Management Research: Charmingly Counterintuitive

Management Research: Charmingly Counterintuitive

Managing business and people is incredibly complex, especially in a world where technological change is rapidly changing the very context of operations. Yet, this is what that makes the discipline so charming!


Engineering graduates, who go on to study management, say at times that they miss the certainty of their former discipline. The theories they read about in the business school almost always have exceptions, and the students miss the rules and formulae that work without fail. So, centralisation of decision-making works for one organisation, but decentralisation seems to be equally successful for another, apparently similar, organisation. A collaborative, collegial and consultative style of management works for one company, but a top-down command and control style works equally well for another company in the same industry. One product succeeds after the designers collect opinions from potential customers through surveys and focus groups, while another product succeeds equally well, though it reflects the idiosyncratic vision of only the CEO.


The usual response from academics to this discomfort is that truth in management studies is not absolute but contingent. If care is taken to ascertain the context, then business organisations can also be guided by rules which ensure predictable outcomes. The challenge of course is that ‘context’ is an umbrella term that encompasses the history of the company, the oddities of the industry, the psychological profiles of the key managers, the nature of the regulatory environment and much more. In fact, there are competing suggestions for what should be included in the context for prescribing the right course of action for a company.


Not anxiety, but curiosity


For veterans, this complexity is one that produces not anxiety but curiosity and even delight. Management research and writing is always throwing up counterintuitive insights that provide colour and provoke fresh thinking on otherwise settled matters. Managers are best advised to process research findings in this spirit. Here is a potpourri of examples.


Many managers believe that getting people to make a signed public declaration makes them more likely to do what they signed up for. Indeed, one advice to people giving up a habit like smoking is to make a public commitment. That act makes it likely that they will act responsibly to save face. However, in a series of interesting experiments, Peter Gollwitzer of New York University found that people who made public declarations of what they were going to do were less likely to actually do it than those who kept such intentions private. Apparently, those who made the pious declarations started seeing themselves as already ennobled by that act, and therefore, allowed to cut some slack in actual behaviour. This is a fascinating departure of group behaviour from what was always thought true for individual behaviour.


Another example comes from the work of Linda Babcock of CMU and Hannah Bowles of Harvard University in the study of successful negotiating styles. They found that people who do poorly in negotiating a salary increase for themselves do a better job when they have to do the same negotiation pretending to be mentors negotiating on the behalf of their wards. This is completely unexpected. People are supposed to be more deeply involved in what relates to their own good compared to what will benefit others. Apparently not. The concern for others, which was driving the second negotiation, brought out the best in people. These two researchers were specifically addressing the negotiation styles of women in the world of work, who often feel hesitant about asking for what is truly due to them. Just pretending to ask for more for someone they deeply cared about made them better negotiators for themselves.


The right messaging


Turning to the totally different area of messaging appeal, Jonah Berger of Wharton Business School and Grant Packard of York University recently shared their study of popular music. They were curious about what makes one song more popular than another when it comes to lyrics or the message. Interestingly enough, it was not the theme or mood but a mundane fact like the degree to which the word ‘You’ was used as a subject of grammatical construction in the lyrics of the song. They were surprised by their own finding and created experiments where, retaining the theme, the music, the voice and the broad overall sense of the lyrics, the construction was changed to make ‘I’ the subject in one set and ‘you’ the subject in the other. Here again ‘you’ won over ‘I’. This is fascinating and quite unexpected, with many implications for message design.


One last example, again from the world of messaging, but this time more specifically from the world of TV advertising. The old joke about advertising is that only half the money spent on it is effective, but no one knows which half. With the rise of social media and the webcasting of TV channels, unusual methods of tracking ad appeal have become possible. Many people circulate ads on social media giving greater visibility to that company, product and message.


Researchers from WBS and Microsoft recently rigged up cameras on TV to correlate facial expressions of viewers watching ads with what they say about those ads and further relating it to what those people do with the very same ads on social media. The findings are interesting. The first one is not very counterintuitive. Opinions expressed by the viewers do not correlate strongly with what they do with the ads. What they do on social media links well to their displayed expressions while viewing ads. They are more likely to forward the ads if they appear emotionally aroused positively. So far so good. The second finding is certainly not intuitive. Viewers are also likely to forward the ads if they are very disgusted by them. In other words, their behaviour is the same when they are emotionally aroused by a great deal either positively or negatively. So, if the ad is not very good it better be only mildly poor, else it will bring unwanted negative publicity over social media.


Unexpected findings from research dismay many professional managers who are looking for definitive guides to routine decision making. However, they would be advised to think of their profession as fluid with evolving frameworks for analysis and guidance. Managing business and people is incredibly complex, especially in a world where technological change is rapidly changing the very context of operations. Yet, this is what makes the discipline so charming!


Gautam Brahma is a management consultant who advises start-ups and SMEs on strategy & operations including sales, HR and IT. He carries an experience of over four decades in the public, private and non-profit sectors in telecommunications and IT industries. He has been an invited speaker on multiple industry forums and a monthly columnist on HR issues for nearly two decades. Gautam is based out of Gurgaon and can be reached at


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