Michael's research examines novel and innovative approaches to organizing that seek to foster greater empowerment, collaboration and flexibility. Much of his research explores the dynamics and consequences of organizing without hierarchical authority, a phenomenon he labels self-managing organizations. Because of the theoretical and empirical novelty of this phenomenon, he employs an inductive qualitative approach to explore the experience of working in such systems and to build testable theories. In addition, he draws on field experiments to assess the consequences of such structures for individual, team and organizational outcomes. Based on this work, Michael was recently selected as a finalist for the Organization Science / INFORMS Dissertation Proposal Competition.
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Empowering Bureaucracy: Fostering Non-Hierarchical Control and Employee Autonomy Through Dynamic Formalized Roles
As organizations move from more hierarchical to less hierarchical authority structures, they also tend to reduce formalization of work roles. Sometimes called “organic” designs – these structures enable high degrees of employee autonomy at the expense of organizational control. This paper, an inductive qualitative case study, presents and analyzes an alternative to the organic structure. Specifically, the organization I studied adopted a radically decentralized authority structure along with a set of participatory formalizing practices that led to a substantial increase in role formalization. Prior theory would view such an organizational configuration as a logical contradiction, with the benefits of decentralization neutralized by the increase in formalization. In contrast, I propose that the newly formalized roles, which were formalized through a participatory process and frequently revised as work contingencies arose, were used by employees in day-to-day work to support both organizational control and employee autonomy. This study’s key insight is that dynamic, formal role structures can provide adequate constraints to achieve control without hierarchical authority and that by providing clear boundaries within which individuals can exercise discretion, such role structures can enhance, rather than limit, employee autonomy. This study suggests that formalizing roles can, in some conditions, shift the trade-off dynamic between control and autonomy, and points to a third way of organizing that integrates the control of traditional bureaucracies with the freedom of conventional organic designs.
Weakening Group Bonds While Strengthening Organizational Bonds: The Conflicting Impact of Flattening Hierarchies on Affiliation and Commitment
This project explores the consequences of radical decentralization through a 12-month controlled field experiment. Much practitioner and scholarly rhetoric related to radical decentralization can be hyperbolic, promising occupational nirvana. However, the struggles of some notable organizations that have radically decentralized authority, such as Zappos and Github, indicate that reality is more complicated than the rhetoric. Drawing on data from a field experiment where teams in the treatment condition adopted a radically decentralized authority structure while teams in the control condition continued to operate with hierarchical authority, I examine the effect of radical decentralization on employee experience at work and explore what factors—such as individual trait differences, prior performance, and managerial style—moderate these relationships. Preliminary analysis suggests that individuals in teams where authority was radically decentralized experienced greater relational and task conflict and lower group cohesion compared to individuals operating with hierarchical authority. But these same individuals paradoxically became more committed to the organization compared to individuals in the control condition. Thus, these results point to contrasting effects of radical decentralization on affiliation at the group level versus at the organizational level.
Fostering Positive Relational Dynamics in Teams: The Power of Spaces and Interaction Scripts (Academy of Management Journal, 2019)
Despite well-accepted understanding that relational dynamics characterized by respect, openness and connectedness are critical for healthy team functioning, we know little about how to foster such dynamics. Drawing on observation and interview data from an intervention that fostered positive change in the relational dynamics of a global distributed team, this paper theorizes the mechanisms that enabled a move toward positive relational dynamics. We found that the intervention brought about relational changes by not only creating spaces where the team could experiment with new forms of interaction, but also by utilizing interaction scripts – concrete guidelines for interaction that specify content parameters and participation rules. We find that the combination of spaces and interaction scripts was critical for helping the team enact counter-normative forms of interpersonal sharing that led to the emergence of positive relational dynamics. While existing research has highlighted the importance of spaces for enabling positive relational change, this paper theorizes the complementary role that interaction scripts can play in the change process. These findings have implications for research on positive relationships at work, organizational change, and global and geographically dispersed teams. (Co-authored with Leslie Perlow and Melissa Mazmanian)
Self-Managing Organizations - Exploring the Limits of Less-Hierarchical Organizing (Research in Organizational Behavior, 2017)
Fascination with organizations that eschew the conventional managerial hierarchy and instead radically decentralize authority has been longstanding, albeit at the margins of scholarly and practitioner attention. Recently, however, organizational experiments in radical decentralization have gained mainstream consideration, giving rise to a need for new theory and new research. This paper reviews the literature on less-hierarchical organizing and identifies three categories of research: post-bureaucratic organizations, humanistic management and organizational democracy. Despite this extensive prior work, scholarly understanding of radical decentralization remains limited. Using the term self-managing organizations to capture efforts that radically decentralize authority in a formal and systematic way throughout the organization, we set forth a research agenda to better understand less-hierarchical organizing at its limits. (Co-authored with Amy Edmondson)
Beyond the Holacracy Hype: The Overwrought Claims - and Actual Promise - of the Next Generation of Self-Managed Teams (Harvard Business Review, 2016)
Holacracy and other forms of self-organization have been getting a lot of press. Proponents hail them as "flat" environments that foster flexibility, engagement, productivity, and efficiency. Critics say they're naive, unrealistic experiments. We argue, using evidence from a multi-year research agenda at several mainstream organizations that have adopted these forms, that neither view is quite right. Although the new forms (built upon on a half-century of research on and experience with self-managed teams) can help organizations become more adaptable and nimble, most companies shouldn't adopt their principles wholesale. A piecemeal approach usually makes sense. Organizations can use elements of self-management in areas where the need for adaptability is high, and traditional models where reliability is paramount. (Co-authored with Ethan Bernstein, John Bunch and Niko Canner)
New Prospects for Organizational Democracy?: How the Joint Pursuit of Social and Financial Goals Challenges Traditional Organizational Designs (Capitalism Beyond Mutuality, 2018)
This book chapter argues that less-hierarchical designs, specifically democratic approaches to organizing, could have increasing relevance given the growing emphasis on social responsibility in corporations. Drawing on parallels with theories of political democracy, we argue that organizational democracy’s ability to integrate diverse viewpoints can support the joint pursuit of commercial and social objectives. We proceed, first, by drawing on an extensive literature review to assess the ways in which organizational democracy has been conceptualized in recent decades, and to document the relative lack of substantive discussion about it in comparison with other alternatives to hierarchy. We then characterize the recent surge of socially engaged models of enterprise and press the case that this turning point warrants reconsideration of the merits of organizational democracy. (Co-authored with Julie Batillana and Michael Fuerstein)