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August 23, 2011

The Pulse of the Organization

Modupe Akinola explains how integrating biological measures into organizational research yields intriguing new insights into workplace behavior.

What prompted you to take this broad look at the state of physiological science and how it intersects with organizational science?

I was in graduate school working with an adviser, a social psychologist who incorporates physiological measures into her research. When I asked around at business schools, I learned that at that time virtually no one was really using these measures in organizational research. It became clear to me that using physiological measures would allow me to get at questions other standard tools and measures used in organizational science might not.

Then, I’d find myself at conferences explaining what I was doing and how I was doing it. People always wanted more, so I created professional development workshops for people who were interested in using physiological measures in their work. But there was a need to highlight what the measures are about, what we know about them, and how we can use them in organizations. Contributing this article was the perfect opportunity to share things I am excited about and to highlight how organizational scholars are thinking and broadening our understanding of behavior in organizations.

Using physiological measures in organizational settings is still a relatively new idea and many people are unfamiliar with it. What are the most important hows and whys that we should understand about using these measures in research and practice?

First, think big picture. In my field, organizational behavior, we have focused more on what we think — our psychology — and how that can affect behavior in organizations. But we’ve left out a critical link: how does what we think as well as how our bodies respond together affect behavior in organizations?

Two, don’t privilege physiological measures. Physiological measures are not the gold standard. They are not better than self-report or behavioral observation, two classic tools of organizational science; they are another angle to examine the questions we care about. The key is to use a variety of different measures. When I use physiological measures, I collect hormones and I measure cardiovascular reactivity to understand people’s reactions to stressful situations. I also videotape people to observe their behavior. I look at micro-expressions and other factors that can give you some insight into how anxious people might be and how calm they might be. I also ask, “How are you feeling? Did you find this experience to be stressful?”

We want to understand what people say they are feeling and what their bodies tell us they are feeling. We learn more by using all the different methods available.

Would you share some examples?

Organizations are becoming more global and more diverse. One fascinating aspect of studying behavior through these measures is that people can say, “I’ve had exposure to lots of people from different backgrounds; I’m very comfortable working in diverse environments.” But when you measure their physiology, their bodies suggest they might not be as comfortable as they say they are. Sometimes their physiological reactivity suggests that interacting with dissimilar others can be stressful.

It may be that we either want to sweep that discomfort under the rug and not acknowledge it, or it may be that people don’t really know how to acknowledge it and address it. Physiological measures will allow more people to see evidence where there’s this divergence between what people are saying and what they are experiencing. If you see the divergence then maybe you can address some of the root causes and create environments that are more welcoming of difference.

One line of research I’ve been exploring is the concept of narcissism, the idea that some people think that they are better than others on almost every dimension. One benefit of narcissism is that, because you feel you are better than others, you may not question yourself as much as others, or you may not be as self-critical as others who are less narcissistic. It can buffer you psychologically.

Yet in one study, I stressed out two groups of people by giving them a lot of negative feedback. One group measured high on a narcissism scale and the other measured low. When the high-narcissist group was asked how the experience felt, they said it was not at all stressful and they weren’t threatened by it. The low-narcissist group felt the opposite. They thought the situation was very stressful. But, when you compare the blood pressure levels of the two groups, the high-narcissist group showed higher blood pressure increases than those in the low-narcissist group. Narcissism may offer a psychological buffer, but it doesn’t appear to offer a physiological buffer. If that’s the case, might narcissists be more vulnerable negative long-term health outcomes because they are less likely to give credence to warning signs? It highlights how there can be a disjunction between your psychology and physiology that should be attended to.

What is, for you, the most exciting prospect for the future of this kind of research?

Negotiation and conflict management is a prime area for understanding how psychology and biology can both influence outcomes, particularly how to have effective win-win outcomes. I love the real-time, moment-to-moment knowledge you can gain from looking at someone’s physiology over time in that type of context. You wouldn’t want to interrupt someone in an intense negotiation and ask, “How are you feeling?” But you might get at this question by looking at their physiological responses.

Doesn’t the ability to take these precise physiological measures of individuals open up a Pandora’s box of ethical considerations?

As we begin to use physiological measures more in organizations and as organizations start asking to better understand some of the biological profiles of employees, confidentiality is critical. I can’t highlight enough how important it is to me that these measures not be used to select people in or out, because we know that the measures don’t have 100 percent predictive validity, just as we know that written tests sometimes don’t have predictive validity. On an aggregate level they provide insight into things we might not otherwise have known, but using the results on a one-to-one basis to select or get rid of people in an organization would be the wrong outcome.

Would you talk more about the limitations of applying physiological measures in organizational settings and even in understanding human behavior in a wider context?

It can be very easy to say, “I found physiological response ‘X’ increases risk taking in my research, so this response always leads to risk taking.” But we know that all kinds of situational factors and personal factors can result in a particular psychological state or behavioral outcome. There is rarely a one-to-one relationship between one specific physiological response and a particular psychological state or outcome.

You have to collect a lot of data and take the time to understand patterns before you can boldly draw a definitive conclusion, especially in a new domain like organizational pyschophysiology. I worry that when people rush to draw conclusions about the relationship between physiological states and psychological and behavioral outcomes, it can be dangerous — too much inference is applied. There are many, many different dimensions that these physiological indexes can vary on and researchers need to be responsible and thoughtful about interpreting the meaning of these physiological indexes as they relate to observable behaviors.

And from individuals I often get questions like, “So if my resting cortisol levels are too high and make me prone to stress — what can I take to decrease my levels?” That’s a tough question because while vitamins, diet, and exercise can change hormonal levels, a host of other factors would need to be addressed to see a sustainable change. We need to look at what physiological measures reveal to individuals about their dispositions and think about how external situations may aggravate that disposition. If you know that you are prone to stress — not just mentally but on a biological level — what can you do to mitigate that when you know you are about to approach a stressful situation? We need to be thoughtful and regard these measures with more realism and less idealism.

Modupe Akinola is assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Modupe Akinola

"Measuring the pulse of an organization: Integrating physiological measures into the organizational scholar's toolbox"

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