Tag: organizational behavior

Here’s one way to look at how and when baseball pitchers throw at opposing batters after one of their own gets plunked: corporate conflict resolution.

That’s part of the research findings by three business scientists — two at WashU Olin and one at China’s Fudan University — who, true to the 21st-century fabric of Major League Baseball, pored over 20 seasons of statistics to reach some intriguing data and conclusions with implications off the field and in the office. 

For one thing, these baseball retaliations mostly arise in the fifth and sixth innings. But let’s not get ahead of the game within the game.

At the heart of their study is how “negative reciprocity” leads to “destructive sequences of reprisal.” It translates into organizational behavior and, more pointedly, to workplace environment under the categories of conflict, cohesion and relationships — healthy or not.


As the co-authors write in the study, “Our findings yield insights about the origin and evolution of intergroup conflicts with implications for theories of conflict and for organizational practice.” The study, titled “Relational Aspects of Vicarious Retribution: Evidence from Professional Baseball,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Ethnography and experiments have given us a lot of insight about the biology and psychology of reciprocity, including how it often generates profitable trusting partnerships but can sometimes degenerate into prolonged, highly destructive conflicts,” said Bill Bottom, the Joyce and Howard Wood Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Olin Business School.


Bottom, who is also Olin’s associate dean for undergraduate programs, was joined in the study by Tat Chan, professor of marketing at Olin, and Xing Zhang of Fudan University. 

“Major League Baseball provided us with a unique opportunity to study conflict escalation among highly paid professionals where the record-keeping is detailed and highly reliable,” Bottom added. “Because the game is now a global one, we could also examine the effects of diversity.”

“Major League Baseball provided us with a unique opportunity to study conflict escalation among highly paid professionals where the record-keeping is detailed and highly reliable.”

Bill Bottom

Certainly, businesses make punitive decisions within the workplace, via intergroup conflict, or they take malicious actions against other firms — sometimes at their own peril. The co-authors also make an allusion to similar acts of aggression in everyday life, such as the hate-mongering and name-calling that precipitated anti-Asian verbal and physical attacks on American soil in 2021. That’s an embodiment of the vicarious retribution seen on a baseball field when a teammate feels his side has been wronged and the pitcher throws at an opposing batter.  

The co-authors sought a simple, old-fashioned American backdrop: what they labeled the “empirical setting” of regular-season baseball. In fact, their paper cites and quotes Hall of Fame pitchers Pedro Martinez and the late St. Louis Cardinals great Bob Gibson, against whom opposing batters stood at the plate bearing consistent respect and, when tensions or situations came up, occasional fear.

“Vicarious retribution where third parties start getting involved is especially prone to destructive escalation, so this was a setting where we could study it over time under controlled settings where the rules are firmly established and enforced,” Bottom said. “Because the profession is now truly global, we can also examine the effects of culture and diversity on aggression, reciprocity and escalation.”

They thought by examining these occurrences and interrelationships, they could predict when a conflict might likely begin, which individuals are prime suspects for acts of retribution and then identify likely targets.

True, accidents happen in a modern baseball world of staffs of 12-plus pitchers and minor leaguers constantly called up to pitch in the majors. A younger pitcher misfires once amid the nearly 300 pitches per game and the ball glances off or strikes a batter inadvertently. In statistics-mad baseball, however, it’s possible to find clean data about intentionally struck batters. And they aren’t the first scientists to probe baseball thusly; they cited studies going back 30 years or more involving the social strata and bellicosity in baseball.

‘Punitive aggression’

Whether it’s by accident or on purpose, it’s recorded in the scorebook the same: hit by pitch (HBP). Bottom, Chan and Zhang studied two decades of “punitive aggression” in the majors, from 1991 to 2010. They broke down the pitcher and batter relationship: each to their own team, prior teammates or rivals, etc. Then they input the data into their computational model for retribution dynamics. For statistic-mad baseball types, that worked out to be 42,241 games, 2.5 million at-bats and 20,000 HBPs. Moreover, to test their hypotheses, they identified “113,461 unique pairs of a particular pitcher and a teammate who had previously been hit during a game as well as 479,955 unique pairs of a pitcher with an opposing batter.”

What they found will surprise nary an avid baseball fanatic. Once a second pitcher retaliates by plunking a batter from the team that first hit their teammate with a pitch, the incident is perceived as “legitimate justification” and the conflict subsides. Game-within-a-game over. Nobody else gets plunked.

Some other findings: 

  • The initial HBP occurs most commonly in the fifth inning, around the game’s 42nd at-bat.
  • The retaliatory HBP comes in the sixth inning, around the 54th at-bat.
  • A pitcher is more likely to retaliate on behalf of a teammate if both he and his plunked teammate come from a country other than the U.S. (However, foreign-born pitchers — probably due to empathy for each other’s “outsider” status — are less likely to plunk a fellow foreign-born player.)
  • A pitcher is more likely to target a fellow former collegian for reprisal. (Rivals from competing schools, the co-authors wondered? That would underscore the behavioral perception of “out-group” vs. “in-group.”)
  • Winning teams and home teams are more likely to plunk in retaliation. Better paid pitchers are, too.
  • Former teammates are less likely to be involved in a plunking.

That last finding is where a true everyday benefit scratches its place in the batter’s box of the business realm. Businesses often promote or cycle employees through their departments and organizations, building camaraderie and shared experiences. In other words, such moves are team-building and conflict-sturdy.

“Industries characterized by greater professional mobility may prove less susceptible to escalation; the broader scope of personal relationships may dampen motives for vicarious retribution,” the co-authors write.

Bottom concluded: “We found that the more diverse teams performed better and pitchers on those teams were more likely to engage in vicarious retribution on behalf of a teammate. Given prior work on cohesiveness of teams in industry, we expected that greater diversity might limit this kind of retribution but found that wasn’t true. The best teams appear to be adept at managing diversity and the willingness of veteran pitchers to take this kind of action on behalf of a teammate may be one aspect of that.”

So … play business.

Zhang’s work is supported in part by the National Natural Science Foundation of China [Grants Nos. 72072035 and 71832002].

Photo: Benches empty, but no brawl erupts in a 2008 game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds in Busch Stadium. (Shutterstock)

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

Guest post by Steve Friedman, chief strategist and principal at CPG Agency, and Fred Bendaña, vice president of sales at Express Scripts.

“The employer generally gets the employee he deserves.”

–J. Paul Getty

Getty’s quote cuts right to the heart of why employee engagement is so important. Unless you purposely align your internal and external brand strategies with and through your people, you cannot expect to generate the success that other well-respected, people-centered brands are experiencing.

We view engagement as the critical intersection where passion meets action and where the “employee first” values, beliefs, and attitudes a company intentionally focuses on drives the day-to-day practices of their organization. Engagement occurs when you establish a lasting emotional connection with employees. You accomplish that when employees feel these five basic needs are being met:

  • You genuinely care about me.
  • You appreciate me (and tell me so).
  • You listen to me.
  • We have open communication and mutual trust.
  • We share a meaningful purpose.

Brands that lean into their culture, such as Southwest Airlines, Panera Bread, Ulta Beauty, and Express Scripts, are leveraging creative, experiential strategies to engage their people. This critical step is what transforms employees into brand ambassadors. And that’s how you sustainably grow business.

We understand how impactful “belief through experience” can be. We’ve worked together with each of these aforementioned brands to drive success through live events and internal communications.

On February 9, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., we will join Olin Business School for an all-day seminar to share how to integrate engagement, collaboration, and formal recognition within an organization.

During this interactive workshop, we’ll share how brands such as Southwest Airlines activate high-performing teams and bring their own mission and values to life. When it comes to driving stakeholder engagement, we’ll help identify the different tools and innovative methods that connect a workforce and builds powerful brands.

Limited seats remain, so register for Building a Brand Through Workforce Engagement and discover how to engage and retain the employees your brand deserves.

PLEASE NOTE: This seminar qualifies for one day out of four in the Talent Management & Organizational Development Concentration. Earn a concentration by taking four seminar days in this area within two years, or complete 16 seminar days across four defined concentration areas to earn your Advanced Management Certificate.

A high-performing team is the holy grail of leadership. But how do you build a strong team in practice? The beauty of Olin’s Executive MBA program is the abundance of opportunities to learn, apply, and practice team-building skills.

Executive MBA alumni Eric Willis and Ali Ahmadi, EMBA Academic Director Lee Konczak, and Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior Andrew Knight summarize some of the more salient lessons about team-building from the Executive MBA program and their professional lives:

A Shared Purpose

As part of the Leadership Residency, Lee Konczak, academic director of the Executive MBA Program and senior lecturer on organizational behavior and leadership development, administers a team development survey to measure how well the student teams function.

The assessment is Olin’s way “of defining for EMBA teams what a good team looks like,” Konczak said. “Teams do better when they have shared goals, plan ahead, and communicate. In some cases, it’s obvious when teams aren’t on the same page using this assessment.”

According to Konczak, commitment to a shared purpose and a willingness to plan are the two most important team-building takeaways for executives in the program.

Diversity of Perspectives and Experience

Eric Willis, EMBA 43, was a senior brand manager when he started the EMBA Program. He was promoted to a brand director during the program and is now director of marketing at Nestlé Purina Petcare. For him, the team-building aspect of the Executive MBA Program was an opportunity to practice skills he’d learned at Nestlé with a completely different and diverse group of professionals.

“One of the things I loved most about the EMBA program was that it was such a diverse group of people with different points of view and different backgrounds, all coming together in one place,” Willis said. “On your team, you’ve got to figure out how to leverage everyone’s strengths to achieve a common goal.”

At Nestlé Purina, Willis regularly brings groups of disparate team members together, including finance and product development participants, to agree on mission and vision. Some of the challenges include developing trust, addressing different sets of values, and communication.

“To me, building a strong team means getting diversity of thought. It means respecting people’s different points of view,” he said. “When I think of building a strong team, I think of empowering people to make decisions, and I think of leveraging what everybody brings to the table and trying to find a way to use everybody’s different perspectives to reach a common goal.”

An Environment of Trust and Respect

Entrepreneurship is an area in which building strong teams—and building them early—is critical. As an EMBA student, Ali Ahmadi, EMBA 44, leapt fully into entrepenreurship, co-founding drone 3D software startup “Strayos” (formerly AirZaar), with a fellow student. He knows firsthand how important it is that teams work well when the stakes are high and the rewards are not guaranteed.

“Early stage founders often don’t realize that the idea or product is not the only factor motivating the talent; it’s also the willingness to follow their leader into an environment where the odds are stacked against them in succeeding,” he says. “When you build a team that trusts and respects you as a leader, they will go through a wall of fire to reach the common goal but if the trust and respect are neglected, then very little can be done to salvage it,” he says.

Be Open to Feedback

Andrew Knight, associate professor of organizational behavior at Olin, finds that one of the biggest roadblocks for entrepreneurs is cultivating and developing a sense of shared ownership—“not in an equity sense,” Knight said, “but in terms of the feeling of ownership that the team members have over the venture. There is kind of an asymmetry in people’s investment in the project at the outset.”

Knight suggests leaders invite input from those joining the team, while at the same time creating boundaries: “Encourage new team members to make contributions and suggest changes to the venture, but pair that with clearly communicating where the entrepreneur is less willing to make changes.”

This clarity—inviting input within a mutually understood structure—“applies in almost any creative team where there is a need to get people feeling ownership—especially implementation and innovation,” Knight said.

The importance of this delicate balance is supported by recent research by Knight and Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior Markus Baer, who identified three behaviors of successful lead entrepeneurs in the earliest stages of a venture.

The below post originally appeared on The Source.

It all started with Sanskrit.

About to go to Harvard as a physics major, Hillary ­Anger ­Elfenbein read a book that had been translated from Sanskrit—by someone humble enough to admit, in the introduction, that Sanskrit was essentially untranslatable.

She then wanted to read it in the original.

She added a major in Sanskrit, reasoning that a liberal arts degree had more to do with critical thinking than career prep. Her study of that language’s orderly universe left her fascinated by Indian culture, which eventually led her to volunteer with a women’s rights group in Calcutta and a health organization in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Which was great, except that in the early weeks, she kept feeling as if people were yelling at her.

“I was constantly convinced that certain ­colleagues were angry,” she says, “because I was misjudging the meaning of intensity.” Luckily, she was primed to notice. By the time she went to India, she had worked at Monitor Company, a management consulting firm. There, she’d ­noticed how much time and effort people put into ­decoding each other’s emotions. They ­scrutinized their boss’s facial ­expressions for feedback; they worked to detect sarcasm or subtext in their colleagues’ offhand comments; they tried, like kids playing jump rope, to figure out when it was their turn to speak. “The psychological ­dynamics in the workplace were much greater ­predictors of the ­success of a project,” Elfenbein says she realized, “than the quality of the analysis.”

For example, Elfenbein’s consulting firm once was assisting a company with divesting a ­business unit and creating decision-support tools to examine the impact of various scenarios. “It was stressful for the company that this business unit was failing,” Elfenbein says, “and the team leader spent a lot of time calming the client before the ­client could sit down to the tools we were painstakingly developing.”

Intrigued by the slipperiness of our emotional language, she returned to Harvard to study for a doctorate in organizational behavior. (She also earned a master’s degree in statistics and completed the course work for the MBA.) Now, as the John Wallace Jr. and Ellen Wallace Distinguished ­Professor at Olin Business School, Elfenbein studies the emotional currents and riptides of interpersonal communication. She’s shared her findings with Congress, high-powered executives, and students. ­

Applications—and implications—crop up in ­every arena of human life. But Elfenbein has a single, overarching goal: fathoming the sense we make of other people’s feelings. When do we recognize them accurately? What subtle ­nuances do we miss? How, especially, do we decode emotion from facial expressions, tones of voice, and body language?

Prof. Hillary Anger Elfenbein with students.

Her students are fascinated by these ­questions—and grateful for the clarity and ­emotional support she offers as they explore. “As a mentor, she blends expert technical ­guidance with compassion and understanding,” says doctoral candidate Elizabeth Luckman. “This makes her not only a great teacher but also a good friend, always willing to take the time to help you wrestle with complex ideas.”

Elfenbein’s been wrestling herself with complex ideas for some time. She’s already published more than 60 scholarly articles spanning psychology, business and medicine. And her work has about 3,000 citations in the Web of Science, an online subscription-based scientific citation indexing service. She could coast for a bit. Instead, “she continues to strive to improve so that she can be influential and relevant,” Luckman says.

Elfenbein gathers some of her data in India and Kenya, because she’s acutely aware of how skewed our understandings are. Until recently, the existing research all had focused on what are called the WEIRD countries—Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. We have no idea, yet, how much of what’s been learned is universal.

But her work is pointing out how often it’s not.

“She’s done some truly pathbreaking work in ­perception of emotions,” says William Bottom, the Joyce and Howard Wood Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and chair of the organizational behavior program at Olin. “The ability to understand and perceive how people are reacting to decisions, information, policies, potential deals is really fundamental, and Hillary was able to demonstrate that we have distinct nonverbal ‘dialects.’ These dialects make it far easier for us to perceive and understand local emotions—but this is far more difficult communicating across cultures.” In a global economy, this work “is just incredibly important,” Bottom says. “And she’s extended it to look at how groups function, how deals are made, how negotiations break down.”

Even within the US, there are dramatic differences and misunderstandings. Other researchers had concluded that African-Americans with ­schizophrenia had greater emotional deficits than whites with ­schizophrenia, Elfenbein says. “But my work shows that it’s easier to recognize emotion from one’s own group.” When researchers built on that insight, they found no greater deficits among African-Americans. “They’d just been given a culturally biased test.”

Another kind of bias crops up with power differences: “Men and higher-status individuals are given more room to express anger and contempt,” she notes. “These are emotions of power; they say, ‘I am in a position to judge you.’ When women executives or political leaders express anger, they’re often critiqued. Women expressing anger are seen as irrational.” Sadness, by contrast, “is considered an emotion of low power, and women are ­allowed to be sad whereas men are derided. This myth that ­women are more emotional? Men are ­emotional, too, but there are different emotions they are free to express.”

Emotions have their place

Emotions we aren’t free to express tend to come back again and again. We bury them, and they bubble up somewhere else; we bat them away, and they boomerang. We can’t free ourselves from an emotion by suppressing it; we have to ­manage it. Reappraise, reframe, find the bright side, take the long view. “Talking to a friend is cathartic,” ­Elfenbein says, “and hopefully the friend is helping with reframing.”

Our bodies can help us, too—deep breathing, yoga, mindfulness, the endorphins of a good run, the indulgence of chocolate, the relaxation of a beer after work. “Every strategy that works for somebody can be taken too far,” she adds hastily. “But there’s a reason we call it ‘comfort food’ and have a drink at ‘happy hour.’ Those physiological methods give you a breather from the emotion, so you can regain perspective. It doesn’t seem so bad anymore. You have better resources to cope.”

When business executives turn to Elfenbein for help, they often ask how to manage anger and fear in the workplace “because both of these are thought of as very unproductive.” She’s not prepared to throw any negative emotion away, though: “Even the emotions we may not find pleasant have a ­function in our evolutionary ­history,” she says. “We have needed them.”

The accepted view of emotion is that it’s an alarm system, “directing our attention to something important,” she says. “Anger is about relationship repair: It shows us that there is something going wrong that needs to be addressed. Fear shows us that we are in danger. All emotions have their place.” She grins wryly. “They are often out of place, but they have their place.”

At work, Elfenbein continues, the problem with our emotions is that we’re so often “squashed from doing something about them. Emotions are meant to move us. The word ‘emotion’ itself comes from the Latin root movere. But usually in the workplace, you can’t act on your emotions,” she says. The trick is to find a way around that prohibition—a way to act productively. Fear, for example, is about a lack of control, so take back a little control, she advises. If you’re scared of losing your job, ­polish your résumé.

Another workplace threat is jealous, malicious competitiveness—and it’s extra hard to recognize, because it’s one-sided, and those feeling it take pains to conceal the signs.

“Some nonverbals are leaky,” Elfenbein says. “Research has shown that we tend to be better at controlling facial expressions, next better at tone of voice. Yet it’s much harder to ­control body language, especially posture and hand movements. It’s not that you can’t control these things, but people put less energy into trying to control them. So those are good places to look for leakage.”

When somebody’s silently resentful or scheming against you, though, “the best place to look is third parties,” a trusted co-worker’s take. “And look at what people do, rather than just what they say to you,” Elfenbein says. “Then you can try to neutralize the jealousy, although that’s hard. Sometimes you can try to offer things of value to that person: Do something that will help them succeed; tell them about an ­opportunity; show that you are useful as an ally.”

Oh, and don’t feel bad if it took you a while to even realize that this person was vying with you. In one study, she found that “the people best at seeing hidden messages were the least liked.” They could read the negative emotions—anger and fear and sadness—beneath someone’s tone of voice. “We call them ‘eavesdroppers,’ because they had a ­window into other people that was unwelcome.”

Recognized or not, negative emotions ­clutter our workplaces. The most underrecognized-emotion, ­Elfenbein says, is a positive one: flow, that blessed state when you’re working at your peak on something that has meaning for you, rather than counting the hours and accumulating grudges. “Job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction have ­different sources,” she points out. “Job satisfaction comes from flow and self-actualization. Job dissatisfaction comes from colleagues who weigh you down, a copier that always breaks—minor annoyances that are called hygiene factors.” ­Getting rid of those annoyances isn’t enough, though, because job ­satisfaction is not simply the ­absence of irritation. “Being satisfied is enjoying what you do, being good at it, having a sense of mastery and a sense of ­purpose,” Elfenbein says.

What satisfaction is not, necessarily, is raking in a lot of cash. “Money is a very complicated reward,” Elfenbein says. “It’s as much symbolic as it is about the money itself.” In one study, she asked graduating MBAs about their negotiations for a full-time job: What was the dollar value of everything they negotiated, and how did they feel coming out of the negotiation—as though they’d been treated fairly and built a healthy ­relationship? “A year later, we surveyed their job satisfaction,” she continues. “How they were treated predicted their job satisfaction; the dollar gain did not.” At work, often the best reward a boss can offer is “sincere recognition of a ­person’s humanity,” she says, “sincere appreciation of the things done well.” ­

Executives regularly ask her how to test for ­emotional intelligence—or train it into thei­r employees. “It’s very hard to change emotional tendencies in adults,” she tells them frankly. ­“Consultants want to charge a lot of money to come in and train, but ­research suggests that it’s very hard to move that dial.” Currently, she’s exploring the behavioral genetics of emotional abilities, and, sure enough, the ­preliminary results suggest “that emotional intelligence is, to some degree, genetic.” Granted, ­emotional IQ is also learned—but early on.

Photo: James Byrd

“We train empathy; we even train children how to lie.” Elfenbein remembers explaining to her son, very carefully, the value in telling a “white lie” to show appreciation for, say, an ­unwanted birthday present. “We teach them the right time to lie and how to lie. Also, they spontaneously lie, and we catch them, and that trains them to lie better.”

What we don’t train very well, because we don’t or can’t give kids good feedback, is “self-awareness, emotion recognition, anything that is silent.” As for self-awareness, some of us are so clueless about our own feelings that we’re not even aware of our lack of ­self-awareness.

High-priced consultants can’t plumb those depths. “The bad news is that almost none of what they offer works,” Elfenbein says. “The good news is that the two things that do work are free: motivation and practice. Simply caring about these skills improves them.” In one study by another investigator, Group A was told that a test would predict their leadership abilities. Group B was told nothing about the test. “Guess who did better?” she asks, grinning at the obviousness. “The people who thought the test was important.”

Still, reading emotions is like reading Braille with ­callused fingertips. Sarcasm is an exaggeration that means its opposite, which can create a lot of ­misunderstanding across cultures. “We are a very ­sarcastic ­culture,” Elfenbein says, “and people from other cultures get tripped up by this.” So do people within the culture. How often have you hesitated, ­asking yourself, “Was that sarcastic?”

Another quality that can trip us up is a monotone voice, which we tend to automatically interpret in a negative way. “That’s partly why email is such a ­dangerous form of communication,” she explains. “It can read as a monotone, so it can seem negative.”

Hence, the emoji.

“My understanding is that the original emoticons were invented very quickly,” Elfenbein says, smiling. “We can’t get by without that expressive impulse.”

Jeannette Cooperman is a staff writer for St. Louis Magazine.

(Illustration composite: Monica Duwel)