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No Matter Where I Go, There I Am

Richard D. Arvey
Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award Presentation
at the Annual SIOP Conference
San Diego, April, 2012

To begin with, I am extremely pleased to have been presented the “Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award” last year. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the conference last year due to a broken leg but hopefully can make up for it with my talk today.

The title of my talk has, of course, multiple meanings. The most obvious meaning is that it reflects the notion that we all carry dispositional tendencies that lead us to be the same and act the same across different environmental boundaries. Over my career, my work in selection, job satisfaction, and more currently leadership reflects this notion—that there is consistency in ourselves that tends to be expressed across different environmental conditions. Of course, I also believe that there are environmental circumstances that can encourage and/or dampen so called personal dispositions (e.g. the so-called strong and weak environments concept), and I also believe in person–environmental interactions, as you will see as I talk through my history. Actually, perhaps a better title would be “No matter where I go, I interact with my environment.”

But let me start with some career tracking to give some more meat and flesh to this phrase. As I go through my background, I will highlight what I believe are significant contributions, at least in my own mind. I attended Occidental College in LA as an undergraduate, majoring in Psychology. I graduated in 1966 and faced the draft for Vietnam or alternatively go to graduate school. I applied to grad schools with applications in social, clinical, and industrial psychology. Somehow, I was plucked from the sea of applicants to go to the University of Minnesota (having been rejected everywhere else) and was blessed by having academic mentors of Marv Dunnette and John Campbell, who basically allowed great independence but high expectations during those years. There were two events at the University of Minnesota that proved to be pivotal in my later career. First, I took a course in behavioral genetics (at the time I wasn’t sure why I was taking this course) as well as met Tom Bouchard who was just starting his career there. After graduating, I worked for a year or so with Dunnette and Lowell Hellervik at Personnel Decisions (I think I was the first full-time employee) and learned one heck of a lot about personnel assessment and personal humility under the tutorage of Lowell.

But I was anxious to build a research career so I took a position at the University of Tennessee for the next 7 years. Initially, I thought that Tennessee was at the “end of the world,” having been brought up in LA and the west coast. But I learned that one must take advantages of the environment as one finds it, and thus I began to explore research opportunities with the Tennessee Valley Authority as well as the famous Oak Ridge Nuclear plant nearby. Here I worked predominately on issues associated with selection fairness as well as psychometric issues associated with performance measurement and job analysis. I even used a sample of housewives in assessing their jobs via the Position Analysis Questionnaire. It was here that I wrote my book, Fairness in Selecting Employees,  in 1978 which brought together for the first time the literatures associated with research findings concerning selection bias, the relevant legal cases and rulings, and the psychometric issues associated with bias. This was a major task as nobody had put this all together in the same way and I consider it to be one of my major career achievements—even though it is seldom cited today. By the way, I ended up liking Knoxville, Tennessee and had a great time there as well.

I next spent a visiting year at UC-Berkeley in the Psych Department where I wrote a Psychological Bulletin piece on bias in the employment interview, an article I am proud of. It has been cited in Supreme Court decisions and remains one of my most highly cited articles. By the way, both Susan Jackson and Bill Glick were students in my PhD class on OB while there.

Next, I spent 5 years at the University of Houston where Jim Campion and I wrote a review piece for Personnel Psychology which was recognized as the most highly cited article of the decade by PP. I also teamed up with a talented psychometrically oriented psychologist—Scott Maxwell—where we wrote several methodological pieces on training evaluation and statistical power. You might begin to see that I was able to identify and capitalize on opportunities across these different academic environments.

Subsequently, I returned to the business school at the University of Minnesota. It was here that I started to work on the genetic components of organizational behavior. Tom Bouchard was going full speed ahead with his program of research on twins along with Matt McGue. I approached Tom with the idea of looking at the genetic aspects of job satisfaction, and he said “let’s do it” using the rare sample of identical twins reared apart. To this day, I can’t recall exactly how I came up with this idea—I think it was just trying to connect the world of work with the exciting field of behavioral genetics. As I mentioned earlier, I had taken a class in behavior genetics, so I was fairly familiar with the field and methodology. But obviously, being in that environment at that time played the major role—one can have many original research ideas, but one has to have the resources and environment to carry these ideas out to fruition. The first article on the heritability of job satisfaction has subsequently described as “revolutionary” (not by me) and is something I feel very proud of.

My fellow researchers and I went on to gather data using other types of twin samples and other databases to explore the heritabilities of other organizational phenomenon such as work values, occupational switching, and, most notably lately, leadership role occupancy. My first study in this area, along with my talented grad student at the time—Zhen Zhang—explored the heritability of what we called leadership role occupancy using identical and fraternal male twins. I won’t go into the details of how we derived our statistical estimates, but our results showed that about 30% of the variance of the dependent variable—whether individuals moved into positions of leadership and the particular level of leadership occupied (e.g. CEO, director, manager, etc.)—was associated with the genetic endowments of these individuals. Thus, the old question of whether leadership is due to nature versus nurture was provided with an initial answer—both. We replicated this with a sample of female twins and found similar results but expanded the study to examine the different kinds of specific developmental and environmental experiences that contributed to their movement into leadership positions. We found that two general factors were associated with the leadership variable: family experiences (e.g. family members, church experiences, etc.) and work experiences (e.g. challenging assignments, mentors at work, education, etc.) but that once genetics were held constant or partialled out, only the work factor remained significantly correlated with leadership. Thus, while the claim that one’s mother is or was responsible for one’s movement into positions of leadership might be true, it is also quite likely because of her genetic contributions.

Our next study (with Zhang and Ilies) involved exploring possible interactions between environmental and genetic factors. Our notion was that individuals with certain genetic predispositions will be affected more by some environments than others in terms of whether they become leaders. In this study, using the same male twins as in our first study, we looked at whether genetic influence was more or less powerful under difficult and stressful conditions growing up or not. Our findings showed that the role of genetics was a stronger influence when individuals experienced difficult childhood environments.

I moved again, this time to the National University of Singapore in 2006, and have found this environment again to be “rich” in terms of research support (i.e. funds), talented students, and faculty with whom to work.

Again in the area of the genetic associations, we are currently engaged in a number of projects including:

  • The direct and mediating role of genetics in explaining relationships between proactive personality and work success (with Li, Song, and Zhang)
  • Whether leadership role occupancy and transformational leadership share the same common genetic and environmental determinants (with Li, Zhang, and Song)
  • The genetic and environmental influences on work characteristics and associated work outcomes (with Li, Zhang, and Song)
  • The heritability of emergent leadership as a function of age and gender (with Chaturvedi, Zyphur, Avolio, Larrson, and Lichtenstein, in press)
  • Effect of kin density within family owned businesses (with Sprange, Colarilli, Dimotakis, and Jacob)
  • The identification of the direct and interactive relationships of specific genes and job satisfaction (with Song and Li, Wang, Song, and Li)

I am also now expanding my research interests more broadly. I am co-authoring a book with Steve Colarelli entitled The Biological Foundations of Organizational Behavior where we explore different biological elements such as hormones, neurological networks, genetics, and even evolutionary processes and the role they play with regard to organizational phenomena. I’m working with a couple of neurological trained psychologist to examine brain functioning of leaders and my colleague Song is off gathering such kinds of data in China.

But before I forget, let me mention a few other significant research projects that I take some pride in. While at the University of Minnesota, I published several additional pieces that I believe are particularly noteworthy. First, I published a piece entitled “The Motivational Components of Test Taking,” which, I believe, was one of the first articles suggesting that job applicants have different reactions to the selection processes they experience and are not passive during the employment test phase of an application processes. This seemed to spawn a whole set of follow-up articles by others on applicant reactions. I note that the subjects used in this research were employees applying for jobs in the State of Minnesota. I believe one source of subjects, no matter where you go, is through local and state government agencies; one doesn’t always need private employers to find research subjects.

Second, I published a JAP monograph regarding the development of physical ability tests for police officers, which illustrated a construct validity approach to the validation of such tests. This has had some impact as well on the practice side of our discipline.

And third, Kevin Murphy and I published an Annual Review chapter on performance measurement, which also has had high impact on our field as measured by citation counts.

Thus, in terms of my career I have been fortunate in finding environments that have been rich in terms of the resources needed to help me produce interesting and informative research.  I also have been blessed by having many talented coauthors (more than 300 of them). I thank them all.

While this award is for scientific contributions, I would like to mention several applied experiences that have enriched my understanding of the world of work and even to stimulate other research ideas and projects. Here are several:

  • Working for NASA in the design of selection procedures for long-duration space flight astronauts (with Paul Sackett and Wayne Cascio)
  • Worked as “expert witness” in 23 court cases and hearings involving such issues as gender and age bias, sexual harassment, negligent hiring, wrongful deaths, downsizing, selection, and other topics
  • Worked on consulting projects regarding such HR practices as selection, organizational development, physical ability testing, etc.
  • Testing and assessment for managerial positions. Once with a chicken processing company.
  • Job evaluation project interviewing at a cattle processing plant.
  • Organizational dynamics in cardiovascular surgical unit at major hospital.
  • Extensive overseas work assignments (i.e. Japan, France, Poland, China, Iceland, etc.)

Let me put the finishing touches on my theme here: There is important interplay between you and your environment. You can be attracted to or repelled by environments, and once in an environment you can change and modify it. But best of all, you can capitalize on it. This theme is consistent with the paper I wrote summarizing how Jim Campion and I wrote the most highly cited paper: being there.

And of course there are many people who have been wonderful professional and personal friends who I have shared much with over these years, including Frank Schmidt, Leaetta Hough, Wayne Cascio, David Campbell, Rob Silzer, Shelly Zedeck, John Lounsbury, Bob Pritchard, Steve Nutting, Scott Maxwell, Remus Ilies, Gary Latham, Lyman Porter, Piers Steel, Bruce Avolio, Glen Nosworthy, Michael Frese, Harrison Gough, and others.
As you can tell, I have had an enormously interesting career filled with fun and hard work. I have loved every moment of it (almost).

I read Mike Campion’s remarks as to how to make the best of one’s research career and I’m not sure I could improve on his recommendations. But here are a few of my ideas:

  1. You don’t need a lot of money to do good research.
  2. You don’t have to focus only on one or two topics—be broad and expansive.
  3. Do what you enjoy or captures your interest.
  4. Don’t always shoot for top-tier journals.
  5. You don’t always need a theory.
  6. Read broadly—including newspapers.
  7. Be in touch with the real world of work.
  8. Be intimately familiar with your own measurement tools.
  9. In the words of Steve Jobs: “Be foolish”