Sunday, November 27, 2016

Kickstarting the Disadvantaged: Activism in Venture Funding

Research and news tell the same story: there is discrimination both in employment and in business. Women are few and far between among executives and founders of technology firms, and claims of bias are often made, especially in Silicon Valley. On the financing side, venture capital firms appear to disadvantage women in executive roles. #AirbnbWhileBlack is a hashtag collecting discussions of discrimination, and has led to Airbnb examining its processes for retaining hosts.

This looks like a problem for women seeking to start businesses, especially if those businesses are in industries with few women to begin with, like high technology. Even worse, the tendency to favor similar people to oneself – homophily – could make this even worse. Interestingly, a recent article in Administrative Science Quarterly by Jason Greenberg and Ethan Mollick has found a counter effect. The idea is that if a minority thinks that it is discriminated against, it will be especially supportive of its own members. It will not only favor its own, as all groups do, but it will do so in an activist way. If this happens, being recognized as a disadvantaged minority – like women in technology – will lead to better treatment, at least from members of the same minority.

Does it happen? It is not clear whether this is always true, but one good place to look is in crowdfunding, where ventures and their founders are presented to a “crowd” of any interested funder, and they in turn decide what ventures to back. And indeed, Greenberg and Mollick found that women targeted women’s ventures for funding, and did so especially for industries were women are known to be scarce. So, women especially supported other women not in fashion or publishing, where women are frequent business founders, but in technology, where they are scarce.

This is clearly not a reason to think that discrimination will balance out. Crowdfunding is the form of funding where this type of activist support is most effective, but most venture funding is not done through crowds – and we already know that venture capital firms, for example, have mostly male executives. Also, activist funding does not have large effects when there are few women funders to begin with. So, we can conclude that this provides some relief, but it is a less fair solution than simply evaluating ventures on their merit.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Getting the Orange out of My Head: How Respect can set Inmates Free

Organizations can have very different work environments, including differences in the respect they give to employees. Organizational cultures differ, and managers differ, in whether they see employees and valuable and how well they acknowledge this. Many organizations think that it makes a difference – notice how I used the word “employee” just now, but actually words like “colleague” and “team member” are frequent in actual work. Does this matter?

For an example of how much this can matter – in a very special context – a recent paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Kristie Rogers, Kevin Corley, and Blake Ashforth looked at an organization that operates professional call centers as part-time work for selected inmates in prisons. Every day inmates go to work in their orange jump suits (yes, just like in the TV series). Every day they go back to the prison wing after working. But this work is not like the demeaning chain gangs that we see in some old movies; the organization (Televerde) values its inmate workers and gives them both encouragement and respect.

So what happens? The respect they get from their Televerde managers, and from customers, changes lives. They get a specialized respect based on the value of the work they do, and their performance, and this gives excitement and self-respect. They get general respect from being seen as real people with lives and accomplishments, not inmates with orange jumpsuits and numbers, and this gives ideas of a changed and improved life. Together, these two kinds of respect, and especially the general one, puts the inmate-workers on a path toward removing themselves from their identities as current and future inmates, and attaching themselves to a new identity as a professional doing legal and respected work out of prison.

It happens impressively fast. These changes were easy to see over a period of less than a year (for most it was much faster), even though the Televerde workers were still in the prison wing, with their old friends and controlling prison wardens, every day after work. As part of the identity journey, they needed to transition from their old thinking habits – the orange in their heads – to a new way of seeing themselves as part of a regular civil society that they could not yet reach because it was outside the prison walls. Remarkably, they were able to not just see their inmate identity and their worker identity as separate beings coexisting in their minds, they also could shift to a new and holistic identity that would guide their lives after they were released from prison.

Giving workers respect is seen as important also in regular organizations, with no inmate workers, but there is a certain degree of cynicism about its effect, and there are also managers who don’t think it matters. After seeing how transformative it can be under these conditions, when it is done honestly, maybe it is time to reconsider.

Monday, November 14, 2016

What If Everyone Learns From Others? Finding Fool’s Gold

So the US election ended with a Trump win and wild swings in the stock markets. The Dow Jones fell from 18,200 to 17,900. Then, less than a week after, stock prices rushed back up and passed 18,800. What happened? Let’s start with the simple observation that we were observing stock sales and buys by investors, who sell and buy for profit, and who have a lot of experience selling and buying. These wild movements were not a result of ignorance, and not a result of playfulness either. Investors chasing value drove prices down and back up, and lost and gained money. And, this was not a unique event, we are familiar with dramatic price changes as the market responds to uncertainty.

What drove these events was in fact a fundamental process that has been studied long, and we can go back to a paper by Hayagreeva Rao, Gerald Davis, and myself in Administrative Science Quarterly in 2001 to learn about it. People making decisions under uncertainty try to learn ways to reduce uncertainty. When they are looking for value, one way is to learn from others. After all, if we see someone moving toward one option, or away from it, their decisiveness could indicate that they know something that we don’t know. But people can be decisive for many reasons. They may have correct knowledge. They may have incorrect knowledge. They may be impatient. But learning from others can be very tricky when those others act on incorrect knowledge or impatience. This was known before our study.

What we found went one step further. Learning from others is especially tricky when those others learn from others. In that case, it is enough for some people to make decisions without correct knowledge. Others do the same learning from them, and then others do the same learning from those who learnt from them. And so on. See how this can make stock markets plunge, with very little basis in fact? Or increase? In fact, our research was based on stock market actors – not investors, but stock analysts. They want to cover firms that are good but overlooked, because analysts are most useful for investors if they give scarce information on valuable opportunities. But we found that when analysts were chasing valuable firms, they were in fact only chasing other analysts. And the later they were in learning from others, the less valuable were the firms they found.

This is a problem that extends much further than stock markets, though it is easier to  prove there than elsewhere. Learning from others is a good strategy as long as it is not over-used. But, those who learn from others typically don’t stop using that strategy soon enough, so at some point it becomes costly. Again and again we see people, and firms, chasing fool’s gold: opportunities that looked good to the first who entered, but only because of incorrect information.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Being Led by a Narcissist: What Will Happen?

A narcissist is someone who has an inflated perception of oneself, and will give exaggerated accounts of own capabilities, past accomplishments, and ability to predict and change future events. Narcissists have, to put it colloquially, huge self-esteem. Clearly this suggests leadership as an appealing career path for narcissists. After all, leaders are looked up to, which confirms what the world should be like for narcissists, and leaders can accomplish great deeds, which narcissists are confident they can. That does not mean that CEOs of firms are narcissists in general. CEOs typically are not given the firm by dad; they are career managers who get their position based on a track record of success. Some degree of randomness is involved in who wins, but it also helps to have a realistic view of oneself and the world, and narcissists fall short on that dimension.

Still, there are enough CEO narcissists around that it is possible to do research on them, and thanks to an article by Arijit Chatterjee and Donald Hambrick in Administrative Science Quarterly, we know how they lead. The key question to pose is how CEOs learn from experience – do they become more cautious by low performance, and bolder by high performance, as one might expect and want a firm to do? After all, adjusting actions to feedback is an astute way to behave both for individuals and firms.

Intuition suggests that narcissists don’t respond much to feedback because they are already convinced of their own greatness, so they will ignore evidence to the contrary. The research showed that this intuition is only half right, and this is where things get interesting. It is true that narcissists are unresponsive to indicators of their own performance – objective indicators, the kind that one should learn from.  A narcissist CEO will completely ignore recent stock returns when calibrating the level of risky investments; a non-narcissist CEO will pay close attention and make more risky investments when they indicate success.

But that does not mean that narcissists ignore feedback. The reason is that narcissists are not as confident as they seem. In fact, they can be very insecure, and as a result they crave applause and lash out at criticism. This means that social feedback – praise – has a big effect on the behavior of narcissists. In fact, the opposite relation holds there. A non-narcissist CEO will nearly ignore media praise when adjusting risky investment, while a narcissist will make strong increases in risky strategic investment when praised a lot.  

So is it OK to be led by a narcissist? This research suggests that it might be OK, provided that social praise exactly mirrors objective indicators, or that the leader is not responsible for any decisions involving risk. Those are strict conditions, so it seems that it will nearly always be better not to be led by a narcissist.