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


Without trust, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down, according to this Rice University research. Pexels

Rice University research shows the importance of coworker and leadership trust within businesses

Houston Voices

While U.S. soldiers battled in Vietnam, inside the White House, President Lyndon Johnson grew increasingly suspicious of those closest to him. The legendary political dealmaker now believed that any opposition to the war was part of a conspiracy against him; aides who questioned his policy might be part of it. According to research using newly available interviews and telephone transcripts, Johnson's distrust may have been triggered by the very experience of being in power.

But how, exactly? In a recent paper, Rice Business professor Marlon Mooijman and a team of colleagues delve deeply into the interaction of power and trust, seeking answers about when and why wielding power degrades leaders' belief in those around them.

The question has deep implications not only in politics, but also in business. "Managers must trust employees' willingness to comply with instructions and keep the company's best interest in mind," Mooijman notes. Without that trust, past research shows, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down. Leaders who successfully craft trusting bonds with their coworkers and employees, on the other hand, are more effective than those who don't.

To learn why leaders might abandon that trust, Mooijman's team set up four studies. First, though, they had to establish a working definition of trust. Trust, they proposed, is the willingness to be vulnerable to another party's actions, based on the expectation that the other party will perform a specific action important to the truster — even without the truster's ability to monitor or control the activity. Essential to a trusting relationship: the expectation of the other party's goodwill, and the willingness to expose themselves to possible exploitation if that goodwill fails.

Whether you work in an indie coffee shop or a giant software company, most workers can name a leader who lacks that kind of trust. Many also have had the good luck of a leader who isn't lacking in that department. The difference between such managers, Mooijman's team found, may be the stability of their power.

There are plenty of reasons for wanting to keep power, obviously. In relationships, power holders are able to disregard others' wishes and pursue their own. Within the individual, power boosts self-esteem and encourages behaviors such as expressing amusement and happiness. Less obvious, however, is the effect of fearing a loss of power. Leaders whose power feels unstable experience this physically, with changes in heart rate and blood pressure. They have a heightened awareness of colleagues they perceive as threats, and are more prone to divide coworkers and disrupt their alliances.

When power holders or leaders perceive their power to be unstable, it's that prospect of power loss that erodes their trust in those around them, even helpful and often unsuspecting colleagues. So strong is this effect that it occurs even when the loss of power comes with an economic benefit, Mooijman notes. "Unstable power decreases trust," the team found, "regardless of whether we provided participants with a justification of their unstable position."

To reach their conclusions, Mooijman's team first surveyed 206 participants assembled through Amazon's Mechanical Turk software. Each participant was randomly assigned a power ranking (high or low) and asked to imagine being a VP of sales at a mid-sized firm. Some were told that as part of a productivity initiative they would be reassigned to other divisions. The participants were then asked to rank their perception of their power at their firm and their perception of their job stability there. Regardless of whether their job reassignment was explained or not, the researchers found, the participants who perceived their jobs — that is, their power — to be unstable showed more mistrust of their coworkers.

A final study, a field experiment with real life managers and subordinates, reinforced these findings. Managers in positions of relatively high power who perceived their jobs were unstable were more prone to voice distrust about their subordinates.

While instability is built into political careers, Mooijman's findings have practical implications in other industries. For example, the common practice of moving workers between departments, meant to build insight and productivity, may backfire. Instead of strengthening team spirit, the strategy will likely foment distrust. Similarly, at high levels of power, emphasizing job instability with tactics such as high-stakes, winner-take-all performance metrics might be counterproductive.

Power doesn't always erode trust, the researchers found. Leaders who felt their power was secure didn't show the same level of suspicion as those who felt their roles were insecure. But when power seems fragile, the research revealed, even the most seasoned leaders are prone to abandon trust in their colleagues and see work as a battlefield.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Marlon Mooijman is an assistant professor in the management department (organizational behavior division) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

There's no "I" in team, but getting your coworkers on the same "we" perspective can be tough. Here's why it's important, according to Rice University's research. Pexels

Rice University research shows what your company can learn from gamers about teamwork

Houston Voices

You just got a promotion — along with a brand-new work team whose members barely speak to one another. But first-rate cooperation is essential if you're going to deliver for your client. So you decide to spend a month getting to know each of your workers.

One is competent but bitter, frustrated by years of small mistakes by a colleague, mistakes that add to her own workload. Another, the one making the mistakes, seems so distracted he may as well be working at another company. Others have their own quirks. And to make matters worse, another department is set to merge its employees with your creaky, cranky team in a few months. How are you going to understand all these individuals, much less get them into shape as a unit?

For many managers, training and reading can help provide guidance. Others may hire an outside consultant and resort to team-building activities. But where does that outside expertise — not to mention training and reading — come from? It's based on academic research.

Rice Business professor Utpal Dholakia and colleagues René Algesheimer of the University of Zurich and Richard P. Bagozzi of the University of Michigan are among the scholars updating what we know about the dynamics of group decisions. Starting with classic group behavior theory, the scholars developed a series of sociologically-based models for analyzing small teams.

To better understand the existing shared intentions and attachment between teammates, Dholakia and his colleagues used a novel set of questions to survey 277 teams of computer gamers, each comprised of three people. They ran the survey responses through variations of a classic model called the Key Informant, which depends on the observations of group members about the social relationships inside a group.

Next, the researchers applied a sociological theory called Plural Subject Theory, focused on what's known as "we-attitude." That's exactly what it sounds like: verbally and actively treating an endeavor as a group project.

The core of this theory, the notion that successful teams frequently use collective pronouns when they discuss themselves and cognitively conceive of themselves as "we," has been heavily studied. Groups whose members think in terms of "we" act more cohesively and are measurably more committed to collectively reaching their goal.

To enhance the way these attitudes are measured, Dholakia created multiple variations of a new model. These differ from previous models because they include information not just from a "key informant," but from every member of a group. The researcher asks group members questions about themselves, their impressions of others in the group, their impressions about how others in the group think of each member and impressions about the group as a whole. This longer, more elaborate approach offers fresh insights about a group's shared consciousness — which provides a valuable new research outcome.

The professors found that this revision of classic key informant model generally worked the best of the various group-analysis models they tested — even improving on the original key informant approach. Future researchers, Dholakia notes, should consider the context of the team situation to decide which configuration of members is best to analyze.

So the next time you find yourself nonplussed by a chaotic group dynamic at work, remember you are in time-honored company — and that help is out there. By updating the key informant model, Dholakia and his colleagues have added to the analytical toolbox something that can help whip that team into shape. Whether it's an army of accountants or a network of hospital workers, Dholakia writes, the first step to creating a real team is analyzing which intentions they truly share.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Utpal Dholakia is the George R. Brown Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

Rice University develops 2 new innovative tools to detect COVID-19

pandemic tech

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.