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Academic environments can improve leadership capabilities says Darden Professor

Morela Hernandez is the Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University of Virginia, Darden School of Business. She was listed among the ‘2016 Best 40 Under 40 Professors’ by Poets & Quants.

Darden School of Business Professor Morela Hernandez

In conversation with MBA Crystal Ball


The best leaders are those who allow themselves to rely on others and question their own potentially biased assumptions.

Morela Hernandez: Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at Darden School of BusinessMBA Crystal Ball: For the benefit of those who haven’t had a formal introduction to organizational behavior, what should managers know about the field?

Professor Hernandez: Managers should know that humans are inherently subject to unconscious biases that influence how we perceive and process the world around us. Organizational behavior involves more than individual cognition, of course.

But, as a psychologist at heart, I believe understanding just how easily our brain can be influenced can imbue us with a sense of humility in how we behave and how we treat others.

Managers should therefore understand that being wrong is okay, as long as they are also open to learning from others. That is, completing tasks at work is important, but how you learn from your mistakes while developing the capabilities of others in the pursuit of success matters just as much.
MBA Crystal Ball: How did your experience at Enron influence your decision to get into academics?

Professor Hernandez: I knew I wanted to go into academia before Enron collapsed. During my time as a financial analyst, I learned that although I enjoyed working with numbers, I wanted to use my quantitative skills to empirically explore questions I found more personally relevant and interesting; such as how organizations can successfully recruit and develop a diverse workforce.

My experiences at Enron both intensified my interests in organizations, and broadened my focus to how leaders influence employee behavior. In particular, I became intrigued with how leaders can design organizations to facilitate ethical, or in Enron’s case, unethical actions.

This interest translates to my classroom where I often discuss the power of organizational incentives and culture, as well as the role of leaders in communicating the ethical boundaries of behavior.
MBA Crystal Ball: Judging by the response you get from your students (including standing ovations), we’re curious to know how you engage students?

Professor Hernandez: It’s pretty simple, I think. I care about my students, I like what I teach, I work hard to prepare for each class, and I’m excited each time I walk into the classroom.

It’s easy to infuse passion and energy into the learning process when you are personally invested in intellectually exploring the subject matter, and look forward to learning how others view topics through their own perspectives and experiences.
MBA Crystal Ball: What are the top areas where there is a disconnect between the expectations of the employee and the organisation? Why are these difficult to bridge?

Professor Hernandez: I think this question highlights why the mission and purpose of an organization are so fundamental to creating a productive, positive work environment. Many disconnects can exist in an organization; there can be misalignments in, for example, leadership vision and the organizational systems that support it.

Indeed, as organizations change and adapt to changing market conditions, their processes, routines, and norms will also need to shift and adjust.

The key is that, despite the inevitable growing pains organizations experience, leaders and employees are committed to figuring it out together in service of a common superordinate goal: the organization and what it represents.

Ultimately, if the organization’s purpose isn’t worthy of making personal sacrifices, disconnects between the employees and the organization will become insurmountable obstacles to growth and sustainability.
MBA Crystal Ball: What are the top misconceptions that managers have about leadership?

Professor Hernandez: In my opinion, the top misconception is that leadership is something some people just know how to do better than others. The truth is that leadership is an effortful learning process that never ends.

The myth is that leaders are strong and never doubt themselves. The truth is that the best leaders are those who allow themselves to rely on others and question their own potentially biased assumptions.

People, especially in Western cultural contexts, often associate inspiration with great oratory skills and charm. A great speech and being likeable might come in handy as a leader, but the true source of inspiration — that is, sustained encouragement and exceptional performance — comes from not just getting followers to believe that the leader thinks they can reach a lofty goal, but getting followers to believe in their own abilities to reach that higher aspiration.

Academic environments can help students improve their leadership capabilities by teaching them the tools to selectively change particular, high-impact, behaviors.

MBA Crystal Ball: Do you believe leadership qualities are intrinsic? How do business schools help cultivate these traits in students for whom it doesn’t come naturally?

Professor Hernandez: We know from past research that about 30% of what we perceive as leadership is driven by personality characteristics (i.e., relatively stable traits). About 70%, however, is determined by what the leader chooses to do with that 30%. It involves the attitudes and behaviors we choose to adopt, perhaps in spite of some of our natural tendencies.

Leadership training is rooted in self-awareness because individuals need to first understand who they are. Once they know their own personal tendencies, students can understand how to leverage those tendencies to create the behaviors that have been shown to increase leadership effectiveness.

In other words, academic environments can help students improve their leadership capabilities by teaching them the tools to selectively change particular, high-impact, behaviors.
MBA Crystal Ball: Is it possible to have a universal code for ethics or does it need to be adapted based on factors such as geography, culture, size of the organization, industry and other factors?

Professor Hernandez: Philosophers have been debating this issue for centuries so let me humbly add to that broader conversation by highlighting how important cultural nuances are to building and/or rebuilding trust. Specifically, how individuals perceive the impact of their actions will differ from culture to culture.

In Latin America, for example, trust and credibility is communicated through not only individual actions but also family history and reputation. In many Eastern cultures, a similar dynamic exists. In the U.S., there might be cases that resemble instances where honor or “saving face” is important; but by and large, trust formation and repair is not as collectively shared.

As an off-the-wall example, take the case of a colleague I had many years ago; I’ll call her Sara. Sara was from Nicaragua but did her undergraduate schooling in the U.S. At the time I met her, she was working in the U.S. Sara had been dating the same man, also from Nicaragua, for eight years. Their families knew one another, they belonged to the same social circle in Nicaragua.

One day, Sara found out her boyfriend had been carrying on an affair with another woman; Sara immediately ended her relationship. What happened next? Sara’s father in Nicaragua received a visit from Sara’s former boyfriend and his father. Hat in hand, they apologized to Sara’s father and family for the dishonorable behavior shown to Sara.

Within this cultural context, the transgression that occurred between two people extended to broader family relationships, which in honor-based cultures are often and ultimately intertwined with business interactions.
MBA Crystal Ball: What are the top hurdles that organisations face in the implementation of an ethical framework not just among their managers and employees but also the external stakeholders (such as vendors and suppliers)?

Professor Hernandez: Some of the top hurdles relate to access to information, transparency, and social embeddedness. Within the global economy, for instance,the complexities of how organizations relate to stakeholders are often implicitly communicated. But access or understanding of such communications might be hindered by cultural norms and even nuances communicated through native languages.

Transparency, therefore, involves not only content but also context. And if we consider how relational or familial ties and responsibilities serve to regulate behavior (as in my example of Sara), transforming such social forces into a formal organizational process becomes difficult to orchestrate and implement.

To tackle these issues, organizations would be well-served to foster a substantive understanding of cultural norms and invest time in building culturally knowledgeable social networks to inform their strategic decisions.
MBA Crystal Ball: How effective are psychometric tests in evaluating ‘fit’ within an organisation?

Professor Hernandez: There is substantial research on “fit” that has provided us with a number of important insights. For example, we know there are different types of fit — fit that is based on the job or the organization; fit that relates to one’s abilities or rewards. These elements create distinct psychological dynamics that can influence job satisfaction, turnover, and performance.

In my research, I’ve been interested in understanding the role of time in fit perceptions. Motivated by the Great Recession, I wondered if employees could remain engaged at work even in times of furloughs and job instability.

In a series of studies I conducted with my colleague Cristiano Guarana, we found that even under such adverse conditions, employees can remain engaged as long as they believe their future role will be better. That is, when employees envision a better future, they give less importance to their negative, contemporaneous experiences.

This might explain why people stick with companies through hard times, and in turn, how companies can maintain employees through times of hardship.
MBA Crystal Ball: Any advice for our readers who may not be able to attend a business school?

Professor Hernandez: Love what you do. Be curious. Keep learning.

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About Swati
After working for over a decade in technical and managerial roles in the corporate world, Swati now works as a freelancer and writes on a variety of topics including education, career guidance and self-improvement.

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