Work and Organization Studies

OS seminars

The Work and Organization Studies group is a hub for the study of work, employment, and organizations, and is host to one of the longest-running seminar series at MIT. These weekly seminars attract researchers from across the Institute and around the world. OS seminars are held from 11:00-12:30 pm on designated Thursdays in E62-350.  Please check the schedule for dates.

Current Seminars

  • September 6, 2018

    Community Meeting

    You are invited to join us for an informal gathering to mark the beginning of successful academic year and say welcome to new WOS faculty members, Jackson Lu and Nate Wilmers! Jackson and Nate, welcome aboard!

  • September 20, 2018

    Erik Duhaime, MIT Sloan School of Management

    Human-Computer Groups Outperform Artificial Intelligence at Diagnosing Skin Cancer

    Previous research has shown that artificial intelligence (AI) can diagnose skin cancer as accurately as professional dermatologists.  Here we examine what happens when AI is combined with—rather than compared to—human intelligence.  Using a dataset of the diagnoses of 1 state-of-the-art AI system and 21 board-certified dermatologists on 371 biopsy-proven cases of skin lesions, we find that averaging the opinion of an individual dermatologist with AI often does not lead to higher accuracy than AI alone.  However, combining AI with the average opinion from groups of dermatologists leads to higher performance than individuals alone, AI alone, and groups alone.  These findings suggest that in many cases artificial intelligence will not simply replace jobs, but rather, will transform how work is organized. 

  • October 4, 2018

    Tali Sharot, University College London, Affective Brain Lab

    Using Affect to Predict Choice

    A common assumption in behavioural economics and psychology is that feelings guide choice. Very little is known, however, about the rules by which feelings are transformed into decisions. Here, I draw on basic principles from economics (e.g., the law of diminishing returns) and neuroscience (e.g., neural adaptation) to understand how affect (i.e., a physiological reaction that is experienced as a feeling) is translated to choice. I will present three recent studies in which we measure and quantify affect in order to predict decisions to (i) lie in self-interest (ii) punish a selfish agent and {iii) work when the distribution of rewards are unequal. In the first study we show that the negative affective response to ones' own selfish behavior is reduced with repetition, predicting an escalation in such behavior over time. In the second study we show that the affective response of a person observing a selfish agent can be modeled using principles adapted from prospect theory. This model is then used to predict whether and by how much the observer will punish the agent. In a third study we show that aversive reactions to unequal distribution of rewards reduce peoples' productivity, even when inequality is advantageous. The work illustrates that understanding the dynamics of affect provides novel insight into decision­ making. 

  • October 16, 2018

    Stefan Dimitriadis, Harvard Business School

    Cooperative frames and the formation of businessrelationships: A field experiment withentrepreneurs in Togo

    How can entrepreneurs form more business relationships? ln developing markets, this can be challenging because there are no formal institutions to secure interactions. In this study, I explore an overlooked factor that plays a pivotal role in the formation of business relationships in developing markets: the perception of prospective interactions. I argue that in contexts where first interactions among entrepreneurs are high risk, framing them cooperatively leads to the formation of more relationships and to relationships that exhibit more skill complementarity. To test this theory, I conducted a randomized field experiment in Togo with 301 entrepreneurs who participated in a business training program. A random subset were exposed to cooperative frames, which are scripts that draw attention to and motivate interactions guided by the mutual exchange of help. I found that exposure to cooperative frames led to a 50 percent increase in the number of relationships formed among entrepreneurs, and that these relationships were characterized by more complementarity of entrepreneurs' skills. Furthermore, I found that the businesses of entrepreneurs who were exposed to cooperative frames were significantly more profitable six months after the training program, holding everything else constant. This study shows that the formation of new business relationships in developing markets also depends on the initial framing of interactions, a factor that has so far not been taken into account.

  • October 18, 2018

    Jared Curhan, MIT Sloan School of Management, WOS Group

    Silence is Golden: Silence, Deliberative Mindset, and Value Creation in Negotiation

    A central focus of research on negotiation has been to help negotiators shift from default win-lose assumptions to a more efficient, integrative approach. This presentation explores a novel method to facilitate that shift-namely, the use of brief silent pauses during negotiation. Study 1 reveals a positive association between naturally occurring silence and value creation. Study 2 shows that instructing one or both parties to use brief, silent pauses leads to more integrative agreements. Study 3 establishes a mechanism for this effect, whereby negotiators who use silence adopt a more deliberative mindset, which in turn leads to value creation. Study 3 also demonstrates a boundary condition involving status differences. These findings have important implications for negotiation theory and practice.

  • October 24, 2018

    Nick Occhiuto, Yale University

    Market Actions and Non-Market Consequences: How Transportation Network Companies Influenced Regulation in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco

    A long line of research has examined how firms attempt to shape regulation and government policy in ways favorable to the firm. Existing research on non-market strategy has largely focused on how firm actions in the non-market environment influence both economic regulation and public policy. Recent research suggests, however, that firms actions in the market environment may also gain regulatory and policy influence. Nevertheless, because most of this work has largely focused on the market actions of existing firms, it remains unclear whether and how the market actions of startups may also help them gain regulatory and policy influence. This paper adds to our understanding of non-market strategy by showing that startups may use market actions to build constituencies, which can function as important assets in influencing their non-market environments. Drawing on 128 interviews, ethnographic observations, and content analysis of primary source documents collected across New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, this paper will show how Transportation Network Companies used market actions (i.e., contracting with drivers, registering passengers, and securing venture capital investment) to make displays of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment of their emerging market to both regulators and policy makers. As a result, these market actions influenced regulators and policy makers to produce regulations that were favorable to the firms. This article also highlights city-level variation of regulation in the context of global market emergence. It will show how this same market actions initiated two different types of non-market outcomes: formal and interpretive change.

  • October 25, 2018

    Mark Hoffman, Columbia University

    The Materiality of Ideology: Cultural Consumption and Political Thought after the American Revolution

    Political identity in America dates to the turn of the 19th century, when divisions over finance and the ideal structure of governance led to bitter battles between the first political parties. I use the reading patterns of America's earliest political and economic elites, including a significant portion of the founding fathers, who checked out books from the New York Society Library, to reveal the shifting meaning of political identity in the years between the ratification of the Constitution and the War of 1812. The reading data come from two charging ledgers spanning two periods -1789 to 1792 and 1799 to 1806 - during which a new country was built, relations with foreign nations defined, and contestation over the character of a new democracy was intense. Using novel combinations of text and network analysis, I explore the political nature of reading and the extent to which social, economic, and political positions overlapped with what people read. I identify the key intellectual and social dimensions on which New York, and by extension, American, elite society was politically stratified in its early years. In the process, I show that, by studying the material relations which bring people into association with ideas, we can track the co-evolution of people with ideas and come to understand how identities emerge from their joint alignment. The analytic framework provided here has wide applicability to a range of consumption data produced daily by Amazon, Netflix, and Goodreads, services which link people to objects, all of which contain categorical and political meanings of their own.

  • November 1, 2018

    Allie Feldberg, Harvard Business School

    Butchers, Bakers, and Barcharts: How digitized information affects gender differences in performance

    This study asks: does increased access to digitized information affect the performance of men and women workers differently? I find that the availability of information in digital platforms disproportionately improves women's performance in a male-dominated organization. I theorize that digitized information helps women by serving as a relationship substitute, an alternative channel to traditional relationship networks through which peripheral group members can gain access to performance-enhancing information. Using interviews, observations, and archival data, I take advantage of an intervention occurring within a 100-store grocery chain-when it introduced a weekly online report providing managers with a high-level summary of their departments' performance along key metrics. Comparing sales across 152 departments twelve weeks prior to and following the report's implementation shows that women managers benefit disproportionately from the report's introduction but having longer duration of contact with peers and supervisors attenuate its benefits. Findings offer new directions for research on gender inequality and knowledge transfer by suggesting that digital channels of knowledge distribution can offset disparities arising from relationship networks in organizations.

  • November 8, 2018

    Amit Goldenberg, Stanford University

    Emotional Dynamics in Groups

    People respond emotionally to events that are related to their groups, even when these events do not have any direct effect on their lives. These emotions are often shared through social interactions, and may play a key role in fueling and perpetuating social movements and intergroup conflicts. Using a multi-method approach, my research focuses on identifying emotional dynamics that lead to increased emotional intensity in groups. In 5 studies, I show that context-specific motives can shape the way group members are influenced by other group members' emotions. I then suggest that identifying and quantifying these motivations may help us understand and predict cases of increased emotionality in groups. In Studies 1-3, I examine the influence of these motivations on emotional dynamics in a series of lab tasks. In Studies 4 and 5, I identify similar emotional dynamics on social media. Taken together, these studies offer novel insights into the emotional dynamics that may lead to increased emotional intensity in groups.

  • November 20, 2018

    Winnie Jiang, Yale University

    Navigating Meaningful But Demanding Work: The Changing Practice and Meaning of Work in Refugee Resettlement

    Individuals engaging in deeply meaningful work often face immense work demands that pose serious challenges to their work and life. In this paper, I use data from a longitudinal mixed-method field study of a refugee resettlement organization to examine the ways in which its employees navigate surging work demands. All employees viewed their work as deeply meaningful. Yet as work demands increased, employees shifted from a quality-based sensemaking model, characterized by responsibility internalization, service customization, and an aim to provide high-quality services and ensure a successful transition for each refugee, to a quantity-based sensemaking model, characterized instead by responsibility externalization, service standardization, and a focus on resettling as many refugees as possible. Furthermore, refugees arriving during the surge showed worse outcomes in employment and well­being, suggesting that shifting to a quantity-based sensemaking model rendered employees less effective in facilitating refugees' transition to the U.S. This research contributes to our understanding of how individuals manage the tensions brought by meaningful yet demanding work and suggests important implications for the meaning of work, organizational resourcing, and management.

  • November 29, 2018

    Pat Reilly, University of California, Irvine

    No Laughter among Thieves: Authenticity and the Enforcement of Community Norms in Stand-Up Comedy

    Why might observers label one social actor's questionable act a norm violation even as they seem to excuse similar behavior by others? To answer this question, I use participant-observer data on Los Angeles stand-up comics to explore the phenomenon of joke theft. Informal, community-based systems govern the property rights pertaining to jokes. Most instances of possible joke theft are ambiguous owing to the potential for simultaneous and coincidental discovery. I find that accusations are not strongly coupled to jokes' similarity, and enforcement depends mainly on the extent to which insiders view the comic in question as being authentic to the community. Comics who are oriented toward external rewards, have a track record of anti-social behavior, and exhibit lackluster on-stage craft are vulnerable to joke theft accusations even in borderline cases because those inauthentic characteristics are typical of transgressors. Vulnerability is greatest for comics who enjoy commercial success despite low peer esteem. Authenticity protects comics because it reflects community­based status, which yields halo effects while encouraging relationships predicated on respect. In exploring accusations of joke theft and their outcomes, this study illustrates how norms function more as framing devices than as hard-and-fast rules, and how authenticity shapes their enforcement.

  • December 4, 2018

    Hatim Rahman, Stanford University

    From Iron Cages to Invisible Cages: Algorithmic Evaluations in Online Labor Markets

    Existing organizational theory suggests that algorithms and artificial intelligence systems are "tightening" the iron cage; these systems represent the next frontier of rationalization, controlling the way people work at scale. This paper, however, reveals how organizations' use of algorithms is creating modern day invisible cages, in which platforms deliberately hide the norms and expectations for how people should behave. Specifically, I examined how a platform organization transitioned from a rating algorithm using transparent evaluation criteria to a new opaque algorithm evaluating and stratifying workers. Drawing on interviews, archival data, and participant observation as a registered user on the platform, I show that the platform strategically used its algorithm to manufacture uncertainty amongst workers, leading to "superstitious reactivity": a form of reactivity to algorithmic evaluations that instigates divergent practices rather than convergence. I found that even highly-rated workers, who were the intended beneficiaries of the algorithmic reform, responded to the opaque algorithmic evaluation by changing how they used the platform in ways the platform could not control. Theoretically, this paper reveals how organizations can use algorithms to implement apparently rational systems, increasingly driven by obscurity and uncertainty rather than transparency and accountability. I discuss the implications my findings have for the literature on employment relationships, labor markets, and evaluations in the emerging economy.

  • December 6, 2018

    Basima Tewfik, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

    The Unexpected Benefits of Feeling Overestimated by Others: The Relationship Between Imposter Thoughts and Performance

    Recent years has seen a surge in interest in a phenomenon popularly known as the impostor syndrome. The majority of existing theory and empirical work has focused on the drawbacks of the syndrome. Yet, there are hints that the phenomenon may have benefits. These benefits, however, may be obscured due to current conceptualizations of the phenomenon as an individual difference that makes it virtually indistinguishable from neuroticism, low self-efficacy, and maladaptive perfectionism. In this paper, I seek to rebalance the conversation around the phenomenon by introducing the construct of workplace impostor thoughts, which is defined as the temporary belief that others may overestimate one's talent or abilities at work. Drawing on theories of resource allocation and identity, I hypothesize that whereas having impostor thoughts is negatively related to task performance, it is, in contrast, positively related to interpersonal performance. After developing and validating a self-report measure of impostor thoughts using seven lab and field samples, I test my hypotheses across two studies: a field study of physicians-in-training and a field study of employees at an investment solutions firm. In contrast to what I hypothesize, I find mixed results regarding the relationship between impostor thoughts and task performance. However, in line with what I hypothesize, I find that having impostor thoughts is positively associated with interpersonal performance, and that this relationship is stronger for males than for females. I further find evidence that impostor thoughts stem from facing unfamiliar role responsibilities. Taken together, my results suggest that entertaining impostor thoughts at work may not necessarily lead to poorer task performance. Instead, such thoughts may sometimes encourage employees to prove themselves interpersonally.

Past Seminars

  • February 8, 2018

    Community Meeting

  • February 22, 2018

    Adina Sterling - Stanford

    Gender and Horizontal Allocation in Organizations

    This paper investigates the influence of gender on horizontal allocation, or the assignment of employees to work groups and teams that vary in social prominence. The authors argue performance influences employee allocation to teams with prominent members, and that women see lower returns to performance in team assignment than men. Using archival patent data from a single organization over a twenty-year period, the authors find evidence of the opposite effect: a female advantage in work group allocation. After surfacing this unanticipated finding, the authors utilize a quantitative abductive approach that permits the generation of new theory about gender, performance, and organizational sex composition and their effects on allocation. Support is found for their new arguments about female advantage in horizontal allocation and the contingencies of such an advantage in a second study of over 700 managers. The authors discuss the contributions of this study for literature on organizational inequality, and also the promise of a quantitative abductive approach for advancing organizational scholarship.

  • March 8. 2018

    Jillian Chown - Kellogg School of Management

    Managing  professionals: How professionals’ tasks moderate the effects of organizational control 

    The presence of professionals inside organizations creates a series of organizational challenges, particularly related to influencing professionals’ behaviors and aligning professionals’ work with organizational goals. In this study, I explore how the characteristics of professional tasks moderate the effects of organizational control. As a baseline, I first highlight the power of an important organizational control mechanism, specifically remuneration, in shaping professional work. I then examine how professional control moderates that baseline relationship. I find that professional control is multi-dimensional and that its strength depends not only on the complexity of the task (i.e., the knowledge/skill requirements and riskiness of the task), but also how central the task is within the bundle of tasks comprising the profession’s jurisdiction. I show that these two distinct dimensions of professional control constrain professionals’ responsiveness to changes in remuneration such that when professional control is greater, professionals’ responsiveness to organizational control is lower.  I explore this using a large sample of physicians in Ontario, Canada through a multi-step empirical approach including fixed-effects panel data models, a matching methodology with difference-in-differences estimation, and interviews with physicians and other relevant stakeholders. This study contributes to our understanding of how organizational and professional control interact to shape professional work,highlighting the complex nature of professional control and its consequences for organizations trying to manage a workforce increasingly dominated by professionals.

  • March 22, 2018

    Callen Anthony - Boston College

    Analytical Tools and the Practices of Validation in the Production of Strategic Knowledge

    Strategic knowledge is central to strategy formation, and quantitative analysis in particular is key to mobilizing strategic action. Strategy scholars have, for the most part, assumed that quantitative data are “objective” and if anything,provide a disciplining force against the biases that shape decision making. Yet the technologies used to perform quantitative analysis have become increasingly complex, and new analytical tools contain embedded assumptions which can influence the results of analysis. Further, the outputs of these tools are subject to interpretation, having material implications for strategy development. Though literature on knowledge work has long noted the central role that technologies play in producing knowledge, existing literature has focused on contexts such as scientific labs in which the output of tools can be validated using theoretical principles and physical referents. These feedback mechanisms, however, are largely absent in the context of strategic knowledge.How, then, are tools used, understood, and validated in the production of strategic knowledge, and with what consequences? In order to address this question, I conducted a two-year ethnographic study of the use of analytical tools in developing strategic knowledge within a large investment bank.Comparing two groups, I find two distinct paths to validate analysis through what I call validating practices, which are a set of actions that confer the produced analysis as trustworthy. Surprisingly, engaging in these practices does not necessarily mean that the calculations performed by technologies are understood. Specifically, these pathways hold different consequences for the consistency of assumptions within produced knowledge, the development of expertise, and whether groups are conscious of the assumptions in their tools or routinely take them for granted. I consider the implications of these findings for literature on the microfoundations of strategy as well as for literature on technology use in knowledge work.

  • April 5, 2018

    Gudela Grote (MIT Visiting Scholar/ETH Zürich)

    Joining flexibility and stability in high-risk and innovation teams: Creating productive uncertainty

    Classic approaches to safety management stress structural controls for bounding human action, thereby defying all knowledge accumulated in organizational behavior research on the importance of individual and collective autonomy for effective performance. This has led Perrow to argue for the unsurmountable incompatibility of organizational demands in high-risk systems, while LaPorte, Roberts, Weickand others have been more optimistic about the ability of organizations to switch between centrally controlled and agile modes of operation. Our research has been focused on better understanding these switches in the ways high-risk teams, such as aircrews or anesthesia teams, coordinate their work. Conceptualizing adaptive coordination in terms of continuously finding the right balance between stability and flexibility has eventually got us to extend our thinking beyond high-risk teams and to explore similar mechanisms in innovation teams, specifically software development teams. We have also proposed a generic theoretical model aiming to explain when and how teams adapt their use of different coordination mechanisms. Most recently, we have delved into better understanding uncertainty itself as a crucial, though often only implicitly evoked, construct in the context of individual, team, and organizational adaptability. Specifically, we have suggested that uncertainty may been dogenously created and not just reacted and adapted to. Fostering speaking upor designing flexible rules and routines can be considered examples of deliberate uncertainty creation. In the talk I will give an overview of our research in high-risk and innovation teams, present our propositions regarding balancing stability and flexibility in teams, and end by discussing fundamental approaches to managing uncertainty underlying much of organizational and psychological research.

  • April 26, 2018

    Jenna Myers - MIT Sloan School of Management

    Unpacking the State: State-led Experimentalist Governance and Social Movement Tactics for Reconfiguring Fields of Education and Employment

    Two important barriers to the reconfiguration of fields to solve wicked problems are the lack of mobilization of field actors by social movements and the lack of a favorable political opportunity structure within the state. In this 20-month field study of field reconfiguration in 11 U.S.states to solve the wicked problem of mismatches between the skills that U.S.graduates have and the skills that employers need in an economy with high rates of technological change, we found that social movement mobilization of field actors and a favorable political opportunity structure (POS) within the state are necessary but not sufficient for field reconfiguration. Five of the 11 states we studied were characterized by both active mobilization on the part of a social movement organization and consistently favorable POS inside the states, but we observed variation in the degree of field reconfiguration across these five states. We explain the quicker and broader field reconfiguration accomplished by two of the five states by advancing a concept we call state-led experimentalist governance – a process by which state actors design cross-sector governance networks, engage in ongoing adjustment of governance processes, and facilitate distributed learning and social accountability. These  findings have implications for our understanding of social movements, organizations, and the state.

  • April 12, 2018

    Julie Posselt - University of Southern California

    Trust Networks: A New Perspective on Pedigree and the Ambiguities of Admissions Decisions

    Trust is a powerful form of social capital, one that facilitates willingness to make investments in the absence of complete information. In this talk I present ethnographic research about the individual and institutional trust networks that facilitate admissions decisions in top-ranked PhD programs in pure disciplines, and which explain revealed preferences for applicants with elite academic backgrounds. I find that to cut through ambiguities inherent in admissions decision making,faculty make proxy judgments of admissibility rooted in perceptions of trust and distrust. They lean upon perceptions of trust in the quality of undergraduate institution (i.e., because the rigor of a given student’s training may be unknown), relationships with and the reputation of recommendation letter writers (i.e., because the sincerity of praise is often unclear), and their judgments of program alumni with similar characteristics (i.e., due to availability bias). These micro-level interactions between professors and graduate school applicants reflect and reinforce macro-level structural inequalities in higher education; achieving more equitable doctoral enrollments will thus require broadening trust networks beyond familiar, feeder institutions and paying greater attention to recruitment in general. Yet I argue that we need not impugn the role of trust, which is inherent to most social transactions. Rather, as with other aspects of professional judgment,admissions decision makers should be self-critical about their instincts to trust. As one participant professor summed up the ubiquitous challenge of admissions, “You just never know who the exciting student is going to be.” 

  • May 10, 2018

    Taylor Phillips - NYU Stern

    Access is Not Enough:Cultural Mismatch Persists to Limit First-Generation Students’ Opportunities for Achievement Throughout College

    American higher education prioritizes independent models of self as the cultural ideal. Early in college, this produces a mismatch for first-generation students (neither parent has four-year degree), who are guided by relatively interdependent models of self. However, less is known about how first-generation students interact with college institutions over time. Using cross-sectional and longitudinal studies, we find that cultural mismatch persists until graduation. First, social class differences in models of self remain stable throughout college: first-generation students continue to endorse more interdependence than do continuing-generation students. Second,interdependence at entry, which mismatches college cultures of independence,predicts reduced sense of fit in college four years later. Third, lower fit predicts lower grades and subjective status upon graduation. We suggest providing access is not sufficient to reduce social class inequality: colleges need more inclusive institutional environments to ensure that diverse students can reap similar rewards from the college experience.