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Rice research: Getting too comfortable affects innovation in the workplace

According to new research, building strong bonds between a firm and its employees can be both helpful and harmful for business. Photo via Pexels

In the relations between a company and its workers, is there such a thing as too much love?

Sadly for those enamored by affection, according to professors Balaji R. Koka and Robert E. Hoskisson from Rice Business and professor Eni Gambeta of the University of Cincinnati, the answer is yes.

In a study of innovation efforts across 271 U.S. manufacturing firms, the researchers found that how strong or weak the relationship was between a firm and its employees had a direct impact on not just the amount of innovation, but also the type. When relations were strong, innovation did increase — but only as long as that innovation happened within the business with, say, line extensions. More radical changes, ones that might upend the company culture, were less likely.

The notion of innovation prospering alongside good bonds between a firm and its people seems, of course, to make perfect sense. Happy workers aren't a bad thing. Past research shows that trust, workplace security and a system of rewards for imaginative solutions all affect in-house innovation the way food, vitamins and exercise function on human muscle. That is, they make it stronger.

But what about "distant search" innovation — ideas that aren't created in-house, but brought in from outside?

Though local innovation thrives amid rich company-worker bonds, these same relationships might erode efforts at finding innovation from external sources, the researchers hypothesized. In a culture with low turnover, as is likely the case in a happy firm, a homogenous information pool and a partiality for institutional knowledge could lead to the quest for innovation turning too far inward.

Why does this matter? Well, as the history of business has shown, being too comfortable can be a signal of decline. Radical, culture-changing innovation may be disturbing, but it can also lead to greater strength in the long run.

In the 271 firms the researchers studied, they found that, as they expected, strong company-worker bonds correlated to less exploratory innovation. And as external searches for innovation dwindled, local innovation efforts grew. Simply put, in the happy firms innovation that was unfamiliar and disruptive was less likely. Meanwhile, the firms with the weakest company-worker bonds had four times as many instances of distant-search innovation as those with the strongest bonds.

So what do these findings mean for company leaders?

A supplemental analysis, the researchers write, showed that while stronger employee-company bonds enrich a firm's overall productivity in innovation, they appear to harm a company's long-term valuation. Meanwhile, stronger employee-company relationships have a spillover effect onto other stakeholders (such as stronger customer-firm relationships), which leads to an even stronger focus on local innovation and less emphasis on exploring more disruptive innovation elsewhere.

Valuable distant-search innovation, in other words, appears to be at risk when company culture is healthiest. So how should leaders respond?

Not by returning to feudal work practices, the researchers stress. Intentionally treating employees badly, they note, eventually poisons all avenues of innovation. Instead, thoughtful leaders should keep treating workers with decency, knowing that a healthy culture is the bedrock of a firm's longevity.

But at the same time, the research suggests, managers of harmonious work cultures should anticipate soft spots in the search for outside ideas, and compensate for that. Being comfortable is good; being too comfortable is not. Being open to truly new ideas, even if disruptive, is worth encouraging.

It's not unlike trying to keep up muscle tone after leaving grueling manual work for professional life. No one really wants to go back to breaking rocks or grubbing for tubers. Better to make up for any lost strength by adding something new, like yoga or tai chi, to train new muscles and sharpen concentration at the same time.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Balaji R. Koka is an associate professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, and Robert E. Hoskisson is George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University


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this one's for the ladies

Texas named a top state for women-led startups

A new report finds that the Lone Star State is ideal for female entrepreneurs. Photo via Getty Images

Who runs the world? According to Merchant Maverick's inaugural Best States for "Women-Led Startups'' study, Texas is a great place for women to be in charge.

The Lone Star state cracked the top 10 on the list, earning a No. 6 spot according to the small business reviews and financial services company, which based the study on eight key statistics about this growing segment of the economy. Colorado (at No. 1), Washington, Virginia, Florida, and Montana were the only states to beat out Texas on the rankings—leading the Merchant Maverick team to conclude that "the part of the country that lies west of the Mississippi is great for startups led by women entrepreneurs."

Women-led startups in Texas received $365 billion in VC funding in the last five years, the report found. This is the seventh largest total among U.S. states. Too, about 20 percent of Texans are employed at woman-led firms, which is the fifth highest percentage among states. Roughly 35 percent of employers in Texas are led by women.

A few other key findings that work in female founders' favor: The startup survival rate in Texas is nearly 80 percent. And a lack of state income tax "doesn't hurt either," the report says.

Still there are shortcomings. On a per capita basis, only 1.27 percent of Texas women run their own business. The average income for self-employed women is also relatively low ranking among states, coming in around $55,907 and landing at 31st among others.

This is not the first time Texas has been lauded as a land of opportunity for women entrepreneurs. A 2019 study named it the best state for business opportunities for women. Houston too has proven to support success for the demographic. The Bayou City was named in separate studies a best city for female entrepreneurs to start a business and to see it grow.

Still, as many findings have concluded, the realities of the pandemic loom for all startups and small business owners. The Merchant Maverick study was careful to add: "The pandemic has changed the economic landscape over the past year, and often for the worse.

"This means that not every metric may be able to accurately gauge how a state might fare amidst the pandemic," the report continues. "To help factor in COVID's impact, we included some metrics that take 2020 into account, but it will be a while until we get a full picture of the pandemic's devastation.""

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