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The human side of human resources

Department of Management faculty tap into organizational psychology to help companies motivate and support their people
May 1, 2017
By Wayne Larsen

Before Concordia’s John Molson School of Business (JMSB) donned its current name in 2000, it was known as the Faculty of Commerce and Administration. When people think of business schools like JMSB even today, they might first consider the commerce side — finance, accountancy and marketing.

Yet the administration end of things is as vital as ever, as companies continually seek to improve their management, human resources and organizations. 

Kathleen Boies Tapping into the field of organizational psychology, Kathleen Boies seeks out new ways of training future organizational leaders.

Concordia research in this field taps into areas outside of traditional business studies. To reveal methods to train effective leaders, improve employee wellbeing or help women rise in the ranks, Department of Management faculty employ theories of organizational psychology to examine the human side of corporate industry. 

“I’ve always been interested in psychology,” says Kathleen Boies, Concordia University Research Chair in Leadership Development and professor in the Department of Management. “I’m really interested in how leaders can shape how other people think — by their vision, by how they articulate it and by how they shape how people think together,” she says. 

Boies’s early academic interest in the field of organizational psychology has over the last few years slowly evolved into a focus on leadership development.

She eagerly dispels a common misconception that leaders are born and not made, citing results of a major study she co-authored six years ago. This study required a student actor from Concordia’s Department of Theatre to play a manager who displays different leadership behaviours in a series of scenarios developed by a professional stage director. Each of these scenes was filmed and shown to 44 teams of subjects as they carried out a “resource-maximization” project using Lego blocks.

“Working with an actor and a stage director was fun to do,” Boies relates. “This actor displayed various leadership behaviours under experimental conditions, which led to different levels of performance and different types of communications within the teams. In the end, there were some really interesting differences, depending on the leadership style the actor displayed.”

That study’s methodology underscores Boies’s assertion that leadership can be taught. “If an actor can be trained to display these different leadership behaviours, then other people can also be trained to do the same,” she says.

Enhancing the coaching experience

Boies is currently working on two large-scope projects, both funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grants. One, in collaboration with Louis Baron of Université du Québec à Montréal, requires what Boies calls a “quasiexperimental methodology” and aims to improve the executive coaching experience. Boies and Baron work hands-on with several local companies, mainly in the financial and transportation sectors. They have organized a process by which people being coached for leadership positions are subjected to one of two different methods.

“We have people in the field who are starting a coaching process, and we assigned some of them to a structured coaching — a way to think about your experiences to extract more meaning from them,” says Boies. “You go through experiences and you may learn nothing from them, but this coaching technique might make your experiences more meaningful.” For this study, half of those being coached have been assigned the structured technique, while the other half are following the regular coaching process.

“We’re following them over a period of several months and looking at their coaching process and whether or not they become more adaptable and flexible in the end,” she says. “We think that if you can extract more meaning from your experiences, you’ll gain a better understanding of how to act in different situations and have a better understanding of your environment and what behaviours are appropriate in different situations.”

Work-life balance and career goals

Tracy Hecht Montreal native Tracy Hecht’s work searches for ways to help individuals achieve work-life balance.

Boies’s other current study looks at the differences between men and women in their respective career advancements. Undertaken in collaboration with Tracy Hecht, associate professor in the Department of Management, the study uses data collected mainly from healthcare professionals and students. It aims to shed light on how men’s and women’s career paths generally differ — and how that affects their assumption of leadership roles. 

“One of the hypotheses we have is that women go through life stages differently than men,” says Boies. “At the time leadership opportunities happen, many women are at a stage of their life where it’s not really possible for them to engage in those activities — and that might explain some of the differences in the representation of women and men in top-level positions.” 

Much of this has to do with work-life balance, Hecht explains. “I’ve been doing a lot of work on the work-home interface, trying to understand what it’s like to be a person who plays multiple roles and how working parents manage to both engage in their work while raising a family simultaneously — which can be a struggle for many people,” she says. 

Challenging traditional roles

Hecht’s own research examines working parents’ roles within the family. “When we think of a traditional family, we often think of a family with dad as the breadwinner and mom as the caregiver,” she says. “A slightly more modern version is the neo-traditional family, in which dad has a ‘career’ and mom has a ‘job.’ In this neo-traditional model, mom is in the workplace but she is still assumed to be the caregiver at home, and dad’s role at home is still to be the financial provider.” 

This view of families is outdated, Hecht points out. “In research conducted by my doctoral student, Heather Cluley Bar-Or, we find that this neo-traditional model is not the only way to be a dual-income family; it’s not even the most common way,” she says. Only one quarter of the couples in our study of dual-income couples with young kids were neo-traditional. On the other hand, approximately 45 per cent held egalitarian identities. Of these couples, both mom and dad want to provide financially and be role models for their kids. Both want to provide hands-on care at home.” 

The study found that these identities trickle down into the day-to-day decisions and routines of dual-income couples. “So it’s not always mom who will rearrange her work to take care of her kids. In fact, much of the time, dad is doing the same,” Hecht says. “We cannot continue to assume that moms will be unavailable to work because of sick kids or need to leave work early to pick them up. We need to recognize that there are many ways to be a dual-income couple — that couples are creative at finding ways to balance work and family, that there are both men and women who want career advancement, and both men and women who want to care for their families. We need more organizational structures to support those efforts and fewer assumptions about the roles that men and women play in the workplace and at home.”

Battling burnout

Alexandra Panaccio Alexandra Panaccio, who earned a law degree from Université de Montréal before switching to academia, investigates ways of avoiding employee burnout.

The interrelated factors of stress, work-life balance and employee burnout form a large part of the research of Alexandra Panaccio, associate professor in the Department of Management. “I was a lawyer for a short period of time before realizing I wanted to be in academia,” says Panaccio. “I was interested in leadership at all levels of an organization, not just at the top, and became interested in employee wellbeing by examining the relationship you have with your workplace.” 

One of Panaccio’s main areas of interest in employee wellbeing is occupational burnout. Symptoms of the all-too-common condition include the chronic fatigue, lack of motivation, anxiety and depression that come about as a result of their jobs. This often leads to employees taking prolonged stress leaves. “There’s a lot of research on this because burnout issues are very costly for organizations,” she says. “People who stay with an organization for all the wrong reasons are more likely to experience burnout. Even if it’s a good job with a good salary and great benefits, you can still burn out if you stay for instrumental reasons.”

Although today’s employees tend to jump from company to company more frequently than those of previous generations, a change of employer might not diminish the risk of burnout if an employee remains in the same job. For example, an engineer specializing in quality assurance who frequently switches employers yet is really not that passionate about that area of engineering remains at risk, she points out. 

Panaccio adds that stress is certainly not limited to those in the workforce, and lately she has been looking at the ways in which students find life balance and deal with daily stress. “It’s well documented that students experience a lot of stress throughout their studies,” she says. “But much of this stress occurs during the first year of university, where there’s a big transition from being in CEGEP [or high school for those outside Quebec] to being in what is almost a workplace environment in terms of responsibility and the teamwork requirements, and you have to manage a lot more things.” 

Many students have even more on their plates than full-time employees. “Most of our Concordia students have jobs — not necessarily high-level jobs — but they have to balance these jobs, their studies and then their personal lives,” says Panaccio. “Often they don’t have kids, but maybe they have parents or siblings they have to care for. They have their personal sphere, their school sphere and their work sphere — which is a lot! So it seems to be very worthy of investigation. If we understand how people can be equipped to deal with these stressors, maybe there’s a way we can intervene early on for future employees.”

The stalled gender revolution

Ingrid Chadwick Ingrid Chadwick researches how women tackle business leadership roles.

Factors of stress, balance and life stages also figure in the research of Ingrid Chadwick, assistant professor in the Department of Management. Her current project, in collaboration with Alyson Byrne of Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., focuses on women in leadership roles — the promotion of women in the workplace and what’s really in it for them when they do attain leadership positions. 

“There’s a high demand for women in leadership; organizations are being pushed to help facilitate their success,” says Chadwick. “Women are asked to lean in and fight to get a seat at the table, to have an impact — which is great. But if you look at the numbers, nothing’s really changing. We call it the ‘stalled gender revolution.’” 

Citing hurdles such as work-life balance, discrimination and biases, Chadwick points out that women face many challenges in fitting into traditionally male-dominated leadership roles. “So I’m trying to understand how we can help women lean in and take on these leadership roles if there’s really not much in it for them. This is where we started the study, thinking there’s got to be a positive side to the story.” 

Chadwick and Byrne are interviewing subjects from a wide variety of professions and industries, including fashion, law enforcement, academia, manufacturing, information technology and publishing. “So far we’ve interviewed about 25 women in senior leadership roles and it’s been fascinating to hear their stories,” she says. “We’re seeing some patterns in their experiences so far, where absolutely there are challenges to get into senior leadership roles, particularly related to how they balance being a woman and a leader.” 

Many of these women are mothers, Chadwick adds. “They try to be proud of that and in the process they are role models for their children,” she says. “You may not always be present at the school plays but you offer a lot of other things, such as the notion of being a leader and giving them some of that to follow as an example. More generally, these women really appreciate how their leadership role enables them to have a positive impact and to develop and empower others in their organizations; this is a much more encouraging side of female leadership that we don’t hear much about.”

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