Michigan Tech Research Forum

Winter 2019 Distinguished Lecturer - Dr. Sonia Goltz

| March 20, 2019 | Theme: Organizational Behavior | 

Lecture presented by  Professor Sonia GoltzFelt Experience: A Key Bridge Between Research Knowledge and Social Change

Research Statement: Academics are criticized for living in ivory towers.  A more “virtuous” cycle begins with personal experiences that motivate research and ends with applying knowledge to improve the world. Our understanding of diversity has increased as a result of members of underrepresented groups generating new knowledge, such as on implicit bias and bystander effects, but this has minimal impact if it remains in the collective intellect. 
Bringing majority group members closer to the felt experience of minorities is a type of “active learning” that moves beyond data demonstrating the problem to a deeper understanding and motivation to resolve it. 

Six Questions with Professor Sonia Goltz

Q1. You have a strong focus in your work on the role of gender, power and equity in organizations. How did you come to choose this path? Or, did it choose you?

Originally, I did research on escalation of commitment, sometimes called sunk cost or the decision to throw good money after bad, a “decision making bias.” I did several experiments on it that were published. It was interesting but at some point, I felt like I understood why it happened and that it wasn’t really a bias after all, so another experiment tweaking another variable didn’t motivate me anymore. At the same time, I was having experiences in the workplace I had never expected. I went from a graduate program that had half female, half male faculty and mostly female students to a situation in which I was one of a handful of women-one of two in a department of about 30 and one of fewer than ten across the college. I sought to understand the experiences that came with that low representation. For example, at college faculty meetings, the women would sit together, as minorities who have bonded over their circumstances frequently do. We would get comments that indicated others found that threatening. As another example, when the topic of having children came up, I was surprised to find out that most of the other women wanted to start a family but were afraid of the career repercussions. For one thing, there was no maternity leave and the expectation was that if you wanted to have children, you should have them in the Spring and then be able to come back to teach in the Fall. (I tried to meet that expectation but failed and started teaching 5 days after having our daughter.) It was not a hostile environment but more of a very limiting, nonsupportive environment. That is how these topics found me. I think I would have preferred a gentle tap on the shoulder, but it has made for an interesting life.

Q2. How do your research and teaching complement each other?

There are a lot of synergies and they happen in different ways, I have found.  Basically, though, the range of knowledge I need to be able to teach Organizational Behavior and Human Resources Management provides a basis for exploring and probing different topics in my scholarly work. One thing I really like to do and seem to be successful at is combine knowledge from different research areas, so having a broad understanding is helpful for this. Then when I am teaching, I will often bring up the research I have done or studies I have learned about through doing research. This helps add to student understanding of the topic and make it more real or interesting for them.

Q3. What has changed the most in your field over the past decade (or two)?

There have been a lot of changes—I don’t know that I can identify what has changed the most. Here are a couple of things I have noticed, though.

This isn’t specific to my field, but one thing I have greatly enjoyed is the increased accessibility of scholarly papers because of libraries having electronic subscriptions as well as a well-developed interlibrary loan system. (We are lucky—this is not true at all universities.) It used to be really difficult to dig up the articles that related to your topic. You had to have a journal subscription, or your library had to have the journal available. Also, searching for articles on a topic was much more laborious and most of the time you were sure to miss some important articles. This still happens, but less often.  On the other hand, maybe too much of a good thing can be bad as well. I tend to be able to find relevant work for almost everything I want to say in a paper and this work often leads me to develop my idea more fully in various ways. This then leads to both a long paper and a very long list of references. But all-in-all, I think it has been really positive for academia and believe this will allow research progress on a topic to be quicker.

Another change, this one more specific to my area of interest, is that formerly taboo topics are now mainstream. It used to be that women were discouraged from doing research on gender topics, for example, and they especially shouldn’t be doing this research before tenure.  It was considered nonmainstream research, which probably meant it was not valued.  I am seeing more and more young people in my field claim they do research on diversity.  It is like a large crowd suddenly came out of the diversity research closet. I find this shift fascinating.

Q4. What is the biggest challenge in your fields of expertise?

Since I like to work across fields—e.g., bridging concepts from psychology and business or cognitive and behavior analysis approaches--I find very challenging the territoriality that academics often create for themselves. I tend to be more flexible in my approach to scholarship and this is very limiting.  For example, with regard to understanding teamwork I like to draw from the literature on mental models, which is very cognitive in its orientation, but I also find some behavior analysis concepts, such as the concept of interlocking behavioral contingencies quite useful. However, academics in each of these approaches are often hostile towards the other. This makes it difficult to publish novel ideas and also, I think that this greatly impedes progress in a field.  We could make much more progress if we borrowed liberally from each other and worked to integrate and develop our concepts together. Why should we each be in our own worlds trying to answer exactly the same questions without looking at what is happening elsewhere?

Q5. How does Michigan Tech work for you as a home base?

First, I think the moderate size allows for a cross-fertilization of ideas across campus that one wouldn’t get as much at either a smaller or larger institution. We are able to know other faculty on campus better and work with them if our interests align. And Michigan Tech encourages us to do that. Second, Michigan Tech has given me much more freedom than my previous institution in terms of what research I do and what publications I target.  In the past, I was expected to publish in mostly the top 2-3 publications in my field. Considering that about 10,000 people show up to the Academy of Management conference each year and this is only a portion of the scholars in the field, that expectation was very unrealistic. Once I came to Michigan Tech my ability to publish in my field increased substantially because I wasn’t so constrained. Thus, being at Michigan Tech has allowed me to explore the topics that interest me the most. I really value that freedom.

Q6. What's next in your research?

I am currently very interested in the topic of coercion and freedom. It is a natural extension of my work on power and equity because coercion doesn’t happen without power and inequities don’t happen without coercion. This work has led me to reading about moral philosophers’ thoughts on the relationship between equality and freedom. Past philosophers thought they could only exist in opposition; some current philosophers think equality is the basis for a free society. In other words, allowing people to be themselves and have different experiences and being able to listen to all views is how we achieve healthy institutions. This is very consistent with what research on managing diversity in organizations suggests. Therefore, I expect that I will be applying some of these abstract ideas about the relationship between equality and freedom to organizational behavior in one form or another. A little bit of discussion on power and coercion is likely to be thrown in. It seems to me like the next logical step.

Additionally, since Michigan Tech just received an NSF ADVANCE grant, I will certainly have more experiences on the practical matter of implementing change. My distinguished lecture topic arose in part from past ADVANCE-related experiences on campus and I expect that the next three years will provide me with more experiences that will stimulate additional thought and papers on the subject.