Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Here is a management tip for getting the most out of your female employees: if you want to fire them up before an important business negotiation, just talk to them about Larry Summers. Only you may find that this tactic also delivers some undesirable side-effects.

Laura Kray, a social psychologist at the Haas School of Business at the University of California in Berkeley, has used the case of the former Harvard president as a subtle way to change the behaviour of students in the “lab” where she works.

It is part of a broader approach to applying lessons from social psychology to management that is starting to spread though academia. Social scientists such as Ms Kray, an associate professor at Haas since 2002, are preaching a different approach to management based on an understanding of how people behave in groups.

“Managers would benefit from thinking like social scientists,” she declares – just the sort of message likely to strike fear into the heart of the average manager, who may well already feel called on to play the roles of amateur psychologist, philosopher and pedagogue.

Ms Kray specialises in the psychopathologies that affect decision-making and negotiation (which she describes as “a decision-making process where you’re interdependent with someone else”). Among her studies are how an awareness of sexual stereotypes can be used to influence performance in negotiations, and how to improve the often lamentable quality of group decision-making.

At the heart of the approach used by academics such as Ms Kray is a belief that managers would be more effective if they understood and were able to apply some basic tools of social psychology. Knowing how to drop Mr Summers’ name into a conversation at the right time would be a start.

In her Berkeley experiment, Ms Kray used a classroom discussion about Mr Summers’ controversial views on the innate differences between the sexes to provoke a strong subconscious reaction among women in the Haas MBA programme. The same women, carrying out an unrelated negotiation exercise afterwards, displayed far more aggression and other stereotypically “male” characteristics and achieved more from the negotiation than they otherwise would have.

Being exposed to Mr Summers’ views had provoked what Ms Kray describes as “stereotype reactants – they’re saying: ‘Wait a minute, you can’t tell me what I can and cannot do, I’ll show you’. If the stereotype is really blatant then the motivation to disprove the stereotype kind of energises and leads them to work to disprove it.”

Stimulating women to act more like men, though, can have its drawbacks. The female negotiators may have achieved a better result in the main negotiation, but it came at the expense of other side benefits. The negotiators “failed to recognise where they had compatible interests”, says Ms Kray.

The better option, she says, is to encourage women to think of stereotypically female characteristics as a strength, not a weakness. Get them to think of a negotiation as a joint effort to solve a crossword puzzle, not as a chess game where one side is trying to outflank the other.

“What I’m trying to do when training future managers is show that there’s a lot you can do before you get to the bargaining table to psych yourself up, to really understand how the stereotype might be undermining your performance,” she says.

Ms Kray’s other main area of study has been in group decision-making. How do you stop groups of workers from making bad decisions when the information needed to make better ones is already known to one member of the group, or to a minority, she asks.

Group-think involves a safe consensus around what is already generally known. Individuals with unique but important information are often afraid to share it, while others are not prepared to listen. Groups converge instead around shared knowledge.

Mental exercises that prompt group members to think more critically can counter that deadening effect, according to Ms Kray. She stages classroom discussions as exercises: students discuss the failure of Nasa technicians to anticipate the catastrophic technical failure that brought down the space shuttle Challenger, for instance, or the inability of US intelligence services to identify the plot to destroy the World Trade Center as it took shape.

Prompting group members to discuss cases such as these induces what she calls a “counterfactual mindset” – a greater willingness to consider things not as they actually happened, but as they might have happened. “By activating that, you can get people to think more analytically,” she says.

The message from experimental business school studies such as these is: in the practice of management, awareness and preparation are all.

When it comes to preparing for a negotiation, says Ms Kray, it would pay to make employees aware of the sexual stereotypes that dominate their thinking – and, rather than fight them, to accentuate their positive aspects. “It’s about showing people what their beliefs are and how it affects their performance,” she says.

Meanwhile, when starting a meeting where important decisions will be taken, think of carrying on a discussion beforehand as a form of mental limbering-up, preferably focusing on any example where important information that could have affected the outcome of a decision was ignored.

“By getting people to think counterfactually ahead of time, it improves the decision-making,” says Ms Kray.

This is the fourth and final article in the ‘women to watch’ series.

Part 1 - Lessons in economic reality

Part 2 - Diverse disciplines that bring enlightenment

Part 3 - A cure for the professional identity crisis

Get alerts on Business education when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article