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Kenan Institute 2024 Grand Challenge: Business Resilience
Market-Based Solutions to Vital Economic Issues
Jul 11, 2023

Managing Successfully: Takeaways from Recent Research

In the new world of remote work, managers – particularly middle managers – are under an increased amount of pressure. The stresses of managing hybrid or remote employees, being caught in the middle of an organizational hierarchy, difficulties relating to the Great Resignation add up to a highly uncertain and tumultuous arena for those with managerial responsibilities.

UNC Kenan-Flagler Assistant Professor Tim Kundro, who researches the complexities of morality and ethics at work, has several research interests and projects with relevant implications for managerial behavior and best practices. We sat down with Kundro to ask questions around his research and possible takeaways for the modern manager.

One of your papers finds that the employees most in need of detachment from their jobs during nonwork hours—those under high pressure to perform well – also experience the greatest negative emotional effects from such detachment. How can this tension be reconciled such that workers under heavy pressure to perform are also able to get a mental break from their work lives?

I think what we’ve been seeing is a tendency for organizations to espouse – but not enact – the importance of downtime and well-being. It’s easy to create surface level well-being initiatives or talk about the importance of detaching from work, but it’s much harder to create infrastructure that really allows employees to benefit from this time off. This is especially difficult in a post-COVID workplace where constant access to the office – through platforms like Slack – is a new norm in many workplaces.

So, I think what we need to see is managers and organizations taking sincere steps to normalize detachment from work through their own behavior. This means protecting employees when they are stepping away from the office so that they really can benefit and recharge. This also means finding ways to reduce pressure on employees whenever possible so that they don’t feel the constant nagging connection to work when they’re supposed to be away from their job.

These emotional effects subsequently lead to greater cheating behaviors at work the next day. What implications does this hold for managers of employees under high pressure to perform?

This highlights the growing costs of performance pressure in the workplace. For managers, it’s easy to think that ramping up pressure and pushing employees will be somewhat beneficial. However, we’ve seen results from research that push back against that narrative and suggest that high levels of performance pressure may not be that helpful. Our research goes a step further and says that there are perhaps many other unintended consequences to this pressure, specifically where employees engage in ethically questionable behaviors to help circumvent the pressure that’s placed on them.

On the subject of morality, another of your papers finds that – contrary to conventional belief – morality can make employees more creative. How can managers harness the power of moral considerations to enhance creativity among workers? Are there ways of fostering an optimal work environment?

That’s a great question. I think we’ve seen a lot of managers (and perhaps this is especially the case in Silicon Valley) adopt the mantra that to innovate, employees need to “move fast and break things.” This mentality seems to suggest that many employees feel as though they need to put morality aside in order to innovate.

This mentality always puzzled me, since there’s numerous examples where I thought morality may have helped employees innovate. We’re seeing all these neat examples today; for example, the invention of smog vacuum cleaners that can transform particles into diamonds, that seem to emerge because of – not despite – moral concerns.

What I found from this four-year research effort was that value congruence – or the employees’ sense that their values are aligned with the organization’s values – plays a key role. If employees believe that they are working for an organization that shares their values, then they really do begin to feel free to think in very flexible and creative ways. However, if they work for a firm that doesn’t share their values, I find that employees begin to really worry about what their work is contributing to, which hampers their creativity.

So, managers really need to think about the moral mission of their firm and group. They need to ask themselves if their goals and products are positioned to have an impact that their employees can rally around. If that’s the case, then morality may help drive innovation. If it’s not, then maybe it’s time to reconsider what exactly they’re working towards or building.

Speaking of morality, you have some work looking at how organizational members respond to cover-ups. What should managers be concerned of here?

We found that when organizational members witness a cover-up, they tend to show leniency if the cover-up is on behalf of someone else. In fact, there’s this problematic tendency to view the cover-up as loyal and even helpful towards the organization. Of course, it’s best for managers and organizations to have unethical acts and cover-ups stopped immediately, so being aware of this bias is critical for managers. It’s really easy to praise loyal actions, but managers need to think in a more long-term about how loyalty may be a double-edged sword.  

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