UC Davis Professor Kim Elsbach: Organizational Behavior From NASCAR Fans To The Cattle Industry

A self-described “rare bird,” Kimberly Elsbach studies how we perceive the legitimacy, creativity, and trustworthiness.of individuals and organizations. A professor emerita of management at UC Davis’ Graduate School of Management, Elsbach has examined the perceptual processes in a wide variety of contexts, from the California cattle industry and the National Rifle Association, to Hollywood screenwriters and female professionals who cry at work.

Her research interests are topical. For employees who work remotely, Elsbach has found what she calls a FaceTime bias that makes it more difficult for employees to advance in their organizations. This unconscious bias among supervisors makes them perceive in-person employees as more dependable, reliable, committed, and dedicated.

Looking back at her professional career thus far, Elsbach believes in the importance of providing meaning to people who are at work and to valuing people as individuals. “I don’t think everybody would agree with me on all of that, but I’ve learned that I’m quite committed to those ideas, and it’s a happy accident that I was able to study them,” she says. “I think it’s the best job in the entire world to be able to study what you’re interested in.”

Inspired by her father to pursue an academic life, Elsbach received her BA and MS in Industry Engineering from the University of Iowa and her PhD in Industrial Engineering from Stanford University in 1993. She has been teaching at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis, for the past 27 years.

In this wide-ranging conversation, part of the Thought Leadership Series at UC Davis Graduate School of Management, Elsbach looks back on her career and the insights she has developed from her studies on perception. She  is interviewed by former Businessweek Executive Editor and Poets&Quants Editor-in-Chief John A. Byrne.

John A. Byrne: You actually trained as an industrial engineer. I wouldn’t think that someone with your training would have become a professor who studies our perceptions of women brought to tears at work, among other things.

Kim Elsbach: I’m kind of a rare bird. At Stanford University, I was in very interdisciplinary program. My advisor there was a straight-up psychologist, with a PhD in psychology, yet he was in the engineering school. So I worked in social psychology my whole time that I was in the engineering school. Of course, I also had to prove that I could understand the engineering part, but my research from the get-go was all in social psych.

Byrne:So what inspired you to become an academic?

Elsbach:My father was an academic, a professor in a medical school, and I just thought he had the best life. He would come home at lunch. He didn’t seem to work that hard in the summer. Of course, I really didn’t know what he was doing, and he was working very hard all the time, but it seemed like he wasn’t. He had more of his own hours, and it seemed like he was always working on cool things and really taught interesting students, and I just thought, “Wow, that’s the lifestyle I want to have.” I was a bit naive about it, but that was my inspiration.

Byrne:And why did you choose the subject matter you did in terms of your research focus?

Elsbach:I was an engineer as an undergraduate, I got a job as an engineer at Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, making Cap’n Crunch and Life Cereal, and I saw a lot of things that I thought could be done better in the work world. I took a night class in social psychology, which I’d never done before, and it blew my mind. I realized that people understand all of these human behaviors that don’t seem rational from an economic standpoint, but when you understand social needs, emotional needs, they’re very rational.A light bulb went on and I decided that’s what I want to do. I want to study human behavior and try to understand how we can motivate people better and lead them better with that understanding.

Byrne: So your first deep dive would have been your PhD dissertation. What was that on?

Elsbach: On the California cattle industry. You can imagine, at Stanford, when I said I wanted to do that, they were like, “What? We don’t know anything about that here. You need to drive up to Davis.” So even as a doctoral student, I would drive up to Davis, come to campus, talk to people here, and I’d go to Sacramento, to the Cattleman’s Association, and the Beef Council, and I was trying to understand how the California cattle industry overcame reputational and image issues that were pretty rampant in the beef industry as a whole. There were climate issues, environmental issues, food safety issues, health issues, all kinds.

Byrne: Which goes back to Sinclair Lewis and The Jungle, his 1906 book on the horrifying conditions in America’s meat-processing industry.

Elsbach: Yes. But there was a book that was written in the nineties by Jeremy Rifkin called Beyond Beef that pretty much blamed the cattle industry for every ill known to man, and I was trying to understand how they were dealing with that.

Byrne:What did you come away with?

Elsbach: I found out that they used a combination of linking themselves to legitimate practices and policies, with careful use of explanation and justification. So they never came out and denied what they were doing, but they justified it in a way that showed that the ends justified the means, in a way.

Byrne: Interesting. Now, the breadth of your work has led you to explore a lot of different issues, from the impact of women crying in the workplace, and the perceptions that people have of them as a result, to the often hidden costs for people who work remotely. But of all the things that you’ve done, what would you consider to be your most significant?

Elsbach: A lot of the work that I’ve done is on perception. So my study of the cattle industry was about outside perceptions of organizations. With the women crying, it was more perceptions of individuals. But I think the most important work I’ve done has been on self-perception and how people see themselves and how they affirm themselves as positive, worthwhile, and valued individuals. And that is related a lot to the meaning that they derive from work. I’ve studied that in a lot of different contexts, from trying to understand why creative workers really want to create things, even if they’re in a commodity industry, like toy design. They want to have a signature style that identifies themselves and their work as uniquely creative. In other cases, I’ve studied why people who work in non-territorial offices, where they have to move offices every day, find it very hard to derive meaning because they don’t get to decorate their office in a way that shows their distinction.

I’ve also studied it in people who are members of organizations. So I found that the reason people join and support an organization is because of its values, not necessarily their individual status. I did a big study of NASCAR fans, and I found, in a really large survey, that most NASCAR fans perceive NASCAR as only moderately high status, but it was high value in terms of things like patriotism, and those were the values that they connected with, and that was the reason they supported NASCAR. So this idea of deriving meaning as a way to affirm my own individual value and create a perception of myself that’s positive is really what drives people at work a lot.

Byrne: More than money or title or a parking space?

Elsbach:Kim Elsbach: Yes. Now, I should say, people have to have a certain level of comfort that they’re not going to lose their jobs. If people are always in fear of being fired, then that becomes an overwhelming motivator. But as long as you are confident in your ability to do your job, then it’s really about, what meaning do you derive from it?

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