Monday, November 29, 2021

Shout or Discuss? Social Movements and Firm Collaborations

Firms are often targeted by social movements seeking to reform their behaviors. Think of the environmental destruction from fast-food packaging, the climate change driven by carbon emissions, and the wildlife reserves threatened by land development or mining. Often a single firm will attract attention from multiple social movement organizations that all want to change the same thing it is doing—such as air pollution—and its decision-makers may try to engage in discussions with them to find effective solutions. Will such engagement be possible, and if so, which social movement organizations will collaborate with the firm?

As Kate Odziemkowska demonstrates in research published by Administrative Science Quarterly, the answer lies in networks. If you read this earlier blog post and the one before, you have become used to networks being the answer to many questions, but this time you may wonder what kind of networks are in action. The answer is surprising but intuitive once you consider it: Because each social movement organization is fueled by its membership’s devotion to its cause, and some are more radical than others, what matters is the network of connections between the very radical social movement organizations and the moderate ones.

How does this work? First, firms prefer to collaborate with moderates, and moderate social movement organizations are much more likely than radicals to collaborate with firms. Second, social movement organizations collaborate with each other before they collaborate with firms, but moderates and radicals collaborate only in some social movements, not all. The effects of this collaboration (or lack of it) may seem counterintuitive: Moderates who collaborate with radicals in the social movement are more likely to work with firms, while moderates operating in a social movement where collaboration with radical groups does not happen are much less likely to work with firms. In the latter situation, moderates may fear that collaborating with firms will destroy their relationships and audience support within the social movement. Moderates connected to radicals are thus able to discuss, while moderates who lack that connection must shout in order to maintain their credibility in the movement.

What about the firm’s willingness to have discussions with social movement organizations? That part of the story is much simpler. To start, firms generally prefer to change nothing, especially along the dimensions of environmental and social responsibility that movements typically target. That is exactly why social movements target firms. Once they have been targeted by a social movement, firms do in fact seek collaborations. And they are interested in neutralizing the entire social movement, not just the social movement organization they start collaborating with, so for firms, it may be better to have discussions with moderate social movement organizations that are connected to radicals. This tactic is riskier for the social movement organization than for the firm, because radical social movement organizations may be critical of the collaboration.

This research brings up an interesting dilemma facing social movement organizations. To fulfill their goal of changing firm behaviors, they should engage in discussions with the firms and collaborate to find the best way forward. But many social movement organizations are built on the anger of their members, so talking to “the enemy” can weaken the movement. They need to have the strength to weaken themselves for the sake of fulfilling their goals.

Odziemkowska, Kate. 2021. Frenemies: Overcoming Audiences’ Ideological Opposition to Firm–Activist Collaborations. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming. 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

How to Use Authority: Peer Pressure Works Best

Have you encountered organizations with authority structures that don’t quite match the training and status of the people holding each position? They are more frequent than you might think. Engineers and scientists doing research and development often work in teams and departments headed by managers who know much less than they do. Waiters in restaurants want their orders to arrive on time but are at the mercy of the cooks. And importantly for this blog post, police officers have years of training and experience but are moved around by dispatchers who receive all the calls for help (911 calls, if they are in the USA) but have much less training and status.

So, are there any problems when the authority and status do not match? This was the question Arvind Karunakaran explored in a paper recently published in Administrative Science Quarterly. As you might expect, the main problem is that the higher-status workers who have lower ranking in the organization (at least for a specific function) often feel free to ignore instructions or even orders from lower-status superiors. That sounds strange when the workers are police officers who are in uniform, need others to comply with their own orders, and are supposed to be highly disciplined.

Why do they ignore instruction? First of all, they think the dispatchers do not understand their work well enough, so they resent being told how and when to work. Also, the dispatchers often keep the officers busier than they would like to be, so officers may be interested in taking a break or not responding to dispatch calls that sounds unimportant. Indeed, not responding to dispatch calls over the radio is a common way for officers to avoid complying with orders.

How can an organization handle this type of situation, where the low-status superiors give instructions that sometimes get ignored by high-status workers? The research on police officers gave some useful lessons. First, organizations often have discipline procedures that allow immediate supervisors to refer problems upwards to higher-level managers. The dispatchers did that sometimes, and the results were… not much change. So at least for police officers, this conventional approach seems to be ineffective in the long run.

Second, people often use social approaches, such as trying to build a personal connection and using informal pressure in addition to the formal commands. Dispatchers could do that, and it was especially easy because they could choose to communicate more or less formally: to use the formal shared radio channel or a direct private channel. The results of the informal approach were… not much change. That didn’t work in the long run either.

So, what did work? One simple trick that dispatchers used was to talk to the non-responding officer informally, often with some humor, and to do it over the formal shared channel. When that was done, often other officers would join in, and the non-responding officer would end up responding and complying with orders both at that moment and going forward. So that worked.

The most interesting part of this research is why it worked. Informal talk over a shared channel could be heard by other officers with the same status and rank as the non-responding one. They would join in the chat to tease the officer but also implicitly to pressure the officer to respond. Coworkers often do so, because seeing someone else ignore instructions often means that they are slacking off, which can mean more work for others or ultimately that the non-responding team member is not reliable. People are usually sensitive to such problems, and same-status coworkers like the fellow officers can put pressure on more effectively than lower-status workers such as the dispatchers.

As always, peer pressure wins the day.

Karunakaran A. 2021. Status–Authority Asymmetry between Professions: The Case of 911 Dispatchers and Police Officers. Administrative Science Quarterly forthcoming.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Learning about Hardly Ever: The Role of Storytelling

Have you encountered the senior member of the organization who always tells stories? The one who is initially fascinating but who you gradually learn to avoid longer conversations with because the same stories are repeated over and over and have nothing to do with your work? What a bore. But storytelling can actually be very important in organizational learning, especially if it involves rare and important events.

This is what Christopher G. Myers examined in a paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly. The research looked at flight nurses in helicopters, the kind of people who have dramatic work that TV series love to portray, and on TV they typically do heroic stuff that calls for a lot of knowledge about how the patient is affected. How much of that is reality?

The learning problem is obvious. Helicopter patient pickups are done as rarely as possible because they are very expensive, and the patient conditions are always urgent and critical because that’s when helicopter pickups make sense. So, the need for heroic work is not an exaggeration. But the heroic work needs to be accurate too, and here the problem is that there are so many ways that a patient can become urgent and critical that it is very difficult for a flight nurse to learn on the job. They still need to learn about “hardly ever” events because these events occur, and incorrect treatment can be very consequential for the patient.

So what do they do? Tell stories. When changing shifts, they will chat, and the chat is regularly about what has happened in the previous shift, especially if it was unusual. That way they can learn on the job using not only their own experience but also the experience of others, as told through stories. If the story is dramatic enough, it will not just spread to the next shift but will also be retold a few times to different people, who will all learn about the “hardly ever” event and how it was solved.

This is the same social mechanism as the boring senior worker who you may have encountered, but it is a great way to learn fast in work that has much variation. Come to think of it, even that senior worker could be a source of learning because the stories most often told are usually about something from the past that does not happen often these days. Are these stories relevant? Sometimes they turn out to be. It is nearly two years ago that airlines encountered a sharp drop in the passenger traffic because of Covid. Did any of them benefit from stories about the drop in passenger traffic following the 9/11 attack? Possibly so.

Stories often involve mainly socializing and bonding, and they are ways that people form ties in organizations by sharing their experiences, whether useful or not. But in some forms of work, and on some occasions, storytelling is also a crucial learning process that helps the organization deal with “hardly ever” events.

Myers, Christopher G. 2021. Storytelling as a tool for vicarious learning among air medical transport crews. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming