houston voices

The way a workplace is structured can make or break business, Rice University research finds

Most workers surveyed visualize their organization as either a ladder structure or a pyramid, and the quality of relationships in pyramid-structured workplaces is higher than in ladder-structured workplaces. Photo via Pexels

It's a paradox of power: research shows that hierarchies often undermine the very structures they are designed to uphold. Within organizations, conflicts between members can erode entire systems. In a groundbreaking paper, Rice Business Professor Siyu Yu shows that even visual perceptions of the hierarchy can influence its success.

In the first study of its kind, Yu joined a team of colleagues to explore how humans visualize the hierarchies to which they belong – and how that thought process influences group processes and outcomes.

The researchers found that most of the people they studied thought of hierarchies in terms of pyramids or ladders (a tiny minority visualized them as circles or squares). In a ladder hierarchy or stratified structure, each member occupies a particular rung. A pyramid hierarchy is more centralized, with one person at the top and multiple people on the lower levels. Think of corporate giant CISCO, a typical pyramid, versus a mid-size dry cleaning business, with the owner at the top and one person on each rung below, down to the entry-level cashier.

These are far more than fanciful images, the researchers argued. Psychological research has long shown that individuals think, feel and act in response to mental representations of their environment. Intuitively, the link between perception and behavior has been articulated as far back as biblical times: "As a man thinketh, so is he" – or, for that matter, she or they.

To better understand the practical effects of these visualizations, Yu's team conducted five studies with 2,951 people and 221 workplace groups. They chose from nationwide pools monitored by West and East Coast American universities. The studies took place in the United States and the Netherlands and included multiple ethnicities, men and women, and income groups ranging from college students to seasoned professionals earning upwards of $90,000 annually.

In the first study, the team asked participants to indicate the shape that best reflected how they thought about hierarchies: pyramid, ladder, circle or square. In the second study, the researchers measured social relationship quality within different groups: participants were asked to rate their answers to questions such as, "Are your needs met at work? Do you feel socially supported?" In the third study, the researchers focused on professional workgroups, measuring relationship quality, group performance and the likelihood that individuals compare themselves to others in the group.

Subjects who perceived their working group as a ladder, the researchers found, were more likely to compare their rank and station with others. Their relationships were also weaker: when asked whether they trusted their team members, most subjects disagreed or strongly disagreed. When asked whether they thought about if they were better or worse than their colleagues, they agreed and strongly agreed. These comparisons and lack of trust indirectly correlated with lower performance levels, the research showed.

Perceiving one's organization as a ladder structure, Yu's team argued, undermines group members' relationships with each other and hinders collective performance. In contrast, participants who visualized the same company as pyramids rated radically higher on all three quality measures.

Interestingly, the impact of these visualizations is similar, whether the visualizations reflect an actual company structure or simply an individual's perception of that structure. "It can be created by both perception and actual rank, for example, job titles," Yu said in an interview. "So, as a practical implication, companies should think about ways to reduce the ladder system, such as with a promotion system that seems more like a pyramid, or by creating the mutual belief that upward mobility within the company is not a ladder or zero-sum."

Managers, in other words, need to pay close attention to how subordinates see their workplace. Even if your firm is structured as a pyramid, your team members could perceive it to be a ladder – with a cut-throat climb to the top. For the sake of both work performance and quality of life, Yu said, managers, human resources directors and C-suite members should do their best to discern how their workers visualize the company – and, if the paradigm is a ladder, work hard to reduce the workplace vertigo that goes with it.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Siyu Yu, an assistant professor of management and organizational behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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