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Max. Classroom Capacity: The Case for Cases

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

Dear readers,

Welcome! I hope you are well and weathering what will hopefully be the last few weeks or months of pandemic life here in the USA (fingers crossed!). I have yet to be vaccinated, I’m likely to continue teaching fully online through fall 2021, and my kids are still at home from school 24/7, so I’m not ready to take my mask off just yet…

I’d like to start this column with a short exercise—a mental warmup, if you will. (a) Please read the following brief case, (b) individually think about and then write down your answer to the question at the end of the case, and (c) discuss with a classmate or two (or, perhaps more realistically in this ongoing pandemic, a zoommate1 or two) and try to arrive at a common understanding of the case and answer:

You are Head of Sales at Dunder-Miff2, a medium-sized paper-sales company. Dunder-Miff has experienced decreased sales and increased turnover in the 2 years since Anna, the new sales staff manager, was hired. Although you have always found her to be competent and friendly in your interactions with her, you have heard rumors that she is not an effective motivator and that her sales staff dislike working for her. You are feeling increasing pressure from the CEO to take corrective action. What do you do?

This is an example of a mini case that I often use at the start of the semester in my undergraduate classes to introduce some I-O psychology concepts and get a sense of how students are thinking about workplace issues. It’s very simple, and there’s nothing special about it—anyone can write something like this with a bit of thought. In fact, you might think it’s too simple, that there’s not enough information for students to arrive at a solution. That’s a fair critique if your goal is for students to arrive at a single correct solution. However, consider how rarely there are single correct solutions in actual managerial decision making. With this case, my goal is to introduce different ideas and evaluate how students think about issues. In my view its simplicity is a feature rather than a bug because it allows students to impose their own assumptions and worldviews, thereby revealing them and opening them up for discussion. Additionally, the questions that students ask about the case can also be very revealing (e.g., “Was she a manager before joining the company?” “What do you mean by rumors, exactly?”). I’ve used this mini case for a few years now, with the benefit being that I now have a good idea of the different ways in which students tend to analyze this case.

In my experience, many students jump straight to behaviorist solutions without thinking too deeply about the situation: Threaten Anna with sanctions if she fails to improve, or use monetary incentives to get her to perform better. Some students argue that Anna should be fired so as to hold her responsible for her team’s poor performance. Usually they talk about the possibility that the compensation system may not be working and suggest a number of potential changes such as shifting to a commissions-based system. Overall, I think this speaks to the enduring influence of behaviorism in our education system, in the workplace, and in society at large (or at least among my students). This case can create an opportunity to discuss the various benefits and limitations of behaviorism and a behaviorist approach to management.

Some students’ solutions involve gathering more information: “I would talk to Anna and ask her why she’s not motivated,” “I would talk to Anna’s team to figure out what she’s doing wrong,” “I would observe Anna’s interactions with her team to try to identify bad leadership behaviors,” and so on. Often this direction involves speculation of the fit between Anna and her job, of her lack of leadership skills, maybe of potential causes of conflict between manager and staff. This can lead to a discussion of selection, P–O fit, theories of personality, leadership styles, analysis paralysis, and so on.

Rarer still is for students to identify potential situational factors: “Maybe Anna is a good manager, and the rumors are coming from one disgruntled employee.” This can prompt a discussion about the validity and reliability of data. Some students identify potential competitive or macroeconomic factors: “Maybe another paper company opened nearby, and they are poaching staff and sales accounts from Dunder-Miff, leading to higher turnover and lower sales,” or “Fewer and fewer organizations are buying paper, so maybe employees are demotivated because their sales and commissions are going down.” This opens the doors to discussions about levels of analysis, the tendency for people to assign internal loci of causation for events or other people’s behavior, building causal models to analyze situations, and so forth.

In a variation on this case, I sometimes ask students to apply an analytic problem-solving approach to this case in which they (a) define the problem, (b) generate alternative solutions, (c) evaluate the alternatives and select one, and (d) implement the solution and follow up. If you miss Step 1, the fall down the rest will be painful!

Typically, my goals of the discussion prompted by this mini case are to cement the following points:

  1. Events at work are often complex, with multiple potential causes and outcomes, so it’s important to think broadly when trying to analyze and solve problems at work.
  2. There isn’t always a single correct answer in this class or in life; theories are tools that can help you to formulate hypotheses, and the key is figuring out which theories to use in which situations.
  3. Jumping straight to solutions without analyzing the problem may lead to even bigger problems.
  4. Each student needs to be able to think about issues and develop individual solutions, but also listen to others’ views and collaborate to develop better solutions, even if they are different from one’s initial views.
  5. This instructor values students’ thoughts and ideas—not just the reiteration of his own.

This is one example of a case-based approach to teaching I-O psychology. I must admit that as someone whose educational background is entirely within psychology, I received very little exposure to this approach as an undergraduate or doctoral student.3 I’d like to make the case for cases to be included in your teaching toolbelt. 

I didn’t start using cases until I taught in Baruch College’s international executive MS program in HR and global leadership in Taiwan and Singapore. I was told that if it wasn’t apparent to students how they could use what they were being taught, they would not like it! But I was very resistant to using cases that other people had published (e.g., in Harvard Business Review). There tended to be a lot of general business info in those that, as an inexperienced I-O psychologist, I just didn’t understand how to use (or understand at all!) or that didn’t seem relevant to the things that I wanted students to learn. So, I decided to write my own cases, starting with very short, targeted ones revolving around specific theories or practices and ending with long, involved, and detailed cases into which I would try to pour an entire course worth of material.

For example, in that international executive MS program I eventually taught a class on business research methods in which I developed a fairly detailed case for a series of group projects. The case described a retail company that specialized in selling luxury travel accessories in various airports around the world (I wrote most of the case on a 16-hour flight from New York to Hong Kong). I created data on sales, turnover, and profits for 24 locations across four regions of the globe. These data showed a complex pattern of decreasing profits and increasing losses due to turnover in many (but not all) locations. Company management is divided on whether to blame a poor work culture or compensation system that too heavily weights salary over commissions. The company hires you (student groups as consulting companies) to design a scientific study to ascertain the effectiveness of positive sales training and/or team-culture interventions in terms of reducing turnover. For the first assignment each group is required to develop a research design (e.g., pre–post quasi-experimental), sampling procedures and timeline, a plan for data analysis, and also to make the business case for the study, weighing potential costs and benefits. For the second assignment, each group had to design from scratch all measurement materials (e.g., surveys, focus groups, mystery shopping). For the final assignment, each group had to amend their first two assignments based on feedback provided by me, invent results for the study they proposed, interpret those results, and formulate conclusions and recommendations for the client organization.

Again, this isn’t rocket science; anyone can write these—boy, my students would really get into it! They would create names and logos for their consulting companies, dive into the details of the data, vigorously debate various study designs and methodologies, and, in some cases, generate fake individual-level data by answering the surveys they themselves designed over and over again so that they could have “real data” to analyze! In terms of Bloom’s taxonomy, they were up there at the Analyze, Evaluate, and, dare I say, Create levels, and having a great time doing it (Bloom, 1956). Safe to say, a lot more fun than a multiple-choice exam. Internships and consulting projects with real organizations are another means of achieving this, though they seem considerably more difficult to organize and run—a topic for another day.

Case methodology can work for PhD students in I-O psychology as well. I used case-based essay exam questions in my doctoral classes in organizational psychology, such as the following (it’s a bit dated now, but you get the idea):

You have been contracted as a consultant to advise Yougo, an Internet startup company founded in 2010 by Dennis Hugo, a charismatic young entrepreneur who formerly was a low-level programmer at Facebook. Hugo envisioned Yougo as a competitor to Apple, in which hip, high-end, cutting edge communications devices are developed and sold. Its prototype Y-Phone series of personal communication devices generated considerable buzz for incorporating an optional subcutaneously implanted headset and microphone, and virtual reality glasses with eye-tracking technology (“blink-to-click™”), becoming the first fully functional hands-free, commercially available smartphone. Based on favorable appraisals of the potential of the Y-Phone series, Yougo went public with a large IPO, with Hugo retaining a large 30% stake and remaining the CEO. Yougo anticipates tripling its workforce in the next 3 years and rolling out version 1 of the Y-Phone for mass production. Based on your expertise in organizational psychology, they would like your advice in the following areas.

Yougo’s investors and board of directors are concerned with creating management systems that can both produce and support innovation but also maintain stability over time. They consider the current culture at Yougo to be very similar to the culture at Facebook: not very bureaucratic, casual, considerable free time for employees, and characterized by a somewhat naïve idealism. They consider the relatively higher level of bureaucracy a key ingredient in the success of Apple, and consequently would like to shift Yougo toward greater bureaucracy but without sacrificing their ability to innovate. Based on your understanding of these issues, what advice would you give them in regard to (a) means by which one may change organizational culture and (b) any limitations in their ability to do so, or the beneficial outcomes of doing so? 

Students were required to propose and evaluate solutions to the problem, making sound arguments and citing literature on organizational culture (Schein, 1996), socialization (Klein & Weaver, 2000), and so forth to support their views. Subsequent questions required students to demonstrate their knowledge of the spread of technological innovations (Anderson & Tushman, 1990; Kuhn, 1970), of systems theory (Katz & Kahn, 1978), and the attraction, selection, attrition model (Schneider et al., 1995). Again, rather than understanding the theory/research in the abstract, the goal is for students to apply the ideas.

Here’s a final example:

Imagine that you manage a call center. You are concerned about the low motivation of Claire, one of your direct reports. Your organization offers highly competitive salaries (top 25% in the industry) plus merit-pay based on the number of calls handled in a day. Despite this, Claire’s performance has been consistently low over her 3-year tenure in the position. Specifically, although she has very high customer satisfaction ratings, she is always in the bottom third of her team in terms of number of calls per day and is often seen spending time talking with her (mostly newer) coworkers, who, despite this, tend to be highly productive. How would you fix Claire’s motivation problem?

I’ll leave you to figure this one out. It’s a bit tricky. There’s no single correct solution. There’s not a lot of detail, so you might have to make some assumptions…

I used this an hour ago at the time of writing. At the end of class, I asked my students what (if anything) stood out to them as particularly useful to their careers from the class. One student mentioned her group’s discussion of the case: “At first we thought we should reprimand Claire. But as we talked about it, and the more we read and reread each sentence, and talked about what was going on, our views shifted until we realized that Claire didn’t have a motivation problem at all.” What do you think?

As always, your comments, questions, and feedback are welcome: Loren.Naidoo@CSUN.edu. Stay safe and healthy!

Notes

1 I thought myself very clever when I came up with “zoommate” but according to Urban Dictionary the term was coined by someone else in May of 2020, so now I just feel out of touch—boo on you, the Internet!

2 The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this case are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, products, or single-camera-mocumentary-style sitcom series is intended or should be inferred.

3 If you are more familiar with this pedagogical approach than I am, please email me and tell me what you think and what cases you use!

 

References

Anderson, P., & Tushman, M. L. (1990). Technological discontinuities and dominant designs: A cyclical model of technological change. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35, 604–633.

Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Longmans, Green.

Katz, D., & Kahn, R. L. (1978). The social psychology of organizations. John Wiley & Sons.

Klein, H. J., & Weaver, N. A. (2000). The effectiveness of an organizational-level orientation training program in the socialization of new hires. Personnel Psychology, 53, 47–66.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. The University of Chicago Press.

Schein, E. H. (1996). Culture: The missing concept in organization studies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41, 229–240.

Schneider, B., Goldstein, H. W., & Smith, D. B. (1995). The ASA framework: An update. Personnel Psychology, 48, 747–773.

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