2017 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Evan Apfelbaum, MIT (Sloan)

Evan Apfelbaum

Associate Professor of Work and Organization Studies and W. Maurice Young (1961) Career Development

MIT Sloan School of Management

Professor Evan Apfelbaum’s research takes a hard look at how we live, learn, and work in environments that are increasingly more diverse. His work explores important subjects such as the real reasons diversity programs don’t seem to work, how diversity makes us work harder, and what organizations can do to increase traditionally stigmatized groups’ performance.

Apfelbaum is an admired scholar. His research has been featured in leading academic journals including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Psychological Science, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Among his research and teaching awards, he’s the recipient of the James H. Ferry Jr. Grant for Innovation in Research, an Early Researcher Award from the American Psychological Association.  

Age: 36

At current institution since: 2011

Education: Ph.D. in Social Psychology, Tufts University, 2009

List of courses you currently teach: Organizational Processes and Applied Seminar in Behavioral Research

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I am currently examining when, how, and which diversity approaches—frameworks leaders provide employees to understand and respond to diversity—promote inclusiveness and positive downstream behaviors at work. Despite what has been assumed in the past, what we’ve discovered is that there is no singular “best” approach to talking about difference—a one-size-fits-all approach that works across contexts. Rather, we find that two basic types of diversity approaches, the value in difference approach (which focuses on the importance of social group differences) and the value in equality approach (which focuses on the importance of equality irrespective of differences), can each be effective, but only when they are tailored to how threatened employees feel at work by virtue of their social group membership (e.g., race, gender). This theory reconciles mixed results in past research, substantively extends existing work on diversity, and, practically, gives leaders a concrete prescriptive framework for promoting inclusion by tailoring how they talk about diversity to the needs of their employees.

Professor you most admire: Nalini Ambady

“I knew I wanted to be a B-school professor when…to my surprise, faculty in b-schools valued the types of research questions and real world problems that I sought to address.”

“If I weren’t a B-school professor…I’d love to have Anthony Bourdain’s job. I see him eating and drinking; exploring faraway lands and new cultures; providing a few edgy reflections on society, and I think to myself: “Hey, I could do that.” Not a bad gig if you ask me.”

One word that describes my first time teaching an MBA class: Intense

Most memorable moment in the classroom, or in general, as a professor: The Organizational Processes class is a core first-year MBA class. It brings together a truly diverse group of people in terms of nationality, perspective, and experience. It’s also largely driven by the students’ analyses and discussion of cases or simulations. The absolute best moments are those when I am not talking—not doing anything—because the exchange between students is so constructive and engaging that I get to fade into the background and just watch and listen.

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Getting my Ph.D. That was a first in my family, and at various points, I questioned whether I would make it.

What do you enjoy most about being a business school professor? Autonomy and flexibility. There really are few jobs quite like it. We get to choose research topics that we think are interesting and important, how best to study them, how to analyze the data we collect, how to write about the results, and how to present and distill them for students and broader audiences. And, in good part, we get to do all this according to a schedule and location of our choosing. We’re pretty fortunate if you ask me (don’t let the secret out).

What do you enjoy least about being a business school professor? Grading.

Fun fact about yourself: I was in a jazz/funk band in college, and my “senior thesis” (to satisfy my major in music) was actually a show I performed at a bar in Schenectady, NY. Ah, the good ‘ole days.

Bucket list item #1: See the world. There’s nothing more thought-provoking and eye-opening for me than travel.

Favorite book: So many, but one that comes to mind is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Favorite type of music: Jazz, Funk, Soul, Bluegrass

Favorite television show: The Wire

Favorite vacation spot: Martha’s Vineyard

What are your hobbies? I have two active kids under 5…maybe check back in a few years?

Website: evanapfelbaum.com

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have…teaching assistant robots. Just kidding! A really effective way of integrating, in real time, the problems that companies are facing with the very faculty who have expertise to solve them, and then later using the insights gleaned from these partnerships in the context of MBA teaching.”


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