Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Go For it! What Fourth-Down Plays Can Tell Us About Organizational Decision Making

Let’s start by acknowledging that top-division professional sports players and coaches make very intelligent decisions – probably better than many corporate managers. After all, they drill and execute similar scenarios over and over again while facing adversaries who are familiar with their every move. So, let’s drop the “dumb jock” stereotype and admit that football, like soccer, has the same (or fewer) decision-biases and misjudgments as those we would see in a non-sport organization. They can teach us a lot about decision making.

In particular, fourth-down plays are very instructive because they are when a football team either kicks the ball away or decides to “go for it” and try to gain enough yards to keep possession of the ball. It is an excellent context for examining how people handle risks and rewards, and Xavier Sobrepere i Profitos, Thomas Keil, and Pasi Kuusela took advantage of this in a recent article in Administrative Science Quarterly.

Their idea is simple and novel. It is well known that people consider the risk of gains and losses from their decisions, and mentally they overweigh losses. It is well known that performance feedback on goals affects organizational decisions, so changes and risk taking are much less acceptable when performance is high. Putting these two together, every decision has content (risks and returns) and context (performance relative to goals). These two are usually considered separately, but actually they work together like two blades of a scissors.

How does that influence fourth-down decisions? This is where the sophisticated, but still biased, decision making comes into play. Potential rewards are important but not always important: short fourth downs make teams more likely to go for it, but the difference is much bigger in the second half of the game. Goals are important but not always important: teams that are behind in the score (especially more than 10 points) are more likely to go for it, but the difference is much bigger in short fourth downs. And in fact, all of the effects listed here are bigger when the team has advanced beyond the middle of the field, so the opposing team’s endzone is close.

To someone who follows football closely, this may seem to make a lot of sense, leading to the question of whether there is any bias here at all – isn’t this completely rational? No, it is not. Even when making risky decisions that are essentially random, potential gains and losses should not be seen as less important when performance feedback is positive. Gain, loss, and risk should not become less diagnostic in such a decision context, but football plays clearly show that they are. And football is a game against an adversary, so a tendency to go for it more often in a specific decision context is an easy “tell” that the opposing team can use to adjust their defense.

The same is true outside the world of sports. Perhaps the most important part of performance feedback theory is not how organizations search for alternatives and make changes when performance is below aspiration levels. It is the opposite – how they fail to do so when performance is above aspiration levels. If managers are like these football teams, even known information about opportunities – similar to a one-yard fourth down on the opponent’s 20-yard line – may not be seen as diagnostic enough for their decision. After all, they are meeting their goals.

This selective decision making, with performance feedback having an important effect in directing attention towards or away from opportunities, is the true bias revealed by the fourth-down plays. It is one that managers should pay attention to, and so should all those who teach management.

Sobrepere i Profitos, Xavier, Thomas Keil, and Pasi Kuusela. 2022. The Two Blades of the Scissors: Performance Feedback and Intrinsic Attributes in Organizational Risk Taking. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming. 


Saturday, August 13, 2022

Stigmatize to Rehabilitate? Organizational Marking of Transgressors as Social Control

Organizations have rules, employees who break rules, and rules on how to punish employees who break rules. Often these are thought of in simplified terms as ways of making transgression costly so that employees will not transgress. The simplification is silly – we know that transgression occurs anyway, so it is necessary to think more broadly about punishment rules. If the organization keeps the transgressor in employment, can it also manage a rehabilitation that ensures good work relations and avoids repeated rule-breaking? How can this be done?

Surprisingly, these questions have not seen much investigation despite their obvious importance. But thanks to Erin Frey, Ethan Bernstein, and Nick Rekenthaler we now have research on this topic based on a military school (let’s call it the Academy) that has an honor code, cadets who break it, and a particular rule on how to punish those it retains because the violation is not too severe. The rule is interesting because it requires violators to wear a pin on their lapel indicating a rank one level lower than the lowest regular rank in the Academy for a period of many months. Given the military obsession with rank and alertness to symbols of rank, this marks them to everyone as having transgressed the honor code. In short, they are “screw-ups,” and everyone can see it. 

To an observer with some interest in history, this resembles a variety of medieval punishment methods meant to stigmatize violators and isolate them from their village, town, or city neighborhood. Stigmatization, whether intended or not, is generally quite effective in isolating individuals, attracting disdain, and preventing cooperation with others. So, can such a mark help rehabilitation?

There is a key difference between a village and an organization, and maybe especially an educational organization. Organizations have clearly defined boundaries, so it is obvious to all that the marked transgressor is still a member. Organizations have interdependent tasks, so the marked transgressor needs to communicate with others, and vice versa. This creates opportunities for explaining the transgression, expressing regret, and showing recovery.

Arguably the marking of a transgressor also creates a need to explain, express regret, and show recovery. The marked transgressor will be a stigmatized member rather than a regular one, so there is a social pressure to show signs of rehabilitation. In the Academy, there was an expectation that the marked transgressors should advocate and display even higher standards of behavior than others, and indeed they did so.

How general is this effect? Here we need to speculate a bit, but some boundaries seem obvious. What about marking transgressors in customer-facing work? I would be uncomfortable seeing a barista with a mark indicating some sort of transgression. Even more so an airline pilot. Indeed, the uniforms used in many kinds of customer-facing work (again, all pilots and many baristas) are supposed to create generalized trust that does not single out anyone as being better or worse than others.

Still, even if the effect of marking violators as a path to rehabilitation is not fully general, it is very interesting that it is possible. Organizations are hierarchies that can punish and try to rehabilitate through rules and hierarchical approaches, but they are also social systems. The marking of violators makes use of this and has an effect that is surprisingly beneficial.

Frey, Erin, Ethan Bernstein, and Nick Rekenthaler. 2022. Scarlet Letters: Rehabilitation Trough Transgression Transparency and Personal Narrative Control. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.