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Unleash Your Potential

It’s up to companies to help employees fulfill their potential—but there’s a right way, and a wrong way, to do it.

What’s standing between you and that employee-of-the-month award?

Maybe it’s the mundane box-checking tasks and never-ending flow of emails that eat through your day or the lack of inclusion that seemingly locks off the top jobs you’re more than qualified for. If only your company allowed your creativity and energy to flow, not only would you be happier, you’d be more productive, too, boosting your employer’s bottom line and your chances for advancement.

The workplace of the future, says Karen Golden-Biddle, Questrom Professor in Management, is one that enables people to realize their potential. Artificial intelligence could take on those boring, repetitive tasks, giving staff more time to create new products. A company filled with leaders capable of managing diverse staffs—with diverse points of view—would cultivate better ideas. A hiring system that removes unconscious bias would bring more perspectives into research and development. In this future, human capital is treated with the same reverence as financial capital: people are no longer tools for employers to wield.

superhero sitting in chair

“Human capital is about the development of people inside organizations, so they can bring forward their best talent for both themselves and the organization,” says Golden-Biddle. “Too often, we create systems that smash that creativity rather than open that up, introduce change models that only let people implement something that’s already been decided and rule out any kind of creative action.

“There’s so much potential everyday creativity out there that companies are just not tapping.”

Golden-Biddle chairs Questrom’s management and organizations department, which was recently restructured and renamed—from organizational behavior—to better prepare graduates for this future. The department’s goal is to develop leaders armed with skills they can apply in a series of critical areas; Golden-Biddle calls them levers, the resources that organizations and employers can use—from building trust to using the psychology of team dynamics—to create processes and systems that enable staff to realize their potential, and be more productive. It follows a trend increasingly seen in human resources departments, which are moving from being functional groups that process benefits to key players in developing and implementing a company’s strategy.

“Fueled by data from HR analytics, human resources today, in addition to doing the basics well, is focused on talent—including diversity and inclusion—culture, leadership, and change management in the context of global competitive realities and the work of the future,” says Fred Foulkes, a professor of management and organizations and faculty director of the Human Resources Policy Institute at BU.

Although much is made of the data-driven, tech-enabled office of tomorrow, the future of work is, perhaps surprisingly, human. It’s a future centered on relationships—the kind that allows people to feel better, know better, and, ultimately, do better for themselves, their organizations, and society.

“Research shows that employees are motivated when they are in control of what they do and how they do it,” says Kristen J. McCormack, a master lecturer and associate chair of management and organizations, “and when they are provided the opportunity to improve their skills and themselves in order to achieve mastery of their craft, be it software development, product design, or teaching.”

Companies that don’t get with this future, Golden-Biddle says, won’t survive.

“Unless organizations bring out, for example, the creative ability of individuals in their everyday jobs, innovation won’t happen, collaboration won’t happen, they won’t achieve their strategic goals, and, more importantly, they’re not going to be a desired place to work.”

Build Trust

In January 2018, GeekWire reported that Amazon had won two patents for a new kind of wristband: not a travel-sized Alexa or a budget-priced smart watch, but what appeared to be an ultrasonic employee tracking device. Amazon refuted early reports questioning its motives: it wouldn’t use the wristbands to count the minutes employees spent in the bathroom, but simply to do away with handheld scanners in its warehouses. Current and former employees of the company told the New York Times they were skeptical: “Critics say such wristbands raise concerns about privacy and would add a new layer of surveillance to the workplace,” said the Times, “and that the use of the devices could result in employees being treated more like robots than human beings.”

“There’s a strong assumption that by investing in monitoring technology, you will get greater productivity from your workforce,” says Michel Anteby, an associate professor of management and organizations. “But there is no hard evidence of that.”

In 2018, Anteby studied the impact of increased surveillance on airport workers. He and Curtis K. Chan, a PhD student in Harvard’s organizational behavior program, looked at monitoring of airport security personnel and found a cycle of coercive surveillance in which managers employed an increasing number of cameras and other devices to deter employee theft and control staff. The study was conducted at a large urban airport where staff were given a security screen before starting a shift, regularly tested with fake x-ray images of banned items, and watched from multiple angles by cameras that fed back to a central operations team.

Anteby found that staff felt constantly watched, but also that their work mostly went under the radar—until they did something wrong. Because the only attention they got from bosses tended to be negative, employees started figuring out new ways to go about their jobs unseen and unnoticed. That spurred management to wonder what they were doing and increase surveillance. The results were published in Organization Science.

“What’s been attempted is to monitor employee behavior, but it creates unintended consequences,” Anteby says. Among them, ever-increasing distrust on both sides and a much more transient workforce. “Instead, managers should employ systems that would encourage good behavior, rather than capture bad behavior.” He gives the example of call center employees. As anyone who has been on hold knows, their calls are often monitored or recorded for quality and training purposes. “Call center managers will sometimes step in after a call and say, ‘What you said here, this was very helpful.’”

Golden-Biddle says that heavy scrutiny ultimately won’t enable human potential or build human capital, because “it requires a level of trust,” she says. “Organizations don’t learn or innovate when people feel they aren’t trusted.”

She encourages leaders to move away from strategies like time monitoring or employee rankings and toward policies like unlimited vacation.

“If organizations have systems or processes that enable employees to simply be part of a machine, they’ll leave,” she says. “With human capital, it should be capitalizing on people’s talent, not how many of something they can do in an hour. Human beings are more complex than that.”

Play Nice

Another way companies can earn the trust of their employees is to be trustworthy. One of the levers Questrom teaches its students about is ethics. The goal is to ensure that when they become leaders, they don’t limit the moral potential of their employees.

Facebook has learned this lesson the hard way. The social media giant has been slammed by regulators, the press, and the stock market for its management of a data handling scandal. In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission started investigating reports that political consulting company Cambridge Analytica had been harvesting data from Facebook accounts without permission, using it to build sophisticated voter profiles. The scandal wiped billions off Facebook’s share price. Adding to the company’s embarrassment, it later emerged that employees had raised concerns about Cambridge Analytica—but been ignored. In April 2018, Business Insider reported that Facebook employees were reacting with their feet: quitting or pushing for transfers to other departments.

In a study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Kristin Smith-Crowe, an associate professor of management and organizations, found that even being in a business environment can make us more unethical.

“When we think about business, it tends to crowd out other thoughts,” says Smith-Crowe, an expert in behavioral ethics.

“In their pursuit of the best business decisions, people may lose sight of relevant moral concerns.”

In corrupt organizations, she says, employees who express disquiet are labeled disloyal or said to be lacking in vision. She advises leaders to promote ethical decision-making through their own actions and warns against using the threat of shame to keep people in line.

“This can be effective to a point, but people may also rebel against such coercion. Assuming appropriate formal ethics systems are in place, including sanctioning, organizations are likely to see better results in the long term by focusing on positive messaging rather than threats.”

At Questrom, students in the new MS in Business Analytics program will soon be able to take a class in people analytics that will unite ethical considerations and big data. But the lessons will stretch beyond the management of information.

“Morality is grounded in social bonds and immorality is more likely to the extent that we don’t think about the people who may be harmed,” says Smith-Crowe. “Keeping in mind the potential for direct harm in human terms can expand a decisionmaker’s focus to include moral considerations.

“It’s all about relationships; it’s just the fundamental way that we relate to each other. My sense is that when people are in a more ethical environment, there’s trust, there’s an easier basis for cooperation and connection.”

Diversifying Your People Portfolio

Conversations around fairness create a natural opening for discussing how organizations can better reflect the society around them. And while this effort is deliberate in specifically seeking out and bringing in more women, people of color, LGBTQIA people, and others, the end goal is experiential diversity—more varied experiences, and lessons learned from them, from more kinds of people, from more backgrounds.

“Diversity and inclusion are very much a part of building human capital,” says Golden-Biddle of the curriculum she and her management and organizations colleagues have developed. She adds that it isn’t much different from the way entrepreneurs build financial capital with diversified investments.

superhero at desk

“But the challenge is we’ve got to recognize difference more, and figure out how to talk about it.”

In a 2016 study, Evan Apfelbaum, an associate professor of management and organizations, investigated two different philosophical approaches to improving race relations: multiculturalism and colorblindness. He found majority white groups preferred colorblindness, ignoring cultural differences within a group in favor of a kind of assumed homogeneity. Majority black groups, however, preferred multiculturalism, recognizing and acknowledging that cultural differences among members of a group, as well as the cultural differences themselves, are beneficial to that group. In a 2018 study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Apfelbaum found that exposure to multiculturalism increased participants’ belief in the notion that racial group differences are valid, biologically based, and immutable. “These findings raise the ironic possibility that well-intentioned efforts to portray the value of differences may reinforce the belief that fixed, biological characteristics underpin them,” the authors wrote.

Apfelbaum and his coauthors acknowledge previous research showing that multiculturalism is a more effective way to promote equality and reduce bias than colorblindness. They conclude, however, that organizations may not have to favor one over the other.

“There is a best approach, but determining what’s best requires consideration of the context,” says Apfelbaum. “What is the goal of the approach? What are the concerns of those targeted by these efforts versus the majority group? How credible is the organization’s reputation in the area of diversity, inclusion, and equality? I don’t believe there is a single one-size-fits-all approach that works across all contexts.”

He says it’s a lesson in tradeoffs. When considering whether to embrace a philosophy of colorblindness or one of multiculturalism, organizations need to recognize the downsides of each. “Effective management requires viewing these two approaches as dynamic and evolving values that are tailored to situations and people in place and time,” he says. “The idea of a static, cookie-cutter approach is convenient, but idealistic, because ultimately these are issues grounded in people, groups, and behavior that are multifaceted, complex, and continuously changing.”

Technology might seem to provide an answer: if we’re so biased, perhaps computers could help. With machine learning and artificial intelligence, employers can now use computer programs to analyze job applications and assess potential employees with a checklist or keyword search.

But there are problems. For one thing, racial and other biases could, deliberately or inadvertently, be written into a machine-based selection process. Last year, Amazon stopped using a recruitment engine in its hiring process, because the machine-learning–based program tended to favor men over women.

“Robotics and software are not only making products, but also producing background information on potential employees,” says Mahesh Shahdadpuri (MBA’95), CEO of TASC Outsourcing, a Mumbai-based staffing firm. “Artificial intelligence can recruit and filter to find who’s right for you, but should it?”

Paying attention to the human side of technology has given developers a chance to see not only how people are affected by new tech products and processes, but how and why everyone isn’t affected the same way. Technological impacts, and the responses to them, can vary by community: facial recognition software and restroom faucet sensors have been found to function poorly with darker skin tones, for example. Managers find that they need many more and different pairs of eyes to see and understand those impacts. The bias-related flaws in machine learning and AI-based technology might not have been brought to light without the nonwhite technology researchers—computer scientists Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru—who discovered them.

Although a recruitment strategy that increases workforce diversity can help unleash new ideas, it won’t work if new hires find themselves in an unwelcoming workplace. Sanaz Mobasseri, an assistant professor of management and organizations, has examined varying types of persistent gender bias and the effectiveness of initiatives designed to help women overcome gender-related barriers. She says it’s important to understand that bias can be as complex as the people and places in which it’s found. “Most places where you find bias are not uniformly biased,” she says. For example, “Women might get paid less but promoted faster, perhaps because they entered the workplace lower on the ladder. When I teach about bias, I try to teach its complexities. The point is that bias happens in different ways. And there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to resolve it, although people often look for one.”

Negotiating Difference

As new voices join business conversations, it quickly becomes clear that great minds don’t always think alike. Differences of opinion between colleagues are nothing new, but the potential for division grows when new perspectives enter spaces unaccustomed to their presence or prominence.

At Questrom, faculty are tackling these issues with research on subjects like cultural fit within organizations, gender and emotions in the workplace, and organizational resilience, among others. Most of the research deals in some way with unlearning old assumptions.

“There are some really outdated and inefficient practices,” says Golden-Biddle. In order to accommodate diverse ideas and the people who bring them, she says, organizations have to move away from homogenization, hyperconformity, and intraorganizational competition.

In his 2015 book, the Ostrich Effect: Solving Destructive Patterns at Work, William Kahn, a professor of management and organizations, talks about engaging with negative emotions. In it, he discusses the frustrating colleagues—the ones who drive us nuts, the ones we wish we could change, but can’t. Kahn argues we should worry less about our colleagues’ personalities—which we can’t control—and more about our relationships with them, which we can.

superhero looking out of office window

The same skills used when addressing and embracing differences—negotiation, mediation—are also necessary when managing teams across time zones. As technology creates workforces that can unite around organizational goals, but are too spread out over borders to move or think as a single, organizational unit, Golden-Biddle says companies need to prepare for a workplace that “is globally team-based, but widely dispersed.” There aren’t just logistical issues to deal with, but cultural ones too. She gives the example of attending business meetings in Canada. When someone told her an agenda item was going to be tabled, she thought that meant it would be postponed; to the Canadians in the room, it meant it was going to be considered.

“At Questrom, we talk about leading with the experience of doing,” says Golden-Biddle, who recommends diverse, global teams just jump into working together, but that companies also build in time for “reflecting on that experience and bringing in relevant concepts and research to better understand how that process works.”

One concept she suggests trying—for negotiating conflict as well as cultural differences—is humble listening.

“It’s hearing, not to defend, but to understand—listening in a way that you are appreciating the other person and can integrate that into your thinking to benefit the team.”

For leaders looking to raise their human capital—which should also boost their financial capital—that’s the key message: appreciate your people.

“Company culture and enabling human potential go hand in hand,” says McCormack. “From a leader’s point of view, begin by listening to your employees. Are they satisfied? What are their suggestions for how their work could be organized differently? Can you assemble a cross-disciplinary team to provide input? The key thing is to be ready to invest resources in the human capital strategy at the end of the process.”

Golden-Biddle says her department aims to “help future leaders recognize that people bring an amazing amount of talent to work, and learn how to cultivate that potential so that organizations can make a positive difference for their members and society.

“If leaders come away with a better understanding of, and a broader repertoire for dealing with, people and critical issues such as ethics and inclusion, all organizations would be way better off—and so would the people in them.”

For more management and organizations research—and ideas for enabling human potential in your business—visit