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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Management professor Laura Graves and student Danielle Sohn are both interested in how the insights gained through the study of psychology can be applied to the field of management.

Meet the researchers: Human problems in organizations

Interview with Professor Laura Graves
Through its Graduate School of Management, Clark offers the M.B.A. degree, as well as an opportunity for undergraduates to major in management. GSOM professor Dr. Laura Graves spoke recently about how she applies her background in psychology to the problems of business management.

You received your Ph.D. in social psychology. How did you move from that into management?

When I was working on my doctoral dissertation, I was very interested in leadership issues, a topic that has been researched traditionally in psychology. But obviously it's very relevant to management as well. Many of the larger issues that organizations face concern leadership and, particularly, the management of people. How can you run an organization that is productive and humane at the same time?

Since the biggest problems in organizations are human problems, an understanding of psychology is critical. For example, many companies are now experiencing mergers. How do you take two huge organizations and put them together? One of the biggest issues is the melding of two cultures--two different sets of people with different values and different ways of doing things.

My interest in human problems in organizations led me to seek out a teaching position in management. Organizational behavior, the field that I teach, really comes out of social psychology and sociology. It's a relatively new field, and its interdisciplinary nature makes for an easy transition from social psychology to teaching organizational behavior in a management school.

What does it mean that Clark has a School of Management, as opposed to a School of Business?

Traditionally, management was taught in a single department within a school of business. Management was considered less important than the numbers stuff--"real" business. Now many universities, of which Clark is one, refer to the entire business program as a school of management rather than a school of business. The idea is that management involves running the organization and encompasses a variety of sub-disciplines. It recognizes that management's role embraces all these other things. So "school of business" is really an outdated term. A shift in outlook has occurred.

When did an understanding of organizational behavior begin to gain in importance?

I really think it goes back to the 1960s, and the changes in society at that time. For years the workplace was very much a hierarchical setting where the emphasis was on top-down command. But over the last 30-40 years, organizations have really changed dramatically and become much less hierarchical. The emphasis now is less on control and command, and more on collaboration, cooperation and doing things by getting people involved. If you can't just order people around, you have to pay more attention to leadership. And so authority can no longer just be concentrated at the top of the organization. It must be shared throughout the organization. You have to convince employees that what you want them to do is something that is worth doing. I think that's why organizational behavior became much more important.

What is the focus of your research?

I examine diversity issues in organizations, particularly relating to gender, race, and disability. I've studied the effect of race and gender in work teams. I've looked at gender effects on employment interviewing and hiring decisions. I'm currently doing some research on bias against overweight job applicants. I guess the bottom line is that I'm very interested in understanding how biases enter into the decisions made in organizations. Whether it's gender bias or race bias or bias against people who are overweight, I'm really interested in understanding the processes that go on in people's heads.

A lot of bias is unintentional. Most people now know better than to engage in intentional acts of discrimination. But we're still victims of the things we've learned growing up, all the stereotypes that we have adopted from the media, our families, our friends. We're carrying them around with us. We may be fighting with those perceptions, but they're in our heads and they do effect how we make decisions about people in organizations. We may exhibit non-verbal behaviors that give us away. We may be saying the right things, but our body language, our eye contact, our failure to shake a person's hand--all those things may give us away. I really find those dynamics fascinating.

Tell us about the book you just published with your husband Gary Powell.

Women and Men in Management looks at the impact of gender in the workplace. How does gender affect interactions in work teams? How does gender affect the employment interview process, not only from the employer's perspective, but also in terms of the job applicant's search process? Do women and men look for different things in their employment setting? (Yes they do!) Those are some of the issues we look at.

Was there anything in particular that surprised you in your research?

I found it really interesting that, despite the fact that there are so many women in the workplace today and that almost half the managers in the US are women, many people, when they think "manager," still think of a male. That's very disturbing, because it means that women who seek or hold managerial jobs may be evaluated less favorably. For example, if there's a promotion decision to be made, there may be a bias that works against women.

Because the mental picture is not of a female in that role, but is of some anonymous male.

Yes. And if it's not a male, it's a vision of a person with "masculine" characteristics. We could distinguish between someone being male or female, and someone presenting masculine or feminine traits. We know that when people think about management, they not only think of a male manager, they also think of stereotypically "masculine" traits. This association disadvantages women, and it also disadvantages men who don't possess what we in the United States perceive as masculine traits, for example, assertiveness. In a U.S. setting, less overtly assertive or dominant males may not be seen as having management potential.

Certainly, when women first started going into the workplace, hoping to get management level positions, they started dressing like men.

They absolutely did. I remember the cute little suits with the little silk ties!

Can you give an example of how you might go about researching one of these issues?

An example would be a study looking at sex-bias in the employment interview. I conducted one such study at the campus placement facility of a university (not Clark). At this university, male and female recruiters from companies interviewed students on campus. Recruiters might interview a dozen students in the course of a day. I asked recruiters to complete surveys concerning their interviews with randomly selected applicants. The survey contained questions about
  • the recruiter's impressions of the applicant and the applicant's qualifications,
  • whether the recruiter would like to work with the applicant,
  • whether the recruiter liked the applicant, and
  • whether the recruiter saw the applicant as similar to him- or herself.
Then I analyzed the data using statistical methods to uncover the factors that drive the final interview decisions.

In this study, I found no evidence of gender bias. Instead, the most powerful factor affecting recruiters' evaluations of applicants' qualifications and employability was whether they viewed themselves as similar to applicants, and whether they liked them as individuals. So it's really interpersonal attraction that's driving the whole decision process. And that's really dangerous, because you end up hiring people who are likeable or who you are comfortable with, but they may not necessarily be the best people for the job. I find that really fascinating.

So the issue, then, is how do you overcome that? First, you need to get people to focus on the qualifications that are needed to do the job. You also need to provide a very structured approach for them to use in evaluating applicants' qualifications. For instance, you might provide interviewers with a list of standard questions that they can use to assess whether applicants possess the qualifications needed for the job. So you really have to standardize and structure the process to get rid of some of that bias. People hire in their own images.

Some of the research I've done has uncovered gender effects. Individuals are often more comfortable interacting with people whose gender matches their own, and employment interviewers are no exception. As a result, interviewers sometimes hire people of the same gender (e.g., a woman interviewer hires a woman). It's really pretty complicated. The actual effects seem to depend on the messages that interviewers get from their own managers. For instance, in the early 1980s, women interviewers actually preferred to hire male applicants over female applicants, perhaps because they felt that their own bosses preferred male applicants. Some more recent data suggest that women interviewers prefer to hire female applicants. I think that the difference in the findings over time was due to a change in the diversity climate of organizations.

Do MBA students get involved in research while they're here?

There are students who are interested in doing that. For example, last year I had a student who looked at differences between organizational practices in China and the U.S. Through her involvement in a local family business, she had gone on a trip to China to tour similar businesses there. She enriched the knowledge that she gained on the trip by conducting scholarly research on the differences between the two cultures and the implications of those differences for management behavior.

I have another student now who's comparing internal employee communication practices in French and U.S. companies, things like intranet sites within a company, employee newsletters, etc.

I've also worked with some undergrads getting their B.A.s in psychology. For example, one undergrad was doing an honor's thesis on employee motivation. She was interested in motivation and reward systems. I served as her major advisor. Another student, who's taking advantage of the 5-year BA/MBA option, is looking at the impact of cultural differences on international negotiations.

Our undergraduate management students, as well as our graduate level management students, come from all over the world. We have so much diversity in the classroom that we try to use it as a vehicle for addressing some of these issues and thinking about how this diversity affects the conduct of business in the world today. It's a critical issue, in the business world and in society.


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