‘How individuals impact the place – not just how the place impacts the individuals’

Dr Gilad Chen is the Robert H. Smith Chair in Organizational Behavior at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Ingrid Covington asks the questions.

What are you presenting on, and how did you get interested in it?
I’m going to present three projects where the common themes are how individuals impact collectives or units (being in teams or organisations); looking primarily at how individuals make a difference in that environment. There’s a lot of interest in individual outcomes, but I was always fascinated by how individuals impact the place – not just how the place impact the individuals. These projects look at different ways in which individuals come together and are able to impact either organisational units or whole organisations.

I imagine there are lots of applications to understanding the impact individuals can have on groups.
It’s one of those topics that has long had interest, particularly from work organisational psychologists. Back from the First World War into the Second World War, a lot of the history of the application of psychology to organisations started there. But it moved into other organisational settings. We hear a lot in the last decade or two about generational differences; how younger employees getting into the workforce really want to make a meaningful impact.

The three studies that I’ll offer tie into timely topics as well. The first one will touch on how individuals can have different levels of impact in voicing suggestions in teams. It has actually been inspired by some major disasters such as NASA’s Columbia shuttle disaster, where some engineers tried to speak up and express concerns and weren’t heard. We obviously see cases like that in big ethical scandals and other organisations.

The second project will be more about entrepreneurial teams and their formation, but from the more organic versus organisational-driven perspective. So how do a group of co-founders get together? And how do the strategies of finding co-founders impact the collective success of the new venture?

The third is interdisciplinary work that is still ongoing. Some experts in economics and information technology got together with me to apply machine learning principles to look at ways in which employees rated their firm on the jobs website Glassdoor. We’re trying to see whether we can characterise organisations based on engagement, particularly how employees identify or do not identify with their organisation.

We were particularly looking at how the differences based on those reviews before Covid, enabled organisations to adapt better financially during Covid.

What great case studies, the applicability is enormous. The theme of your keynote is interventions at work, integrating science and practice – can you give an example of how your own work does that?
The studies that I’ll talk about have interventions; the first one is in a laboratory setting, in a simulation, the second one is a field intervention. Interventions help us establish causality and add to the basis of knowledge in research. It also makes for a much simpler leap from research to practice when you have an intervention that can guide an organisation in applying the knowledge of work organisational psychology. For example, we had an opportunity to create an intervention to form an entrepreneurial team based on different principles. It’s a fairly simple application that allows us to establish better causal inference. It could be used by mentors of new venture teams, or by investors. We can help train based on that knowledge and make decisions around who to invest in based on team attributes.

That’s interesting – are you seeing demand out there from these different stakeholder groups, like people looking to invest?
We do. We were working with a Centre for Entrepreneurship, in our business school here at the University of Maryland, where we often bring coaches and investors to help train entrepreneurs. We’re not there yet, but we’re engaging in more and more discussion and there’s a lot of interest in learning how to help teams. There’s actually some evidence that showed that investors in new ventures look for the dynamics in the team, not just the idea per se. So they invest just as much in the team as in the ideas. Our research quantifies a little more what is it about the team that they should key into when they make those decisions? I think that the economic engine of many economies in the world are now based on entrepreneurial activities. Understanding what makes a new venture team successful very early on in its lifespan has enormous economic implications.

For sure, I remember seeing Michael Frese deliver a keynote looking at entrepreneurship within developing world nations. How applicable would you say your research is to other cultures and other contexts?
It’s very much so. What is nice about Michael Frese’s work is that he took a lot of research on productivity that has entrepreneurial connectivity and has been done primarily in the Western or developed world, and showed that it can apply very well particularly in small villages, and particularly in women entrepreneurs. Our research is different but it shows that, again, the principle of assembling teams can really apply in making those teams more successful.

You touched on evidence – do you have any unusual evidence-based advice for people applying your work to their personal and/or professional lives?
Yes, I think that the third study is an example: the initial evidence is pretty promising. It suggests that the immediate reaction when an organisation hits a crisis is to economise. And oftentimes, people look at employees as cost. What we show is that actually investing in employees – so that they’re more engaged, more connected to the organisation – is especially critical to the organisation’s success during crisis situations such as Covid.

Much of the research on engagement has been done at the individual level, but we really don’t know whether that actually aggregates upwards to impact organisation success. The evidence we show integrates psychological understanding of identification, and engagement processes to organisational level. The organisations we look at – S&P 500 organisations – are very large and we’re able to quantify the market share of the stock value of companies that were top quartile versus low quartile in our index of engagement. There was quite a large difference in terms of how much market capitalisation they were able to gather as a result of having a more engaged workforce. If nothing else, it shows that it really pays off to invest in engaging employees, all the way to actual stock market performance.

That sounds very impactful. Are you noticing a response from these large companies?
I teach in an executive programme where we have about 40 executives from a variety of industries: government, hospitality, financial and medical sectors. I presented those initial findings to them a couple of weeks back. When you show them the results – ‘here’s how organisations that do a better job engaging their employees perform in the stock market relative to those that do poorly’ – they immediately get it. You change the mindset of executives to think ‘maybe we should really care about the motivation of our employees’.

What would you like to see from other psychologists in terms of changing research or practice in your area, or more broadly?
Our field is literally over a century old: we celebrated that with the 100-year anniversary of the Journal of Applied Psychology a few years back. I think one lesson learned is that the intersection of workforce, society and development of psychological principles has always been what really drives a new development in our field. So I’d like to convey how psychology should keep up from the basic to the applied areas.

This will be the first in-person conference in our field for two years. How do you feel about presenting at a conference in this kind of new normal?
It’s a combination of excitement and fear! I can’t wait to have in-person conferences again. There’s definitely been some innovations in technology that connected people around the world virtually. But some things are just not substitutable: the in-person aspect, the ‘Happy Hour’ when we get to meet people and learn about them. You can’t replicate that in Zoom. I hope that the Covid situation will be bearable so we can do that. Time will tell – I’m hopeful.

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