Thursday, May 27, 2021

Creativity and Diversity: More Lessons from Management

The idea that creativity is stimulated by combining different kinds of information has been shown to be true many times, most recently in research showing that network brokerage of different groups is most effective when there is also instability of membership. Interestingly, the simplest way to combine different kinds of information is the hardest: bringing together a diverse group of people to work as a team is sometimes good for creativity, sometimes bad, and sometimes there is no effect.

How can we make sense of this? First, we can be patient. Teams trying to be creative quickly face a difficult task that many of them will fail. Instead, looking at creative efforts over time, by multiple teams, gives clearer results. Second, separate different types of diversity. Knowledge diversity creates creativity, but many other kinds of diversity have no effect on creativity but can create discomfort and difficulty working together. Unfortunately, people get along more easily with those who look like them and talk like them, so any team of people who work together can be divided by gender, race, or nation of birth. This is the reason that team diversity often has unclear effects: those who would benefit the most from working with each other often have difficulty doing so.

Alina Lungeanu and Noshir Contractor looked at the effects of knowledge diversity and cultural diversity in teams of scientists involved in the ultimate creative task: the generation of the new scientific field of oncofertility. Creativity in science is demanding because it not only requires new ideas; the ideas also must be objectively correct. Science is stricter than art in assessing the value of creativity. Creativity in science is demanding also because it requires time; it takes many years and publications to produce useful knowledge.

So, what did they find? For scientists collaborating, knowledge diversity means that they draw on different knowledge of past research, which happens to be easily measurable. More diversity produced more creativity. Cultural diversity produced less creativity. As added evidence that difficulty working together held back collaboration, they also found that scientists were especially likely to repeat collaborations with prior collaborators and were also more likely to collaborate with friends of friends than with total strangers.

This repeats a lesson that is worth repeating because it is so often ignored. The creative spark comes from encountering different knowledge, ideas, or norms. Different forms of thinking help creativity. But to make that encounter happen, people need to open up to each other and communicate freely. That requires some level of comfort with each other, so team-building efforts may be needed when team members come from different backgrounds. So first, facilitate communication, then let the communication generate creativity.

Lungeanu, A., N.S. Contractor. 2014. The Effects of Diversity and Network Ties on Innovations: The Emergence of a New Scientific Field. American Behavioral Scientist 59(5) 548-564.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Hiring Mental Disorder: How Employee Mobility Spreads Depression, Anxiety, and Stress

Mental disorders should be taken seriously because a condition such as depression, anxiety, and stress takes a significant toll on those who suffer it and their families, and it affects their work performance. Particularly tragic events occur when stressed operators of hazardous equipment (such as trucks, trains, or planes) make mistakes that threaten safety. The only good thing about mental disorders compared with other diseases is that they are not contagious.

Except, asdiscovered in new research by Julia M. Kensbock, Lars Alkærsig, and Carina Lomberg published in Administrative Science Quarterly, they are.

Focusing on the workplace, the authors found that mental disorders are contagious. The behavior of a person suffering from a mental disorder affects others by making their interactions and the work more problematic. The end result is that some coworkers end up with the same disorders of depression, anxiety, and stress. This is especially problematic because mental disorders spread through behaviors, so an undiagnosed patient in the organization is particularly threatening as no treatment or adaptation is possible. In a way, this is similar to how patients with contagious diseases can transmit even when they are undiagnosed or asymptomatic.

But this is not the worst part of the story. Organizations in which many employees have mental disorders – maybe because they have spread within the organization – become unhealthy, so hiring one of their employees carries a similar risk of hiring mental disorder as hiring an employee who has a mental disorder diagnosis. Of course, unhealthy organizations are exactly the places that employees want to leave in order to escape depression, anxiety, and stress, but they do not realize that they may be bringing it to their next workplace.

And there is an even worse part of the story too. To see why, ask yourself who in the organization affects coworkers the most. The answer is obvious – managers do. A manager interacts with many, influences many, and has the power to affect the work and rewards of many others. Hiring a manager with a mental disorder or from an unhealthy organization means that the organization now has a person who is fully capable of transmitting depression, anxiety, and stress to others, and the researcher team found that managers indeed have disproportionately high effects on the mental health of the organization.

We already know how the climate of a workplace, and the work done in it, is negatively affected by hiring jerks, especially jerk managers. The damage from having a manager with a mental disorder is similar, or possibly worse. But, the takeaway here is not that organizations should shun employees and managers with mental health disorders. Given their prevalence, trying to do so would have negative consequences for everyone involved. Instead, this research should be a wakeup call for any organization that is not already educating its people about mental disorders and working to improve their mental health. Mental health disorder is a treatable condition (unlike most jerks, I suspect). Given the dangers of contagion, there is no time to waste.

Kensbock, J. M., Alkærsig, L., & Lomberg, C. (2021). The Epidemic of Mental Disorders in Business—How Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Spread across Organizations through Employee Mobility. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming. doi:10.1177/00018392211014819

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Organizations Rule! When Self-Organization Became Structured

We often overlook an interesting contrast between the workplace and our private lives. In the workplace, we have an organizational structure in which people have fixed authority, are grouped together in units, and have specified processes for regular operations and for how to handle many exceptions. In our daily life, we have none of these (unless we are the von Trapp family), but we still get things done. To the curious mind, this begs the question of what organizations are for, apart from controlling people who cannot be trusted on their own.

Felipe G.Massa and Siobhan O’Mahony have published research in Administrative Science Quarterly that gives a nice answer to that question. They examined the self-organized Anonymous movement, which started off radically different from normal organizations in structure (they had none), processes (they improvised them), and ethos (freedom of information and action is paramount). Anonymous earned a reputation as an unpredictable group of activists that could suddenly descend on targets through protests and hacker attacks, seemingly organized through little else than internet forum conversations.

The only problem with this reputation is that it is only true of early stages of the Anonymous movement. They did indeed organize through shared forums and used shared norms and jargon to define boundaries and direct action. But Anonymous attracted so many newcomers that these mechanisms were no longer enough to maintain the identity of the movement and the cohesion of their actions, resulting in chaos. Reacting to this, senior members of the movement sought to use norms both for integrating new participants and for directing the protest actions they had become famous for, which were becoming less systematic and predictable.

Norms work well, right? After all, the Catholic church has applied strong norms and has been in operations for a couple thousand years. But churches are organizations too, and they use structure and processes just like any other organization. And the time came when Anonymous started looking more and more like an organization.

Anonymous now has well-defined roles, with different levels of experience and expertise determining what role a member fills. Anonymous has a hierarchy, with decisions made centrally and communicated outwards to the peripheral members. Anonymous has training of new members, manuals for how to act, and tests that allow promotion into higher ranks. In short, Anonymous is an organization.

Is this controversial or surprising? My first guess is that the most surprised people share one of two very different beliefs. One is the belief of economists that coordination of many is a simple matter of aligning preferences through some simple device, such as a price. This belief is correct, but it turns out that prices and mass-market goods are one of the few contexts in which it holds. The other is the belief of ideologists that mass movements can be coordinated by shared beliefs and norms. That is also correct, but only for short periods of time, as Anonymous found.

My second guess is that organizational theorists are the least surprised. We should not be surprised because what we have learned time and time again is that organizations are unbeatable for coordinating the actions of many, whether they be friends, strangers, or in between. Just ask Anonymous, if you can find the right person to ask.

 Massa, F. G., & O’Mahony, S. (2021). Order from Chaos: How Networked Activists Self-Organize by Creating a Participation Architecture. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming. doi: 10.1177/00018392211008880