Questions are great. Sometimes I get asked questions that stimulate ideas that I would not have thought of otherwise, and that lead to research. When the editors of the 20th anniversary special issue of Strategic Organization asked me to write about the relation between the Behavioral Theory of the Firm and Strategy, it made me wonder whether there was something special about the match between this theory and this field of research.
Why this question? The behavioral theory of the firm fuels an active and growing research agenda found mainly in organization theory, but also with much important work in strategy. So, it is possible that we can simply stand by and let things develop on their own, and the synergies between research in these two fields well take care of the rest. Yet somehow, that did not look like the right answer.
The reason is that the basic interests of the fields of strategy and organization theory are different. Obviously not, because that is why they are different fields. To the Behavioral Theory of the Firm, this may not seem to matter because theory is about the mechanisms that drive outcomes in the world, not about the outcomes. It matters for research, though, because different outcomes can be studied depending on the interests of a field. This is a good reason to think of how the Behavioral Theory of the Firm and Strategy relate to each other.
The result of our thinking was a series of questions on how strategy is shaped by the mechanisms in the behavioral theory of the firm. This is the right approach because the Behavioral Theory of the Firm is made for explaining what a firm – or any kind of organization – will do. So, it is the kind of theory that can be used for explaining the origins and changes of firm strategy.
There are already partial answers to all of these questions, but still a lot of room for progress. The very short answer is that we developed a framework organized around how strategy is shaped by the 1) organizational structure, 2) organizational decision-makers, 3) organizational history, and 4) organizational environment. The Behavioral Theory of the Firm has useful ideas in each of these factors. The (slightly) longer answer? Please look for it in the short essay coauthored with Cyndi Man Zhang.
Greve, H.R., C. Zhang Man. 2022. Is there a Strategic Organization in The Behavioral Theory of the Firm? Looking Back and Looking Forward. Strategic Organization, forthcoming.
As anyone in business will testify to, personal connections matter a lot for success. They are the source of information and ideas, they can be used to draw in resources and capabilities, and they give rise to yet more connections. The naïve version of this narrative is that more connections are always better, but we know that’s not true. Personal connections are maintained through attention and care, so having too many means neglecting many. Instead, what matters most is to be connected to people who are not connected to each other: to be a broker of personal ties. The network of a broker is the most efficient one for drawing in novel, timely, and helpful information, among other things.
Except that being a broker is not a fail-safe path to success – we know it often does not work. Explaining when it works, and when it does not, was the goal of research done by Alessandro Iorio and published in Administrative Science Quarterly. His idea was simple and novel. Maybe I will see brokers as slightly suspicious characters because they know so many people I don’t know? Maybe as a result, I will hold back the information, resources, and network ties that I would otherwise provide to my contacts who I do not see as being brokers?
Making this simple idea especially neat is that I may not be right about who is a broker and who is not. Accordingly, being a broker who is not perceived as a broker is great; such brokers in disguise get all the benefits. Not being a broker but being perceived as one is a disaster; their personal connections have a poor structure and are poorly fed with information. Iorio went ahead and tested this idea by getting data from a consulting firm and by doing experiments.
The conclusion? Consultants who were brokers in disguise were clear winners in the ratings for being top innovation performers; two-thirds of them achieved this rank. Meanwhile, being a broker while being perceived as one was no better than not being a broker and not being perceived as one either. Brokerage works when it is hidden; not otherwise. Why is that? When gauging the effect of trustworthiness of each person, it became clear that being thought of as a broker meant being seen as less trustworthy. This explained brokers’ inability to take advantage of having better personal connections than other consultants.
What does this mean for how we deal with personal connections in our career and life? Turning this evidence into advice is complicated. The benign version would be that modesty is a virtue, because dropping names of people others do not know places you at a disadvantage whether or not you really know them. The less benign version is that the successful user of personal networks is fundamentally dishonest because this person gives the impression of having a different network of contacts than the actual one. Of course, we should not be too surprised by this kind of problem. The behaviors that evidence shows to be effective when managing other people are not always the most admirable ones.
Iorio, Alessandro. 2022. Brokers in Disguise: The Joint Effect of Actual Brokerage andSocially Perceived Brokerage on Network Advantage. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.
The creative arts are full of one-hit wonders who produce exactly one famous hit and are never heard from again. Most famously this happens in music, but it is also true for authors, visual artists, and performing artists. Is it possible to predict which creative artists can have multiple hits? The usual answer is, “Of course not!” But if it were possible, such knowledge would be useful outside the arts as well. Organizations of all types often need to develop novel and creative products, and even those products that involve engineering or science ultimately start with creativity.
Actually, we are making some progress in understanding how multiple hits are created. Research by Justin M. Berg published in Administrative Science Quarterly looked at musical artists and discovered that a key factor in becoming a multi-hit artist is the music made before the first hit. This sounds strange but is easy to explain. Before the first hit, artists are generally ignored and can freely choose what to create, and they may end up making choices that differ a great deal from each other. After the first hit, they are under the magnifying glass of the world (and themselves) and typically try to stay in tune with what their audience wants without changing too much from their past production. Problem is, what their audience wants keeps changing.
This is where the production before fame becomes important. Some musicians make very novel music, some musicians make a great variety of music, and some musicians make music that lacks novelty and variation but hits exactly what the audience wants at the moment. Who can repeat the hits? When the question is phrased this way, it seems clear that variation is a good thing because it lets the musician adapt to new trends without changing too much from past work. That’s exactly what the research found. But interestingly, novelty before becoming popular also let the musician produce multiple hits. Maybe that’s because it creates a sense of freedom and an audience expectation of some surprises?
But wait, before we worry about how a musician can get multiple hits, maybe we should think about how to get the first hit. So here is some bad news: Novelty is great for multiple hits but bad for getting the first one. Fortunately, the same is not true for variation, which helps the chances both for a first hit and for multiple hits. Of course, if you are an artist, you know that variety is a very hard thing to achieve, maybe even harder than novelty. In fact, the main driver of variety seems to be repeated failure when doing the same thing over and over again, illustrating that it is not just hard to accomplish but also hard to attempt. Cost and benefit…
What do these findings on musicians tell organizational decision makers? More than you might assume. First, we know that creativity has similar effects on innovative work across a wide range of products, so we can actually learn about product design from successful musicians. Second, these findings directly tell us what resumes should look like when hiring someone to do development work – look for variety! It is valuable and costless, because job applicants will come with a great variety of variety levels.
Finally, and this part could be costly, the findings also tell us what type of workflow a development team should have. Unlike musicians and other creative artists, who are forced by their audiences to stay relatively close to their past production, development teams will maintain a variety of projects if they are told to do so. And we know that variety increases the likelihood of success.
Berg, Justin M. 2022. One-Hit Wonders versus Hit Makers: Sustaining Success in Creative Industries. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.
Do firms follow the letter of the law? They are supposed to, and they usually do. Do firms follow the spirit of the law? Sometimes, and especially when their executives agree with it. These are general and obvious statements, but it was only recently that we learnt how far firms will go in following the spirit of the law. Suppose that a US firm is in a state that just passed a law banning the affirmative action practices that help minorities get hired and promoted in most of the nation. Will the firm continue to hire and promote as before, or will it make changes?
The question is important for many careers. Black and Hispanic employees are only half as likely to become managers as White employees. Affirmative action policies were put in place to even these odds, and affirmative action bans are promoted by politicians who want to counter the movement towards fair employment practices. In nine states, such bans were passed. But did the bans have any effects? Research by Letian Zhang published in Administrative Science Quarterly answers this question.
The key feature of affirmative action bans is that they don’t ban firms from doing affirmative action – they only ban the public sector from doing so. But they can still serve as normative cover for firms and executives who are against affirmative action and similar equal employment opportunity practices, and so inspire them to weaken or even roll back any affirmative action practices they are doing. Did this happen?
Yes, definitely. The proportion of Black managers in a firm is a sensitive indicator of equal opportunity practices, and it showed clear differences between firms that were in a state banning affirmative action and firms in a state that did not ban it. For comparable establishments, the proportion of Black managers dropped by 0.63 percentage point, with most of this drop experienced by Black women. When interpreting this number, keep in mind that the proportion of Black or African American people in the US is 12.4 percent, so a drop of 0.63 percentage point is roughly a 20-percent drop relative to the population.
This difference was not the same across firms, however, because the political views of the Chief Executive Officers made a difference. Most of the drop in the proportion of Black managers was a result of firms with conservative CEOs, which saw a drop of 0.93 percentage points in the proportion of Black managers, compared to firms in states without affirmative action bans. Again, compare with the drop in all firms combined (0.63) and the total proportion (12.4), and the difference is clear.
So, the law is not just a law but also a signal. But signals are not for everyone; they are followed by those who are most alert to them and friendliest to their message. That, of course, is the whole point of passing a law that only some of the many organizations in a state need to follow. Signals are symbols, and symbols matter.
Zhang, Letian. 2022. Regulatory Spillover and Workplace Racial Inequality. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.
The current US political climate has many unusual effects, including an increase in corporate CEOs releasing statements that condemn political initiatives from right-wing activists. An example is North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” removing the right of individuals to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity—a highly divisive piece of legislation that led to a public letter of opposition from nearly 100 CEOs. Of course, CEOs have always been free to speak and write publicly on any issue they want; indeed, this is just one of the many freedoms that US citizens enjoy—and that increase opposition to laws specifically written to take freedoms away from minorities. But CEOs have rarely been outspoken in the past. Now that some of them are finding their public political voice, we may wonder why they are doing so and what this change does to their organizations.
These are the questions explored in research published in Administrative Science Quarterly by Adam J. Wowak, John R. Busenbark, and Donald C. Hambrick. They looked at the example I mentioned above, comparing the CEOs who did or did not sign the letter opposing the “bathroom bill.” To see why this research is interesting, let us start with the question of whether the CEOs signing the bill were brave. Certainly, some Republican politicians created this impression by issuing threats against outspoken CEOs. But CEOs care more about their companies than about politicians, and CEO signing could be predicted quite well by whether their employees opposed the bill. Signing was more astute than brave, one might say, though no doubt many CEOs were themselves outraged by the bill.
But a CEO of any large company will be leading many employees with different political views, so it is still fair to ask whether publicly opposing the bill might harm the company by reducing employees’ commitment to it. Fortunately, Wowak, Busenbark, and Hambrick collected data to answer exactly this question. It turns out that when the CEO signed the letter opposing the bill, their employees’ commitment to the firm was reduced if the employee population was mostly conservative, unchanged if it was moderate, and increased if it was mostly liberal. No surprise there, and a good explanation for why CEO signing was more likely if the employees were liberal. More importantly, CEO signing also influenced employees’ political views, turning liberals more liberal and conservatives more conservative. Arguably that is exactly the kind of division that CEOs don’t want in their organizations, so it is a crucial and bad outcome.
Was there any way out of this dilemma? It turns out that a CEO who can be seen as very typical for that firm becomes disproportionately influential in changing employee commitment and liberalism. By signing the bill, a highly prototypical CEO at a liberal firm strongly increased liberals’ commitment to the firm and to their own liberalism. By signing the bill, a highly prototypical CEO at a conservative firm strongly decreased conservatives’ commitment to the firm and increased their conservatism. Ideologically conservative employees may resent being represented by a CEO with the opposite political view, but perhaps they resent even more being represented by a CEO they consider similar to themselves who takes a liberal stance on a public issue.
What about CEOs who have a high personal reputation? The story here is that a CEO held in low regard who makes a political statement is more deeply divisive in both organizational commitment and liberalism than a CEO held in high regard. The less-regarded CEOs who signed the letter had a more-positive impact on liberal employees’ commitment and liberalism—and a more-negative impact on conservative employees’ commitment and liberalism—than highly regarded CEOs. If this is not surprising, consider the following: Did you ever think that the benefit of a high personal reputation would be that people would feel free to ignore what you said?
Organizational life is full of surprises. Political life is full of surprises. No wonder that combining the two can be surprising.
Wowak, Adam J., John R. Busenbark, and Donald C. Hambrick. 2022. "How Do Employees React When Their CEO Speaks Out? Intra- and Extra-Firm Implications of CEO Sociopolitical Activism." Administrative Science Quarterly forthcoming.
Here is one popular myth that many people hold dear: Those who are discriminated against, pursued, and stigmatized have at least one comfort in life – each other. Have we not seen many movies and heard many stories about how the downtrodden in life will band together and support each other, and may even fight back and gain the status they deserve?
In research published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Madeline Toubiana and Trish Ruebottom find a bleaker reality. They studied sex workers, meaning burlesque dancers, strippers, pornography actors, webcam actors, escorts, and dominants, who are stigmatized in society to such an extent that they typically try not to reveal the work they do. Given the difficult experiences that come as part of their work, they would seem like a group inclined to band together. Would it not be natural for them to confide in each other and help each other? Perhaps so, but as the researchers found, this is not exactly what happens.
Sex workers are united in being stigmatized by others but divided by how they stigmatize each other. They have different jobs, and the ones with greater physical exposure and contact with clients are stigmatized more. They have different backgrounds, and those who are minorities or come from poverty are stigmatized more. So, sex workers need to be careful in selecting who to interact with and how much to reveal even when they are interacting with each other, because there is always a risk that they will encounter stigma instead of support. Those who have enough initiative can still build or join groups that provide mutual support, but those groups are likely fractured and small as a result of all these divisions.
Does this seem like a specialized outcome from an unusual kind of stigmatized group? Maybe. But keep in mind that the myth of unity among the stigmatized is rarely questioned, and those of us who read online blog posts lack experience with such groups and know little about them.
In fact, we also know little about the groups who are not stigmatized but hold low-status positions in organizations we work for or buy products and services from. Are the cleaning personnel earning minimum wages (who everyone seems to ignore) at least on friendly terms with each other and willing to offer support? What about the servers working for the type of restaurant that offers little pay or tips, or the ubiquitous delivery-van drivers?
These questions are important because organizations are better off if employees at all levels work for them for a more positive reason than lack of a better alternative. If lack of a better alternative is the reason, as might be the case if pay is low and support from peers is hard to find, then employees will stay employed only as long as they have no better alternative. And usually, people are worth more to the organization than they are paid, sometimes much more, so assuming that the myth of mutual support keeps them happy can be costly.
One of the biggest changes in the US economy that has accompanied the Covid pandemic is the great resignation – a wave of resignations and retirements from industries with many low-status workers. Maybe this trend is unrelated to the research at hand. Or maybe workers in jobs with little money and no social support have found that they had a better alternative – not working.
Toubiana, Madeline and Trish Ruebottom. 2022. Stigma Hierarchies: The Internal Dynamics of Stigmatization in the Sex Work Occupation. Administrative Science Quarterly, Forthcoming.
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.
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.
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.
Those who do research on social networks, and most of those who are in occupations where contacts with others give ideas, opportunities, and deals, know what a network engineered for success looks like. They are brokers at the center of a web that reaches far, where many of the people they know do not know each other. In such a network, the person at the center can combine knowledge, connect opportunities, and make deals.
So how can one get such a network? The answer is simple – by being successful. Those who have proven success become attractive to others, so they can pick and choose among those who want to connect with them. But of course, here lies the problem for those who want to build a network for success because they don’t have success yet. Can it be done? This is the question answered by Yonghoon G. Lee and Martin Gargiulo in a paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly. In addition to solving a very practical problem, this research is done in a context that we all know, directly or indirectly: songwriting in the Korean pop (K-pop) industry. Yes, this is research with BTS, not BS.
The problem for people early in their careers, or even later in their careers with no proven success yet, is that it is very difficult to get the spider-web network that combines knowledge. If they cannot benefit from such a network because they are not prominent enough yet, instead they should have a close-knit network of friends who help each other, right? And naturally, these friends will also be unsuccessful – otherwise they would have formed the looser brokerage network. That means having a network of helpful people who cannot offer much help. How can they make the transition into a better network?
The songwriters in this research were more likely to improve their networks in two circumstances: if they had peers who became successful or if they were stuck in a rut of writing unsuccessful songs that were quite similar to each other. Seeing your network contacts achieve success in collaborations not involving you is a signal that you are—or your network is—not good enough. Imagine how it feels to collaborate with someone, maybe even multiple times, without writing a successful song. But then suddenly this collaborator has another project not involving you, and it becomes a success. Feels like a failure? Absolutely – and Lee and Gargiulo show that songwriters exposed to the success of peers would reach out to new distant collaborators. Getting stuck doing the same thing over and over again with no success is also a clear signal that you are—or your network is—not good enough. Songwriters in this research who kept writing songs in the same style with no success would reach out to new distant collaborators as well.
The transition to a larger network with brokerage occurred faster for songwriters who eventually became successful than for those who never succeeded. Songwriters who get these signals that either they or their networks are not good enough—and who more quickly conclude that it is their networks’ fault—seem to have a better chance to make it. It is not easy to become successful in the music industry, and many songwriters fail even after reaching out to new collaborators. But hope springs eternal, and adding a good network seems to help.
Lee, Yonghoon G. and Martin Gargiulo. 2021. Escaping the Survival Trap: Network Transition among Early-Career Freelance Songwriters. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.
This blog is devoted to discussions of how events in the news illustrate organizational research and can be explained by organizational theory. It is only updated when I have time to spare.