Tag: Faculty

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]

Chad Ham and his paper on narcissism in CFOs.

Does a CFO with an outsized signature make more questionable choices while keeping the company books? According to Olin professor Chad Ham, the answer is yes.

Researchers connected the dots between the size of a CFO’s signature, the CFO’s level of narcissism, and the quality of their firm’s financial reporting in a recently published paper in the Journal of Accounting Research.

The authors’ research showed a link between large signatures and higher levels of narcissism. From there, they showed that “narcissistic CFOs are less likely to recognize losses in a timely manner…consistent with a willingness to cover up past mistakes.”

That paper, published in December, was part of a one-two punch Ham and his collaborators delivered linking management results from both CFOs and CEOs with their level of narcissism. A second paper focused on CEOs has been accepted for publication in the Review of Accounting Studies.

Unique approach to measuring personality

“Part of what’s unique about our research is how we’re capturing narcissism,” said Ham, an assistant professor of accounting at Olin. Because, of course, they couldn’t ask top corporate executives to submit to a personality test, signature size became a proxy for their level of self-love.

Ham, along with researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Maryland, College Park, staged a laboratory experiment to confirm previous research linking signature size and narcissism.

The researchers paired student volunteers and asked them to allocate $5 between themselves and their anonymous partners. Each was given a default allocation of $2.50. The students could stay with the default amount or decide to keep a larger or smaller amount for themselves—knowing that their anonymous partner was given the same task. After that assignment, the students had to fill out a personality test and sign their names.

The results confirmed that the students with larger signatures tended to be more narcissistic and, Ham said, “the more narcissistic participants were more likely to keep a larger share of that $5 endowment for themselves—to misreport their default allocation.”

The researchers then expanded their view with a field experiment reviewing data from more than 500 companies whose CFOs’ notarized signatures could be found on public SEC documents.

“We were able to show a relationship between CFO narcissism and aggressive financial reporting choices,” Ham said. The errors or misreporting took the form of overly aggressive accrual choices; a higher-than-expected level of restatements; and real activities (such as slashing advertising expenses near the end of a year to depress expenses and increase earnings).

Confirming results

Ham and the research team also compared the performance of the companies before and after the CFO was appointed. In the case of the narcissistic CFOs, Ham said, “the firms became more aggressive when these CFOs were appointed.”

The researchers found much the same pattern in the CEO study due for publication in the Review of Accounting Studies. Though not directly responsible for the financial reporting in the company, the paper shows that narcissistic CEOs—those with larger signatures—tended to over-invest in riskier projects and received higher compensation in spite of poorer financial performance.

So, should corporate boards just steer clear of CEOs and CFOs who sign their John Hancock like…well, John Hancock?

Ham says no. It’s not that simple.

“The purpose of our work isn’t to advocate for signature size as a measure of narcissism. It’s to study how executive narcissism affects firm behavior.”

A narcissistic CFO might benefit the company in other ways—ways that aren’t measured in this study.

At most, he said, corporate leaders should be aware of their C-suite occupants’ narcissistic tendencies and “you might want to make sure you have appropriate checks and balances in place.”

“If you want to glean anything from signature size,” Ham said, “you need to have a large sample. It’s an ‘on-average’ effect.”

Pictured above: Chad Ham with two sample signatures his research paper referenced from SEC documents, showing the relative different sizes in the signatures.

Ashley Hardin

Originally from Michigan, Ashley Hardin, assistant professor of organizational behavior, earned her undergraduate degree in business from Michigan’s Ross School of Business and later worked in strategy consulting. However, after consulting and observing people at work up close, she realized she wanted to pursue her passion: Understanding how people relate in the workplace.

She returned to Ross for her doctorate and is now dedicated to understanding why people treat one another well, with responsiveness, or treat each other in an undermining fashion.

“When I was deciding where I wanted to join as a faculty member, it was really important for me to find a strong community, since I study the importance of relationships at work,” Hardin said. “I wanted to go somewhere where there were great relationships and I could form those bonds.”

Area of Expertise:

Organizational Behavior, Team Development, Negotiation

Research Interests:

Relationships, Affect, Work-Life Boundaries, Unethical Behavior

Selected Publications:

  • “Cooperation in multicultural negotiations: How the cultures of people with low and high power interact”,Journal of Applied Psychology, Issue 5, 721-730, with S. Kopelman, C. Myers, L. Tost, 2016
  • “Respect as an engine for new ideas: Linking respectful engagement, relational information processing, and creativity among employees and teams”Human Relations, Issue 6, 1021-1047, with A. Carmeli, J. Dutton, 2015
  • “Compassion and work organizations”Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, Issue 1, 277-304, with J. Dutton, K. Workman, 2014

Ling Dong and Durai Sundaramoorthi smile as Dick Mahoney announces that they won the 2018 Olin Award with Dean Mark Taylor.

Ling Dong and Durai Sundaramoorthi have won the 2018 Olin Award for research that creates a framework that can help farmers select the proper seed varieties to maximize their crop yields from one season to the next.

The Olin Award, which includes business school recognition and a $10,000 prize, is intended to promote scholarly research that has timely practical applications for complex management problems.

“Soybean farmers are subjected to dozens and dozens of seed varieties,” said Richard J. Mahoney, former CEO of Monsanto and a Distinguished Executive-in-Residence at Olin, who initiated the $10,000 prize. “If you knew you’d have perfect weather, certain varieties would work better than others. A bad guess can be quite punishing.”

Dong, professor of operations and manufacturing management, and Sundaramoorthi, senior lecturer in management, received notice that they had received this year’s award, competing against a score of other papers and finalists, during a brief ceremony in Dean Mark Taylor’s office on Monday.

“Improving crop yield is a critical and necessary component of achieving food security and protecting natural resources and environmental quality for future generations,” Dong and Sundaramoorthi wrote in their award-winning paper, entitled, “Machine Learning Based Simulation and Optimization of Soybean Variety Selection.”

“We formulate a simulation-based optimization problem to determine the optimal soybean-mix to minimize the risk associated with the yield…to make soybean-mix recommendations to the farmers.”

A panel of judges evaluates each paper submitted for consideration for the Olin Award. After reviewing the entries, one judge wrote, “It is directly applicable to business results and is something that every farmer that raises soybeans can benefit from regardless of their size—scale independent.”

Wrote another: “Within the narrow application this would seem to have great potential to produce meaningful benefits.”

The research pair will be formally recognized at a luncheon yet to be scheduled, where they will have the opportunity to present their research.

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