Tuesday, October 5, 2021

How Conservative is the CEO? Two Answers with Different Implications

Researchers have spent some time documenting that political ideology creeps into CEO thinking, and through that, influences firm decision making. This is especially true for decisions that are political to begin with, such as whether to counter economic problems with downsizing or whether to retain staffing and instead let investors take more losses. But we also know that a wide range of decisions are influenced by CEO political ideology, even those that do not look so political.

What we have not known until now is that political ideologies are more complex than the liberal versus conservative spectrum that defines US politics. A paper by M.K. Chin, Stephen X. Zhang, Asghar Afshar Jahanshahi, and Sucheta Nadkarni published in Academy of Management Journal has now given a vivid demonstration of how this complexity influecnes firms. In most other nations, conservative can mean either economically conservative, as in the type of person who values competition as a source of economic strength, or socially conservative, as in the type of person who values traditional judgment and intuition over analytical thinking. And, the same person can be either economically or socially conservative, or both, or none of them.

What does this mean for the decision making? The authors looked at corporate entrepreneurship, which is a strategically important decision that is difficult to justify analytically because the uncertainty is so high. After all, corporate entrepreneurship means diverting resources from the main business of the firm in order to enter a less familiar form of business. Corporate entrepreneurship is sometimes successful, and spectacularly so, but often it leads to losses. So how do firms decide when to engage in corporate entrepreneurship?

This is where CEO ideology comes into play. The economically conservative CEO wants to see analysis that justifies corporate entrepreneurship and wants the corporate entrepreneurship sponsors to win resources through competition with the rest of the firm. But how can they? The rest of the firm already delivers results; they just have ideas and hopes. This swings decision making away from corporate entrepreneurship.

The socially conservative CEO relies more on intuition, including the intuition of other decision-makers in the leadership team, and will be less driven by numbers and unaffected by ideas of resource competition. This is exactly the winning formula for a firm to take the risk of entering the uncertain world of corporate entrepreneurship.

These propositions make sense when considering economic and social conservativism separately, and the only problem has been to realize that these are different forms of conservative (versus liberal) ideologies. Both exist, and they have independent effects. Indeed, the research spurred by these ideas found solid support for these effects when examining how firms in Iran made their decisions on corporate entrepreneurship. Using data from Iran, which is rarely studied, is another merit of this research, but it seems fair to guess that many other nations will show exactly this division between different types of political ideology.

Chin MK, Zhang SX, Jahanshahi AA, Nadkarni S. 2021. Unpacking Political Ideology: CEO Social and Economic Ideologies, Strategic Decision-Making Processes, and Corporate Entrepreneurship. Academy of Management Journal 64(4): 1213-1235.