WSB Research: Now You Know

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Q: Why do employees ‘cyberloaf,’ and what can companies do about it?

The temptation for employees to “cyberloaf”—use the Internet for non-work-related activities—can be irresistible.

In a recent study, María Triana, associate professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business, and her co-authors found that although conscientiousness and emotional stability reduce employees’ tendency to cyberloaf, even the most dedicated employees engage in this nonproductive behavior when faced with uncomfortable workplace dynamics.

Although many productivity experts recommend giving employees a sense of ownership, pride, and responsibility, nothing can prevent cyberloafing completely. Triana’s study found that even empowered, conscientious employees cyberloaf—albeit less than others.

Triana speculates that perhaps cyberloafing gives people a break that enables them to return to their work refreshed, but employers can take steps to reduce the behavior. She offers the following suggestions:

  • Screen candidates for emotional stability and conscientiousness during job interviews.
  • Foster justice by implementing fair polices and communicating effectively to prevent perceived injustices.
  • Use organizational norms and policies to discourage cyberloafing.
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Q: How does the way executives deliver earnings calls affect what people hear?

The way executives deliver news about an organization’s performance affects how investors and analysts perceive that news—and how the market reacts to it, according to research from Kristian Allee, assistant professor of accounting and information systems at the Wisconsin School of Business.

Allee and his co-author studied the way executives use positive and negative language for strategic purposes. For example, when firms perform really well, executives tend to use negative words throughout earnings calls to reduce the effect of the positive news. That way the market doesn’t get overly excited and raise expectations too much.

Also, when firms perform poorly, executives tend to use more negative tone words at the beginning of an announcement, presumably to get the bad news out of the way. Overall, however, executives tend to use positive tone words more than negative, suggesting a greater emphasis on good news in order to affect the reaction of investors.

The news itself is the primary influence on perceptions. Tone is secondary; however, this study suggests that when executives condense the negative tone words, analysts tend to ask fewer negative questions, which is important because the market responds strongly to the tone of analysts’ questions.

It seems that it matters not only what managers say, but also how they say it.

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Q: Can creativity be hindered by following detailed instructions?

It can, according to a study by Page Moreau, professor and John R. Nevin Chair in Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business.

Moreau and her co-author conducted a series of experiments that had subjects build structures with Lego blocks. Some people were asked to assemble Lego kits that included detailed instructions and a picture of the finished structure, and others were told to “build something.” Their performance was then measured on subsequent creative tasks.

The people who tackled the well-defined problem of assembling kits performed worse on subsequent creative tasks than a control group and those who built whatever they felt like building.

Moreau and her co-author found that it wasn’t the rigidity of the process, but rather the search for a single correct answer that reduced subjects’ creativity, as well as their subsequent desire to perform creative tasks.

If focusing on a single correct answer diminishes the drive to be creative, then encouraging employees to solve open-ended problems regularly could improve innovation.


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