2015 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Michael Christian, Kenan-Flagler

Michael Christian

Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior

University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School


Mike Christian

Boss breathing down your neck and whispering questionable plans in your ear? Go get a cup of coffee. University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School professor Mike Christian’s research discovered that sleep deprivation can lead to unethical behavior at work – and employees who battle it with caffeine can better resist pressure from bosses to commit ethical breaches. And, Christian’s work has shown, minor ethical transgressions tend to lead down a slippery slope to worse misconduct, as represented by Bernie Madoff. Organizational behavior prof Christian and his research have been featured in the Financial Times, BusinessWeek, the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and the Harvard Business Review, and earned him numerous awards.

Age: 39

At current institution since: 2010


PhD   2010, Management, Eller College of Management, University of Arizona

MS     2006, Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Tulane University

BA     1998, Psychology & Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Courses currently teaching: 

MBA Leadership Immersion

MBA Groups and Teams in Organizations

Undergraduate Groups and Teams in Organizations

PhD Organizational Behavior

Professor you most admire:

After I left Tulane’s PhD program because of Hurricane Katrina, I finished my PhD at the University of Arizona. So I had two advisors who I admire equally and am grateful to. Aleksander Ellis at the University of Arizona and Bryan Edwards, who is now at Oklahoma State University.

“I knew I wanted to be a b-school professor when…”

I was working in restaurant management in San Francisco and I realized that I loved managing my employees—but I would often wonder what I could do to be a better leader! I had to discover more about the science and psychology of work. I chose to attend grad school to learn, but now I realize that even as a professor, the learning never stops. My students teach me new things every day.

“If I weren’t a b-school professor…”

I would be a biologist or a clinical psychologist.

Most memorable moment in the classroom or in general as a professor:

I co-teach a class that is non-traditional. It is the Leadership Immersion Capstone Course  for our MBA students designed to immerse them in leadership experiences. In addition to other experiences, the students are faced with challenges similar to what you see on the TV show “The Apprentice.” They get personal coaching from top executives along the way.

Last year, I had a group of students that blew me away with their response to “planned adversity.” Their challenge was to, in four days, create a viral video that would advertise a local organization of their choosing. After a day of hard work by the student teams, we turned the tables on them and changed direction. I assigned them a new client – a local animal sanctuary called “Paws 4 Ever.” The students were initially shocked at this turn of events – all their work up to that point had to be scrapped. But, just as in the real business world, plans changed, and they learned to pivot and adapt. The videos that they produced under pressure were amazing, funny, and heartwarming, and they made a big difference to the community. I was really proud of what the students did and their motivation to make a difference for charity.


What professional achievement are you most proud of?

My dissertation research with Aleks Ellis on sleep deprivation and unethical work behavior was published and selected as a finalist for Best Paper at the Academy of Management Journal. I was quite honored.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I try to teach using experiential methods and cases as much as possible so the students can “learn by doing.” Incidentally, this is more fun for them and for me than simply lecturing. I love it when students have fun and laugh with—and sometimes, at—me. Engaged students retain the most. It pays off when I have former students tell me about how their experiences in class helped them in their careers!

What do you enjoy least?

When I see a former student after a couple of years who I remember, but can’t remember his or her name! I say hi anyway…

Fun fact about yourself:

My first “job” after finishing my undergraduate degree was to become a ski bum in Bozeman, Montana.

Favorite book:

Watership Down

Favorite movie:


Favorite type of music:

All over the board. The Grateful Dead, Radiohead, and Kendrick Lamar are all in my queue.

Favorite television show:

The Knick. A great series about early medical science at the turn of the century.

Favorite vacation spot:

The Minnesota northwoods

What are your hobbies?

I love to play basketball, bike, and run. I have never been accused of “under-doing it” when it comes to exercise. And soon I will have a new hobby to add to the mix: Taking care of a baby boy with my wife and UNC Kenan-Flagler professor Jessica Christian!

Twitter handle: @michhristian

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have…”

The ability to make business education more accessible to those who can’t afford it.

Students say… 

Very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about issues involving groups and teams. Flexible when needed and strict when appropriate. Mike is an excellent professor and I’m glad I took this course.

– student survey

Enthusiastic, energetic, caring, well-prepared, entertaining. One of the best professors I’ve had at Kenan-Flagler.

– student survey

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