Tag: Faculty



Kurt Dirks

Long-time Olin professor and former interim dean Kurt Dirks has been tapped for a new university-wide assignment as vice chancellor for international relations and director of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy.

He will succeed James Wertsch in the vice chancellor role when Wertsch leaves the post July 1 and takes over the academy director’s role Jan. 1.

“Kurt is a perfect successor to Jim. He brings energy to continue to build on our progress and vision to find new opportunities to expand our international engagement,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said in the announcement to the WashU community on Friday. “I am looking forward to this next chapter in our international programming.”

Dirks comes into the new post after teaching at Olin since 2001. Now the Bank of America Professor of Managerial Leadership, he is also co-director of Olin’s Bauer Leadership Center and served as interim dean of the business school after Mahendra Gupta retired from the post in 2016.

“I’m grateful to Dean (Mark) Taylor for being so supportive in this,” Dirks said. “In the new role, I am looking forward to help support the global vision Dean Taylor has for Olin, as well as working with the other schools to support their global objectives.”

In his new role, Dirks will help to attract students from across the globe to attend Washington University, to strengthen ties between Washington University and leading research universities from other countries, and to support global research and educational programs in the university.

Dirks will remain on the Olin faculty, continuing his research on trust and leadership. He will no longer be able to teach his “Power and Politics” or “Defining Moments” classes, which are popular electives in the MBA program. Although he will remain active in the Bauer Leadership Center, he will step down from his post as co-director.

“I am excited Kurt is taking on this significant role at the university, and I am thrilled that he will remain connected to Olin as we grow our school’s global presence and offerings,” Dean Taylor said. “It is as important as ever to continue to emphasize around the world the academics, research, intellectual capacity, student experience, innovation, and values that make Olin and Washington University so special.”

Dirks’s connection to McDonnell is a continuation of his service on its steering committee, where he’s served since 2015. He helped to launch Olin’s Executive MBA program with IIT-Bombay in Mumbai, the first US-based EMBA degree program in India. He also helped manage Olin’s EMBA partner program with Fudan University in Shanghai.

Wertsch was the founding director of the McDonnell academy in 2005, which was founded as a hub of international activity and has grown to include 34 partner universities around the world. According to WashU’s announcement, the academy was established to help link universities in sharing expertise and research to jointly work on significant global challenges such as energy and the environment and global health.

Wertsch also expanded the McDonnell Scholars program, which pairs international students from partner universities with WashU faculty mentors to study on campus. The program has grown to 98 alums since its first graduate in 2007.

Dirks indicated there may be opportunities for the McDonnell Academy and Bauer Center to collaborate on their work.

“The McDonnell Scholars program helps international students become leaders in their own areas — law, science, business,” Dirks said. “We want to look at whether there are ways the Bauer Leadership Center can add onto that.”




Zhenyu Liao workplace humor and rage by bosses.
Zhenyu Liao

Zhenyu Liao

You might expect that a boss who cracks jokes is healthy for the workplace, while a boss who blows his stack isn’t. As it turns out, the opposite might be true—depending on the circumstances.

The conclusions come from two new research papers by overlapping research teams including Zhenyu Liao, an Olin Business School post-doctoral faculty member in organizational behavior.

In one paper, Liao and his colleagues examined the benefits of a sense of humor among corporate leaders and concluded that a jokester in the big chair can be a mixed blessing.

Yes, humor can motivate and engage employees; plenty of research says so. But Liao and his colleagues found that in some cases, the boss’s humor can create a climate ripe for rule-breakers.

On the other side of the coin, the second research paper examined what happens after a boss blows up in front of her subordinates. The short answer: Most try to make nice later on. “The leaders often use a more indirect way of expressing their apology,” Liao said.

Breaking You Up Means Breaking the Rules

In their paper on boss humor in the workplace, Liao and his colleagues pose a question: “What do dinosaurs and decent lawyers have in common?” It’s the only joke they offer in their paper, “The Mixed Blessing of Leader Sense of Humor: Examining Costs and Benefits,” published in the Academy of Management Journal.

The punchline: “They’re both extinct.” The joke illustrates a psychological framework for humor known as “benign violation theory”—a framework the researchers apply to the workplace for the first time.

As the theory goes, certain types of humor require a “violation of norms” (Ha! All good lawyers are dead!). Second, the violation must be “benign” (nobody really thinks all good lawyers are dead). Third, the violation and its “benign nature” occur together.

But a leader who issues a steady drumbeat of “benign violations” through his humor can inadvertently communicate to subordinates that other violations are acceptable—swiping office supplies, insulting coworkers, even violating nondisclosure agreements or fudging on financial reports.

“You’re sending out signals implicitly telling your employees it’s OK to violate some norms,” Liao said. What’s worse: Bosses who use “aggressive humor”—put-downs, insults, and sarcasm—exacerbate the bad and undermine the benefits of office humor.

The researchers drew the conclusions from a series of surveys, first on more than 200 MBA students in China, then on 200 US workers mostly in banking, sales, and engineering. Liao began his work on the paper as a PhD student with lead author Kai Chi Yam at National University of Singapore. Researchers at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wuhan University and Singapore Management University also contributed.

“We’re not trying to say leaders should not engage in humor,” Liao said. “They should be more mindful about their humor. Your role, your status—all your actions—will send out very strong signals about what behaviors are acceptable.”

Cleansing the Air After an Angry Outburst

Liao’s research into the results of a boss’s angry outbursts grew from his own experience with bosses who embarrassed or belittled him publicly, only to privately circle back as a more nurturing workplace partner.

“Cleansing My Abuse: A Reparative Response Model of Perpetrating Abusive Supervisor Behavior,” accepted by and soon-to-be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, also relied on the results of a pair of surveys reaching a total of 99 leaders and 140 subordinates. Over a period of time, workers gauged their experience either receiving or doling out abusive behavior—and what behavior followed the abuse.

The authors concluded that “morally attentive” leaders who have high “moral courage” try to “cleanse” their guilt by later offering offended subordinates interesting work assignments, career-building advice, more personal attention, or more work resources.

“When you realize you are engaging in this kind of behavior, maybe you realize you shouldn’t,” Liao said. “You may feel like you want to engage in some sort of cleansing behavior.”

He noted that this isn’t about a boss’s leadership style. Instead, it’s about a specific type of behavior on a particular day. Maybe the boss was just having a bad day.

“We highlight that seemingly incompatible leadership behaviors can exist within the same leaders, shedding light on paradoxical leadership patterns,” the researchers wrote.


In a world of Skype meetings, virtual offices, and conversations over collaboration tools such as Slack, is it time to consider moving back to real-world brainstorming around a white board—with an in-house cartoonist to help?

That’s the philosophy of Filament, a downtown St. Louis collaboration space profile recently by HEC-TV, the independent educational channel, as part of its “Innovations” series. In a piece entitled “Meetings Go Back to the Future,” the network highlights the founder of Filament Matt Homann, whose business model is based on the philosophy that “corporate meetings suck.”

HEC interviewed Andrew Knight, associate professor of organizational behavior, for a researcher’s perspective on Filament, which “designs, hosts, and facilitates amazing meetings, conferences, retreats” for corporate clients—complete with plenty of board games on the shelves, Play-Doh on the tables, a giant white board, and a on-staff cartoonist to graphically represent ideas.

“This is an interesting cycle that we see in many businesses that today are actually moving back to bringing folks in house, drifting away from maybe an emphasis on virtual work,” Knight says in the video. “We’ve now had a period of time where maybe we can see some of the challenges that that’s brought.”

Watch more in the attached video.




It’s possible the Keebler Elves aren’t as happy at work as they seem. At the same time, SpongeBob SquarePants’ dour colleague Squidward might be a little cheerier than he lets on.

New research from Olin Professor Andrew Knight shows that people working in customer-facing companies, like retailers (or cartoon burger joints), tend to be happier at work. Meanwhile, workers for companies further removed from direct customer interaction—manufacturing companies, for example (or treehouse cookie factories)—tend to be less happy.

But the research goes even further by showing that the phenomenon is not limited to individuals who work directly with customers. It affects everyone at the company—depending on whether the company itself deals more directly with end consumers.

“The accountants who work in a grocery store company would be happier than the ones who work at General Mills,” Knight said. “We’re trying to make the point that it’s broader than the people who are directly engaged with customers.”

The cost of miserable workers

Knight’s research gauges employee happiness in terms of “workforce strain,” including sick time, absenteeism, and job burnout—issues that significantly affect productivity.

“Workforce strain is extremely expensive,” said Knight, professor of organizational behavior at Olin. How expensive? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that productivity losses to absenteeism cost US employers nearly $1,700 for every worker, totaling $226 billion a year.

“There’s also the human, goodness-of-life component,” Knight said. “If people are sick and don’t want to come into work, that’s not a good outcome.”

The paper, published in February by the Academy of Management Journal, relied on more than 24,000 survey responses by employees, leaders, and human resources workers at 161 small- and medium-sized firms in Germany. Different groups of workers filled out surveys measuring how positively or negatively they viewed their work; how openly they could express emotion on the job; their level of emotional exhaustion; and how rigorously the company regulated or centralized their work.

The research—conducted with colleagues from Germany’s WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management and Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen—also measured the degree to which companies value “emotion-focused personnel practices.” The study found that organizations that tend to value outward expressions of emotions—again, those that are more customer-facing—tended to have happier workers.

“In manufacturing, for example, there’s a thought that emotions impede work, standing in the way of making good decisions,” Knight said. “There’s an assumption that emotions should be kept out.”

Easier to decide how to feel

The paper suggests, however, that “neutralizing” emotions on the job may be more emotionally taxing at work than making a conscious decision to mask your emotions when, for example, a customer is particularly difficult to work with. Workers can commiserate in a back room after an unpleasant encounter, which ultimately contributes to a more positive “affective tone” in the workplace.

The results perhaps upend conventional wisdom suggesting that dealing directly with customers—who, as we know, are always right—might be aggravating and emotionally taxing as workers grit their teeth through difficult interactions.

“For every customer who is a pain in the neck, there’s probably a customer who is a true delight,” Knight said. “That is a part of people-centric work that maybe doesn’t exist in some of these other worlds—like manufacturing.”

Knight and his fellow researchers acknowledged that their paper represents only a snapshot in time, in a specific geography. Additional research into this area might look at these issues over time and in other parts of the world, as well as in much larger or much smaller organizations.

Another dimension the research does not consider is the financial performance of the firms that were studied.

“What if emotion is linked to a lower error rate and more efficiency?” Knight said. “You can’t pull one component of an organization and change it; you have to think about the whole logic of the system and how the pieces fit together.”


Imagine you and your significant other finally carved out some time for a vacation getaway. You did your research—booked flights, picked a few promising restaurants, dug up your favorite fanny pack—and now it’s time to find a place to stay.

You’ve heard a lot about Airbnb, so you decide to give it a try. After some deliberation, you’ve both agreed on a place within walking distance of all the local attractions, so you send a request to the owner.

But after a couple hours, you get a message from Airbnb saying that your request has been denied without explanation. For a significant number of Airbnb users, this scenario is all too real.

Dennis Zhang

Dennis Zhang

In the Boeing Center for Supply Chain Innovation’s latest video, Dennis Zhang, Olin assistant professor of operations and manufacturing management, discusses the topic of racial discrimination on peer-to-peer platforms.

According to Zhang, Airbnb requests made by accounts with distinctly African American names were 19 percent less likely to be accepted compared to other accounts. However, if those accounts have additional review data (i.e., at least one positive or negative review), all accounts are equally likely to be accepted.

Zhang believes that people require a bit more information to nudge them in a non-discriminatory direction. He thinks that if Airbnb offered more information within the platform, it would reduce the likelihood of discrimination by those looking to rent out their space.

Zhang goes on to mention that platforms conducting business via peer-to-peer transactions face a higher likelihood of discrimination. He says that discovering how discrimination happens on those platforms is a critical step to ensuring equal consumer treatment. Zhang’s research emphasizes the importance of information, and hopes it will be effective in the fight against discrimination.

[RELATED: Airbnb nondiscrimination policy may backfire]


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