or would not conform to the old career system. In principle, changes that introduce options without taking other options away should never be challenged. Organizational change is more complicated than that, however, as there is always the question of whether the old options stay the same once this new option has been introduced. And when the logic underlying the council position appeared too dissimilar with the old way of running law firms, employees were disturbed by the change.

Career systems of the employees, by the employees, and for the employees are ideal. When the career systems are meant to be for the employees but are not decided by the employees, conflict is a likely result, because the combination of different norms and distrust can be poisonous.

Malhotra, N., C. Zietsma, T. Morris, and M. Smets. 2020. "Handling Resistance to Change When Societal and Workplace Logics Conflict." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Monday, October 12, 2020

When It Comes to Group Conflict, We’ve Been Tricked

Here are three things about group conflict that managers and researchers think they know: Group conflict is common, it continues unless there is an intervention, and it reduces group performance. Are they correct? Actually, they are wrong, wrong, and wrong. These are the conclusions from research on group conflict done by Priti Pradhan Shah, Randall S. Peterson, Stephen L. Jones, and Amanda J. Ferguson and published in an article in Administrative Science Quarterly.

Why is there a gap between managerial belief and reality and – even worse (for scholars) – between research and reality? To start, let’s take groups apart. Group conflict means that there is conflict among most or all of a group’s members. But many groups contain a difficult person who creates conflicts, and these are not actually group conflicts because they center on that individual. Other groups contain people who pair up poorly and are in conflict with each other, and such dyads are not group conflicts either. The problem is that such conflicts can be confusing because the difficult person (and perhaps people in contact with him or her) thinks the group has a conflict, and so do the poorly paired people. Some things that look like group conflict are not.

Now look at conflicts over time. Do they stay the same if there is no intervention? Actually, they can shrink, stay the same, or grow. That is true both for true group conflicts and for individual or dyad conflicts. Many conflicts that occur in groups become group conflicts only if they grow; otherwise they stay minor or even disappear. Finally, consider how conflict affects performance. The common belief is that conflict worsens performance because it cuts down communication and joint problem solving. That seems intuitive, but it also seems to hold mainly if the conflict is a true group conflict rather than one involving an individual or a dyad. I certainly know how to work around a difficult individual, and I bet you do too.

The authors present data on how many conflicts within teams start out as true group conflicts. In one set of teams, it was only 14 percent. So, most of the conflicts occurring in the groups they studied were not group conflicts, at least not at first. How many conflicts grew over time? 24 percent of those that were not group conflicts to begin with. Most of the rest stayed the same, and a few shrank. Taking into account conflicts that grew, 28 percent of the teams experienced group conflict at some time. Another study in this article shows similar percentages at the start but fewer conflicts that grew to the team level.   

What about group performance? The low level of group conflict is good news, with most groups doing quite well because their conflict – if there is any – involves only a few members. The news is even better, in fact, because groups with individual or dyad conflicts have higher performance than groups with no conflict. How can this be? To me, it looks a lot like the findings from research on minority effects on jury deliberations. Having one or more members disagree with the rest of the group can be stressful, but it has the benefit of providing a deeper consideration of how to best conduct the work. Even if those members are wrong, they improve the group’s performance by forcing the rest of the group to consider their processes more carefully.

Being wrong about so much should be a serious call to reconsider what we know about groups. There is an important reason that managers and researchers are so often wrong: It is easy to confuse some group members’ feelings that there is conflict with an actual group conflict. Individual impressions do not mean much unless they are connected with actual examination of the group, which many managers and researchers overlook because they take the statements of the noisy individual or dyad to be the whole story. Management is about the big picture, but it must also be about attention to detail.

Shah, P. P., R. S. Peterson, S. L. Jones, and A. J. Ferguson. 2020 "Things Are Not Always What They Seem: The Origins and Evolution of Intragroup Conflict." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Solving Problems: How Subordinates’ Ideas Can be Implemented

Here is the main reason that organizations are inefficient and prone to making errors: subordinates know the processes best and can propose solutions to problems they see, but those in higher positions ignore or decline the proposals. Three-quarters of the solutions proposed by subordinates were shot down in the healthcare team studied by Patricia Satterstrom, Michaela Kerrissey, and Julia DiBenigno in a study recently published in Administrative Science Quarterly. Despite this, their research has a message of hope for subordinates who want to solve problems in their organization.

Why be hopeful if those in higher positions are so likely to dismiss solutions? The reason is simple. Good ideas don’t just die – the proposer and others on the team remember them and keep them alive, and many more solutions than the fraction that are immediately accepted eventually find their way into the organization. Indeed, members of this organization were so devoted to improvement that they used a variety of mechanisms to push through solutions to problems they saw.

Let me talk about two simple mechanisms here, out of the many documented in the paper. The first is persistence. Those who identify a problem and find a solution don’t just shut up forever after being ignored or put down. The solution is clear to them, and people in higher positions ignoring subordinates is commonplace in organizations, so it makes sense to bring up the solution whenever possible – preferably after there has been another event showing that the problem remains serious. As you might expect, persistence works. It was the second-fastest approach to solving problems in this study.

So, what was the fastest one? The answer will make sense to many who are familiar with organizations in research or practice: coalitions, or what the authors call allyship. Once a good solution has been voiced, other subordinates may decide that they too think it is better than the current way of doing things and that the people resisting change need frequent reminders that there is a better way of doing things. Coalitions work for multiple reasons. One is political: even an employee in a higher position has difficulty resisting solutions that many others favor. There is also a simpler reason that is especially effective. An informal coalition of people who support a solution will affect others’ thinking because they will argue for its benefits, and their arguments gain weight because multiple people say the same thing.

Persistence and coalitions are simple approaches to driving solutions through a resisting organization, and they are not the only ones that can be used. So, does that mean everything is good, and we don’t have to worry about whether organizations can improve? Well, not exactly. The first problem is that the initial decline of most solutions is consequential because it significantly delays their acceptance and implementation. In this research, only coalitions/allies were able to push solutions through in less than a year (on average); all other approaches took a year or more.

The second problem is that this study focused on a healthcare organization, with proposals from patients, receptionists, and nurses being declined by doctors. Given that healthcare organizations are in the business of saving and improving lives, I can think of many forms of organizations in which the subordinates will be less motivated to push superiors to accept solutions. I can also think of many forms of organizations in which the people in higher positions – managers – are less in touch with the actual work processes than doctors in a hospital. Still, this research gives us hope that solutions will happen, along with some ideas of how and when they happen.

Satterstrom, P., M. Kerrissey, and J. DiBenigno

2020 "The Voice Cultivation Process: How Team Members Can Help Upward Voice Live on to Implementation." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Prioritize Me! Assembling and Breaking Routines in Complex Work

Organizational scholars are fascinated by routines because they are the core of organizational efficiency. People working together learn how to improve their work, especially in repeated work with measurable consequences. All routines are not equal though. Factory workers can become fabulously productive because their routines keep being examined and improved; many low-level service workers or administrative workers can also do well. The exception is often highly educated professionals, especially when working in teams. Their outputs are too complex to measure accurately, and there is not much repetition to allow improvement. How can they still work efficiently?

Clues to the answer are found in research by Waldemar Kremser and Blagoy Blagoev published in Administrative Science Quarterly. They looked at how consultants working on a civil construction project struggled to keep a steady workflow and meet deadlines. They found that the intermingled project tasks, meetings, interactions, and deadlines created a complex environment that made execution of routine work difficult even when the routines were well-known. Still, the consultants knew the importance of routines and efficiency and applied a sequence of solutions to make progress.

The first-priority solution was to follow the normal sequence of tasks, which is exactly how routines are normally done – when one task is completed (by you or someone else), start the next one in the sequence. But timing conflicts often made demands on the consultants that interrupted sequences, which led to the second priority: follow the deadlines and work on tasks labeled as urgent. Sometimes the second priority was not good enough either because multiple tasks were urgent, which led to a third priority: work on tasks requested by the person filling the most important role. 

Each step along this priority chain reduced efficiency, and the consultants knew it. Nevertheless, the steps were followed because deadlines have a special status, and ignoring important people is a bad idea. The result was an ecology of tasks that added up to progress, though often with inefficient execution because some consultants had multiple requests that needed to be done in sequence, some consultants had to wait, and many routines were torn apart because the normal sequence of actions was interrupted by deadlines or requests from high-status coworkers.

Was the result enduring inefficiency? Actually, two graphs in the paper show that the consultants learned how to deal with these time conflicts over time. One graph shows that acute time conflicts peaked soon after the start of the project and were significantly reduced after that. The other shows that the solution of catering to the most important roles took up more than half their time initially, but after consultants made adjustments, the time spent on this effort was reduced to less than one-fifth thereafter. After consultants got through that initial adjustment period, they split their remaining time equally between sequence-based and timing-based prioritizing.

Compared with work done by an assembly-line worker, the inefficiency documented here is staggering. But keep in mind that these consultants are creating and applying routines to generate never-before-seen output, and much of the inefficiency originates in the deadlines. Deadlines are a well-known enemy of efficiency, and so are complexity and novelty. Thanks to this research, we now know more about how professionals working in teams handle these challenges.

Kremser, W., and B. Blagoev

2020 "The Dynamics of Prioritizing: How Actors Temporally Pattern Complex Role–Routine Ecologies." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Monday, August 17, 2020

My Work Is a Calling. Let Me Tell You Why

If you are like most people, your work is somewhere between mind-numbing and mind-blowing, but you do not see it as a calling. You likely have met people who see their work as a calling, and you are vaguely envious of them (except perhaps of their pay). What makes people see their work as a calling? Or to be more precise, how do they describe their journey to a type of work that they experience as a calling?

Thanks to research by Matt Bloom, Amy E. Colbert, and Jordan D. Nielsen published in Administrative Science Quarterly, we know much more about how people describe their calling. The authors studied four caregiving professions that are richly populated by people who see their work as a calling: pastors, physicians, teachers, and international aid workers. They asked people in these occupations to talk about how they found both their calling in the occupation and their place doing it. Interestingly, they heard two different types of stories.

One was the journey toward the true self. This is the story we are most familiar with, and it involves spending time on introspection to discover oneself, discovering exemplars who show how greatness can be achieved, and listening to wise advice. This version is familiar in part because it is well captured in popular literature—any Star Wars fan can see these elements in the Luke Skywalker story. Its prominence does not mean it is fictional. It is exactly how many people find their calling, and an important part of these stories is the discovery of a better path. That could mean learning that the occupations others thought were best were not right—they didn’t resonate. It could involve getting wise guidance about one’s abilities that pointed in a particular direction.

The other type of story people told was about exploration leading to finding. This is a less familiar story that is overlooked, perhaps because it is less of a straight path. It involves departure from work that missed an emotional connection, fortuitous discovery of a better kind of work, and choosing the newly discovered work. This path toward a calling sounds less like finding a destiny, but it is equally strong and prominent among those who see their work as a calling. Departing something that is good but not great can lead to discoveries, and pursuing these discoveries may lead to work as a calling.

Maybe the second story is even something we prefer not to know about because of what it means for all those who experience their work as a regular activity and not as a calling. Is there something better out there? Would leaving the current work and exploring other activities be the way to discover a calling? It is for many others. But most people worry about risk and want to maintain their investments in their current activities, so exploration is rarely tried. Indeed, in troubled times such as these, who dares to explore unless they are forced to?

The two paths to a calling are interesting especially because the second one has so much promise for those who think they will never find a calling. It may even offer hope for those who are forced by the current crisis to stop their work and look for something new. I’ve seen social media posts reminding us that “What you do not change is what you choose.” For those seeking change in the form of a calling, perhaps finding it is as simple—and daring—as choosing again.

Bloom, M., A. E. Colbert, and J. D. Nielsen

2020 "Stories of Calling: How Called Professionals Construct Narrative Identities." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.