Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 319
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Going to the Extreme

School study has broad implications for the workplace.

There are times when engineers frustrate the managers who supervise them. Frequent criticisms include failure to communicate and lack of teamwork, and these weaknesses are especially critical in engineering work. All big projects, from constructing office buildings, bridges, cell phones, and computers (and the programs that run them) require legions of engineers working together seamlessly combining their work to be successful. But a lack of seamless and efficient teamwork is the problem. At least, that’s what their bosses say.

In 2004, the issue came to a head with the issuing of a joint report by three professional engineering groups which pinned the blame squarely on engineering schools. It recommended that school curriculums be changed so that communication and teamwork skills were emphasized. College faculties heard the call and implemented a few changes.

In the midst of this effort, a group of professors led by Paul Leonardi from Northwestern University carried out an ambitious study to shed light on the process. They wanted to know how students reacted to their study of engineering and how the changes were being received.

Leonardi and his team followed students for 3 years. They conducted 128 in-depth interviews following a semi-structured protocol and shadowed 54 students for 2-3 hours to observe how they actually carried out engineering assignments. Leonardi’s findings didn’t seem to surprise him, but they should. They were pretty bizarre, and they are a chilling reminder of what incentives can do to distort behavior.

Consider an analogy.

Imagine 2 bean seedlings growing side-by-side in a garden. One seedling has free open access to sunlight, but the second does not. This seedling has a cardboard box covering it with a hole cut into the top on one side. Give both seedlings a month to grow, remove the box, and then compare the plants. The seedling under the box will have grown toward the hole. It will have a weak stem and small, light green leaves that will have emerged through the hole. It won’t look at all like the plant next to it. After a month growing in full sunlight, this plant will be setting flowers and starting to produce fruit. This plant, you will say, is healthy. The other will make you think of words like distorted, misshapen, and deformed.

The engineering students Leonardi studied followed 8 very peculiar practices: 1) They delayed starting engineering assignments until the last possible moment and ridiculed anyone who didn’t follow along. If it was a group task, they refused to begin in a timely manner even if some members wished to do so. 2) They ignored instructions. 3) They worked without a plan even though best practices were taught in their classes and their professors urged them to do so. Leonardi regularly found students tinkering with problems with closed reference books piled next to them. 4) They monitored the difficulty that other students were having with assignments and labeled people as “stupid” or “brilliant” depending upon their findings. 5) They completed work alone. Students frustrated and ridiculed their professors’ efforts to get them to work together, either in pairs or groups. 6) They concentrated their efforts on tasks that would allow their own contribution to stand out and neglected tasks that wouldn’t. 7) They continually ranked themselves against their peers using the latest posted test scores. And finally, 8) They excluded and ridiculed peers they felt had inferior technical skills.

The goal these students pursued was completion of their college degrees and placement in a good job, but the sunlight in this environment was their grade point average and class ranking. The students carried their pursuit of these two incentives to an extreme. They deliberately increased the difficulty of assignments for themselves and threw roadblocks up for others in order to create a sense of sport and to help distinguish the very bright from the brilliant. They fostered a highly competitive environment among their peers, and they stubbornly resisted any efforts by professors to improve communication or teamwork skills. Curiously, Leonardi found that as students advanced through the five-year engineering program, their performance of these 8 behaviors increased. By the time they graduated, this was the way they completed engineering work, and students insisted they must work this way because engineers in the field did so. And if you think about it, you’ll recognize that this distorted process has been created by the very complaining engineering managers who rely upon grade point average and class ranking to make hiring decisions.

The incentives of grade-point average and class rank at this engineering school are clear, but the contorted reactions of students to these incentives are alarming and should serve as a reminder to anyone who formulates incentives to mold the performance of employees. You need to be cautious and monitor how employees react.

Leonardi’s findings should also be a reminder to employers of all recent graduates. The more success they’ve had in an academic setting, the more likely they will resemble the students in Leonardi’s study. For such employees, you may expect to find weakness in communication and teamwork skills and resistance to your efforts to correct these weaknesses. Incentives based on group performance, like profit sharing, may help.

Reference: Leonardi, Paul, Michele Jackson, and Amer Diwan (2009) The Enactment-Externalization Dialectic: Rationalization and the Persistence of Counterproductive Technology Design Practices in Student Engineering. Academy of Management Journal, 52(2), 400-420

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