Managing to Progress

Kevin Lewis

March 28, 2023

The trouble with talent: Semantic ambiguity in the workplace
Daniel Southwick et al.
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, January 2023 


Over the last 20 years, "talent management" has become an increasingly popular descriptor of activities previously referred to as "human resources." Across five studies (total N = 9,966), we investigate this terminological shift and its organizational consequences. We find that contemporary human resource professionals prefer "talent management" to prior terminology, deeming it more optimistic and motivating. Nevertheless, "talent" is semantically ambiguous. Lay definitions of talent vary in the degree to which it is defined as innate versus learned, and these definitions correspond to differences in growth versus fixed mindsets. By contrast, "skill" -- a common synonym for "talent" -- more unambiguously signals that ability can change. In decision making scenarios, we found that replacing the word "talent" with "skill" more uniformly evokes a growth mindset about ability, which in turn leads to more optimistic attitudes about persistence after failure and an inclination to direct organizational resources toward employee development. Collectively, these findings show that synonyms for ability differ in the mindsets they evoke and illuminate the trouble with talent terminology in the workplace.

Legitimating Illegitimate Practices: How Data Analysts Compromised Their Standards to Promote Quantification
Ryan Stice-Lusvardi, Pamela Hinds & Melissa Valentine
Organization Science, forthcoming 


Prior studies that examine how new expertise becomes integrated into organizations have shown that different occupations work to legitimate their new expertise to develop credibility and deference from other organizational groups. In this study, we similarly examine the work that an expert occupation did to legitimate their expertise; however, in this case, they were legitimating practices that they actually considered illegitimate. We report findings from our 20-month ethnography of data analysts at a financial technology company to explain this process. We show that the company had structured data analytics in ways similar to Bechky's idea of a captive occupation: They were dependent on their collaborators' cooperation to demonstrate the value of data analytics and accomplish their work. The data analysts constantly encountered or were asked to provide what they deemed to be illegitimate data analysis practices such as hacking, peeking, and poor experimental design. In response, they sometimes resisted but more often reconciled themselves to the requests. Notably, they also explicitly lowered their stated standards and then worked to legitimate those now illegitimate versions of their expert practices through standardization, technology platforms, and evangelizing. Our findings articulate the relationship between captive occupations and conditions wherein experts work to legitimate what they consider illegitimate practices.

Signals of Virtue and When they Backfire: How Honesty Badges Provide Cover for Dishonesty
Stephanie Permut, Silvia Saccardo & Gretchen Chapman
Carnegie Mellon University Working Paper, February 2023 


Organizations have begun using publicly-visible badges to promote ethical behaviors, such as workers' contributions to colleagues' projects and scientists' engagement in transparent research practices. Across six experimental online studies, we evaluate whether badges incentivize ethical behavior as proposed (N = 2047). Our results indicate that, in some instances, badges' signaling value undermines their ability to promote honesty. When it is possible to earn an honesty badge while still engaging in dishonest behavior, badges backfire by providing cover to dishonest individuals. Under "opaque badges," workers will do only what is needed to earn a badge and behave more dishonestly than they would when no badge is available. Moreover, opaque badges make workers appear more honest to observers, leading them to down-weight worker behavior that would otherwise arouse suspicion. We show that removing badges' ability to provide cover -- by clarifying what workers did to earn them -- can attenuate these effects.

Candidate Selection in Business Units: Be the Best or Surround Yourself with the Best?
Jeremy Lill, Michael Majerczyk & Ivo Tafkov
University of Kansas Working Paper, December 2022 


This study investigates, via an experiment, how the centralization of a firm's candidate selection process and ambiguity about candidates affects the caliber of employees selected to join a business unit in a team-based environment. We find that, when ambiguity is present, incumbent employees' concerns over protecting or advancing their status leads to lower quality candidates selected under a decentralized than under a centralized selection process. We also find that reducing ambiguity by providing a more complete information set of non-conflicting signals leads to better selection decisions regardless of whether selection is centralized or decentralized. Importantly, our results also show that the quality of the selected candidate remains lower under a decentralized versus centralized selection process even when a more complete set of consistent candidate-specific information is provided, suggesting that status considerations continue to influence employee selection decisions in organizations even when candidate-specific ambiguity is minimal. Overall, our results indicate that the information environment and non-pecuniary status considerations can significantly influence candidate selection decisions in organizations.

Unexpected Interruptions, Idle Time, and Creativity: Evidence from a Natural Experiment
Tim Schweisfurth & Anne Greul
Organization Science, forthcoming 


Interruptions are common in organizational life and last from seconds and minutes to hours and days. We rely on a quantitative abductive strategy to determine how extended work interruptions shape employees' creativity. We start by studying how surprising interruptions that cause idle time affect employees' creative performance. We do so by exploiting a natural experiment -- a supply chain shortage that caused unexpected stops in production plants -- to show that individuals exposed to such an interruption produce 58% more ideas than uninterrupted employees in the three weeks after the interruption. We corroborate this effect in a replication and extend it to idea quality. Investigating the effect's causes, we then show that we do not find the same effects for two other interruption types: for unexpected interruptions without idle time (i.e., intrusions), we find a negative effect on creative performance because employees forcefully disengage from their work and switch their attention to the interrupting task. For expected interruptions with idle time (i.e., planned breaks), we also find no positive effect on creative performance because employees discretionally disengage from work and focus on nonwork and leisure goals. We consider and evaluate three different theoretical explanations for our findings: attention residue, cognitive stimulation, and recovery. We end our abductive process by putting attention residue forward as the most likely explanation. Finally, we suggest three propositions based on our findings and discuss our contributions to the literature on interruptions and creativity in organizations.

Experimental Evidence on the Productivity Effects of Generative Artificial Intelligence
Shakked Noy & Whitney Zhang
MIT Working Paper, March 2023 


We examine the productivity effects of a generative artificial intelligence technology -- the assistive chatbot ChatGPT -- in the context of mid-level professional writing tasks. In a preregistered online experiment, we assign occupation-specific, incentivized writing tasks to 444 college-educated professionals, and randomly expose half of them to ChatGPT. Our results show that ChatGPT substantially raises average productivity: time taken decreases by 0.8 SDs and output quality rises by 0.4 SDs. Inequality between workers decreases, as ChatGPT compresses the productivity distribution by benefiting low-ability workers more. ChatGPT mostly substitutes for worker effort rather than complementing worker skills, and restructures tasks towards idea-generation and editing and away from rough-drafting. Exposure to ChatGPT increases job satisfaction and self-efficacy and heightens both concern and excitement about automation technologies.

Loyal workers are selectively and ironically targeted for exploitation
Matthew Stanley, Christopher Neck & Christopher Neck
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, forthcoming 


Loyalty is often touted as a moral principle, or virtue, worth exemplifying in social and business relations. But is it always beneficial to be loyal? We investigate possible negative consequences of being a loyal employee in the workplace. Instead of protecting or rewarding them, loyal employees are selectively and ironically targeted by managers for exploitative practices (Studies 1-2). The targeting of these loyal workers is mediated by the assumption that loyal individuals are readily willing to make personal sacrifices for the objects of their loyalty (Study 1). We then find evidence for the reverse causal pathway: workers who agree (versus refuse) to be exploited in the workplace acquire stronger reputations for loyalty (Studies 3 and 4). These bidirectional causal links between loyalty and exploitation have the potential to create a vicious circle of suffering. We discuss the implications of these results for obtaining a reputation for loyalty.

Experimentation and appropriability in early-stage ventures: Evidence from the US software industry
Andrea Contigiani
Strategic Management Journal, forthcoming 


This study examines the tension between learning and appropriability that arises as early-stage ventures experiment in the market. When formal intellectual property protection is weak, the learning benefits of experimentation may be offset by the imitation risks. I test this argument on a hand-collected dataset of 1,203 US-based software ventures, using the software release life cycle terminology to measure experimentation and the 2014 US Supreme Court decision Alice Corp v CLS Bank International as a negative shock to patent protection. Following this ruling, treated ventures are less likely to engage in experimentation. This pattern is stronger for ventures facing low uncertainty or strong competition. Overall, the evidence suggests that ventures perceive the tension between learning and appropriability and adjust their strategy accordingly.

Ignorance is Bliss: The Screening Effect of (Noisy) Information
Felix Zhiyu Feng et al.
Indiana University Working Paper, February 2023 


This paper studies how the firm designs its internal information system when facing an adverse selection problem arising from unobservable managerial abilities. While more precise information allows the firm to make ex-post more efficient investment decisions, noisier information has an ex-ante screening effect that allows the firm to attract on-average better managers. The tradeoff between more effective screening of managers and more informed investment implies a non-monotonic relationship between firm value and information quality, and a marginal improvement of information quality does not necessarily lead to an overall improvement of firm value.

Celebrate Good Times: How Celebrations Increase Perceived Social Support
Danielle Brick et al.
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, April 2023, Pages 115-132 


Despite the ubiquity of celebrations in everyday life, little is known about how celebrations may contribute to consumer well-being. In the current work, the authors propose that celebrations promote perceived social support, which prior work has conceptualized as the belief that others will be there for you for future negative life events. The authors further theorize that celebrations require three key characteristics that, in combination, are necessary for increasing perceived social support. Specifically, celebrations must (1) mark an individual's separate positive event and (2) involve consumption (3) with others (i.e., social). They test this theory across eight studies and demonstrate a process mechanism for this effect: these characteristics lead to increases in enacted support and perceived responsiveness, which in turn lead to increases in more general perceived social support. They then extend these findings by investigating virtually held celebrations, the individual's role at the celebration, and a downstream prosocial outcome. By doing so, this work highlights the broader benefits of celebrations beyond the focal individual and the immediate experience. Finally, specific policy implications and suggestions for enhancing consumer well-being are provided.


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