Building bridges (Executive Series)

Putting cutting-edge research into practice

Building bridges

Putting cutting-edge research into practice

By Liz Bernier

HR is certainly an area that’s ripe for research and gathering data, and there are numerous academic studies both in print and in development that could add significant value for HR professionals on the front lines of the profession. 

But research is only helpful if it’s applied in workplaces that could benefit from it.

That was the theme of a recent Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto: How can we create linkages and mitigate disconnects between HR research and HR practice? 

The panel event presented research from three Canadian academics, with high-level HR professionals then discussing how three areas of the research applied to the daily challenges and climate within an organization.

Organizational cynicism
The first research area discussed was that of organizational cynicism, according to Kristyn Scott, associate professor of human resource management and organizational behaviour at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. 

“People who are high in organizational cynicism tend to have negative feelings toward their organization. So when they think about their organization, they might feel irritated, they might feel anxious.”

Another aspect is behaviour.

“Individuals who are high in organizational cynicism tend to exhibit negative behaviour that’s directed toward the organization. So, for example, they might spend time criticizing their company’s policies and practices with others,” said Scott.

A third component is cognition.

“These are the thoughts and beliefs about the organization. Individuals who are high in cynicism tend to believe, for example, that their company might say one thing but do another thing. So they really doubt that their company is going to do what it says it will,” said Scott.

So why is it important to examine the research around organizational cynicism?

“Cynicism leads to a host of outcomes that are predominately negative. Individuals who are cynical about their organization tend to have lower job satisfaction. They tend to be less committed to the organization, they tend to have increased stress, increased turnover intention and lower job performance,” she said. 

And the dynamics of workplace relationships are really impacted when cynicism is involved, said Scott. 

HR leaders are highly attuned to cynicism and are trying to understand how to mitigate it in organizations, said Cheryl Fullerton, executive vice-president of people and communications at Corus Entertainment in Toronto. 

“At the heart, cynics are always afraid of being hurt, I think. They’re always scanning the environment, looking for the faults so they can be out ahead of them so that it’s not going to sneak up and harm them. So there’s that basic self-preservation thing,” she said. 

It’s helpful to have supervisors understand the value of the cynic, she said. Some cynics are needed within the organization because if there are only optimists who just assume everything is going to work out, there won’t be a balance of perspectives, said Fullerton. 

Scott said she tended to agree. 

“Cynics are questioning, cynics are pointing out the holes, they’re picking at the flaws. And that can be a benefit. So that is one thing that we know about people who are negative in general — you want them around because they’re going to do that. They’re not going to just blindly agree and say, ‘Yes, it’s great,’” she said. 

“They will push the thinking forward and I think that’s a great value.”

Workplace mistreatment
A second area of research that has not received much attention yet is that of workplace mistreatment and forgiveness, said Agnes Zdaniuk, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Employees who have been on the receiving end of some form of bullying or mistreatment in the workplace have very different experiences, but these can have a deep impact, she said. 

“Being victimized has lots of negative psychological consequences for victims in terms of their psychological well-being. So things like increased stress, lower productivity, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, anger,” said Zdaniuk. 

“Most of us can recall a time when we were unfairly treated by someone, but we vary quite drastically in terms of how we respond to mistreatment.

“Probably the most destructive response someone can take is revenge.”

There are acts of revenge that can be pretty severe such as acts of sabotage, interpersonal aggression, even theft. These are detrimental to an organization both socially and economically, she said. 

On the flip side, the most positive response someone can take is forgiveness. So what can organizations do to better promote forgiveness following mistreatment? 

“Surprisingly, up until some of my recent research, there’s been very little research done on workplace forgiveness,” she said. 

One key way leaders influence followers is they have a strong capacity to inspire them to transcend their self-interest, said Zdaniuk. 

But the biggest challenge is the consequences go on for so long, said Brian Daly, vice-president and CHRO at Star Media Group in Toronto. 

“(HR professionals) spend a lot of (their) careers fostering and promoting transformational leadership,” he said — and this is one more example of why that’s important.” 

However, is it possible or prudent to move too quickly to forgiveness? 

“I worry that sometimes we can go too quickly to forgiveness,” he said. “If people just forget about it, that’s going to happen again in six to 12 months unless we try to resolve it.”

But it’s important to remember forgiveness is a process, said Zdaniuk. 

“It’s not condoning it, it’s not forgetting about it — it’s working through it,” she said. 

“If you’re really hasty with it… you put yourself at risk of perhaps being taken advantage of by other people within the organization.”

That’s why it’s important to create a climate of forgiveness so it becomes the norm, she said.

“Technostress” is a huge issue today, yet research on the subject is relatively nascent. It’s basically stress from using all the information communication technology relied on today, according to Milena Head, professor of information systems at the  DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“Approximately three-quarters of professionals worry if they’re not constantly connected and responding in almost immediate fashion, because they worry that it could put them at a disadvantage in the workplace,” she said. 

“The catch-22 for organizations is there’s so much evidence to show that technology is good. Technology helps organizations, helps companies to compete better. But, on the flip side, as we use more and more technology, what’s really happening to undermine the employee productivity, their innovation and their well-being?”

Research has been very focused on encouraging use, but now we’re finally starting to shift from encouraging use but also understanding misuse, said Head. 
If a person is stressed or addicted to technology in his private life, it bleeds over into the work world and vice versa. There are a number of negative consequences to technostress, including job conflict and fear of missing out. 

“Research has also shown that there are individual characteristics that might impact us more,” she said.  

One of them is gender — men actually experience more technostress than women do. Also, generally, younger people experience more technostress and it tends to decrease with age. 

Head and fellow researchers have also coined the term “secondhand technostress,” which is the phenomenon of people becoming stressed simply by being in the vicinity of others using these technologies — they are not even using them themselves. 

For some employees, however, particularly millennials from a generational perspective, it can also cause stress to not have access to devices. 

Yet having millennials glued to their phones can create tension and misunderstanding within the workplace. Some of the initial research in this area is actually showing that as people get older, they are more susceptible to secondhand technostress, said Head. 

“As you see the people around you and you’re having a conversation with someone and they’re on their phone, as you get older, that causes you a lot of stress — more so than other generations,” she said. 

“So it’s a matter of how do you strike that balance in the workplace? How do you make sure that you are enabling the younger generation to work how they need to work to become most productive, to become happy in their workplace — but then be mindful of the other generations who are getting stressed out?

“A lot of it comes down to how do you have that discussion, and how do you understand the viewpoints and the concerns and the values that different generations have within the workforce?”


Is that you, academia? It’s me, corporate Canada

By Michael Clark

Orchango executive Edmond Mellina has once again opened up an intriguing window on HR-applicable research being conducted in academia. Using the Nive River that runs through his hometown of Bayonne, France, as a metaphor for the divide between scholars and practitioners, Mellina uses these sessions to demonstrate that the river can be crossed.

The research included managing organizational cynicism, promoting forgiveness and reducing technologically induced stress, with each of the professors doing a good job succinctly presenting their findings and remedial suggestions. 
As I did last year, I wondered, “What else is out there that I could tap into to help my clients?” The next question follows naturally: “Where can I find out?”

Firstly, I discover that there does not appear to be a dedicated clearinghouse of academic research. Being in HR, with all our painful modesty, we might accept this as just being realistic for research on the so-called “soft skills,” but even for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research, there is no deliberate, comprehensive database of applied (and applicable) research. If you want to find something, you need to sleuth.

For example, regarding behavioural research, you can dig into the federally sponsored Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Every year, it publishes a list of the researchers who received funding. Over 650 grants will be awarded in 2016. (Note that all three of the academics presenting at this SCN session received funding from SSHRC.)

Next, you can search the agencies that match-make public-private partnerships — the PPPs. The Ontario Centres of Excellence comes to mind, but the scope of their work appears limited in scale and scope: They have relatively few awards and those for employment- and investment-heavy industry, HR-applicable research would likely not even qualify. In Ontario, there is the Human Resources Research Institute (an offshoot of the provincial HR association), but its funding is limited.

So, why aren’t academics and corporates joining together in droves, enjoying what seems like an obvious win-win? After all, academics are looking for funding while corporates are looking for competitive advantage and high-potential employees.

One reason is the dark side of public-private partnerships: Undue influence. In late 2013, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) published a scathing account of university-industry research partnerships primarily in the oil patch. Under the alarming title “Open for Business,” CAUT found evidence — disputed by the researchers involved, natch — of compromised academic integrity and abused public interest.

Does this mean academics are wary of being tainted by business? Does this mean corporates believe partnerships are PR scandals in the making? Surely, this is merely a matter of transparency and process with fair dealers in the middle making sure everything stays above board. I would love to see this question addressed at next year’s session.

Mellina is clever to use the Nives River as a metaphor for the divide between academics and practitioners, and that the river can be crossed. After all, Bayonne has six bridges over the Nives.

Michael Clark is director of business development at Forrest & Company, an organizational transformation firm with over 25 years experience in developing the organizational and leadership capacity in organizations. 


Facing organizational challenges from within

By Karen Gorsline

Both employers and academic researchers see organizations facing challenges from within that represent as great a threat as any competitor in the marketplace. Disturbing behaviours such as organizational cynicism, workplace mistreatment and vastly differing responses to technology have become pervasive in both personal and work lives. These behaviours can often undermine the corporate culture required to remain competitive. Both organizations and academia are exploring what can be done to rectify these issues from their own perspective. 

Academia is seeking to understand the manifestations, the underlying causes, the impact of relationships and the implications for productivity. Academics have the benefit of distance and the luxury of focus when they look at data and situations. Academics ask questions like the following:

Cynicism: What if a worker is cynical? Or the supervisor? Or both? How do various combinations impact relationships? Are some people more disposed to being cynical? Based on the answers, what can organizations do of offset any negative effects?

Workplace mistreatment: When mistreatment has been experienced, what are possible responses? What responses are the most destructive?  The most positive? Without advocating, condoning or attempting to forget about an incident, is it possible to forgive? If so, what is involved in forgiving and can it be promoted as a process?

Technostress: Where is the line between encouraging the use of technology and understanding misuse? Is technology use addictive and creating unrecognized stress? How does it impact generations, genders, personalities or other segments differently? Does second-hand stress occur as a result of constant use of technology by others and, if so, what are its impacts?

Organizations look at their existing culture in an evolving world and ask what are the desired behaviours for the future and what are practical steps to address these issues: cynicism, mistreatment and technostress. Examples of approaches being taken by organizations include the following:

Cynicism: Create an understanding that cynicism exists in the organization and can be exacerbated by occurrences in the environment perceived and dissonant (such as an overly rosy picture depicted when times are bad) and feelings of a lack of control or lack of voice. Create awareness of the constructive value of cynicism and of the value of those who raise questions or see other perspectives. Help leaders understand how to better respond to questions raised by cynics.

Workplace mistreatment: With a focus on leaders, develop practices and structure to understand the mistreatment and how to respond when it occurs. Create a climate where leaders who apologize are not seen as weak. Create an understanding that forgiveness is a process for moving forward and is not forgetting. 

Technostress: Develop approaches to deploying technology to increase productivity that do not also increase stress. Create ground rules of use (such as phones in meetings). Understand when discussions are best supported by discussion and reflection and when by active use of technology to supplement (such as in-the-moment researching or model building/testing) and make the difference in these meeting types clear. Ask if technology is controlling the person or the person is controlling the technology.

Academia and organizations need to seek each other out and collaborate with these critical issues.  Synthesizing learning from both points of view will lead to a deeper understanding of underlying causes and relationships. From this understanding, organizations can develop more focused responses and practical initiatives to address organization cynicism, workplace mistreatment and the impacts of pervasive technology. Without collaboration, each will only have part of the picture — academic theory not geared to real world problems or shot gun types of initiatives that use scarce resources, with no assurance of positive impact.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at [email protected]


Strengthening HR strategies  

By Trish Maguire

Senior HR leaders had a firsthand opportunity to hear key insights from recent academia research about the people side of business.  

Research on organizational cynicism by Krystin Scott of Ryerson University clearly confirms that a) engagement and cynicism cannot co-exist and b) trust is the single most effective antidote to organizational cynicism.  

In other words, when people are truly engaged, there is no interest, time or energy for cynicism, and vice versa. So, what can HR leaders do about it? Perhaps the starting point is to assess the following:  

  When employees share ideas and input, can they expect to be taken seriously?

  How much confidence do employees have in their leaders keeping promises, acting with integrity and looking out for their best interests?

  Does trust — or fear — rule our organization? 

Agnes Zdaniuk of the University of Guelph presented her findings on workplace mistreatment. A key learning for HR leaders was the pivotal role leaders play in “influencing” employee responses to workplace mistreatment. Interestingly, the research contradicts the justification held by many that forgiveness can easily be interpreted as management ignoring or possibly condoning workplace mistreatment. Essentially, a culture of forgiveness increases people’s sense of well-being and job satisfaction, and promotes greater productivity. 

Have you noticed that people can give several descriptions for forgiveness but not so many techniques to actually achieve it? The compelling suggestion for HR is to promote leaders learning and adopting “idealized influence leadership.” Effectiveness lies in consistently refocusing employees’ needs, values, preferences and aspirations from self-interest to collective interests.  

“Technostress” was the final research presented by Milena Head of McMaster University.  Technostress establishes that technology is escalating people’s irritation, frustration, stress and lack of sleep. We also learned that “information fatigue syndrome” is on the rise because people, more than ever before, are receiving more information than they can read, never mind absorb it.  

Besides people no longer having any down time, “secondhand technostress” is evidently having an equally negative impact on people’s health. Especially interesting is the impact of “technorruptions.” Apparently, because people feel obliged to instantly respond to these interruptions, it can take 25 minutes for people to catch up with their activities. 

Clearly, HR leaders need to introduce strategies and protocols that move people from technostress to “technohealth.”

Proposed suggestions from the research start with: 

  ensuring the senior leadership team is leading by example

  prohibiting the use of technology for specific periods of time

  building companywide awareness about the misuse and appropriate use of technology. 

How can academia research strengthen HR strategies? By HR leaders taking the opportunity to learn, transform their learning and act on it — now, not tomorrow.  

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions, focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at [email protected]

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