October 6, 2017

A Q&A with SSSPE Interim Dean Michelle Bligh

Michelle Bligh

A professor of organizational behavior at CGU’s Division of Behavioral & Organizational Sciences (DBOS) since 2002, Michelle Bligh’s research interests focus on organizational culture and the role of leaders in influencing and changing corporate cultures, particularly in post-merger organizations, as well as charismatic leadership, interpersonal trust, and political and executive leadership. Now in the role of interim dean of the School of Social Science, Policy & Evaluation (SSSPE), Bligh recently took time to discuss her field, current events, and why “searching for the next savior” is a modern-day fairy tale.

Your areas of specialty include, among others, focusing on organizational culture and the role of leaders. What was it about these topics that led you into this part of the field?

Very early in my career, I spent several months at a refugee camp in sub-Saharan Africa. I quickly learned that the various cultures and leaders of NGOs [non-government organizations] had a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of these organizations to positively impact the lives of the refugees. I resolved to better understand how and why even the most well-intentioned individuals and organizations are not always able to implement their vision and purpose.

When you look at the latest news headlines related to organizational behavior, several words and phrases keep popping up, such as “dealing with a**holes,” “obnoxious, mean, dismissive” bosses, narcissism and the income gap, and “targeting toxic environments.” It’s a little surprising to find this language in recent headlines. One might think that, in this age of the hipster Google and Microsoft campuses, etc., we were starting to move beyond these issues in company environments. Do we still have a long way to go?

Yes, we still have a long way to go. We spend the majority of our waking lives in and around organizations, as employees, customers, volunteers, and shareholders. To expect that every moment of that time will be positive, rewarding, productive, and engaging is probably unrealistic. However, with increased understanding of organizational behavior and the principles of positive psychology, we can strive to create jobs and organizations that minimize conflict, toxicity, and actively discourage workplace bullying and harassment. Yet, unfortunately, all of these destructive workplace elements can readily survive and even thrive in hipster companies as well as in more traditional organizations.

Most lay readers don’t associate the word “romance” with leadership. It is surprising to see these two concepts linked together. What are we supposed to understand about leadership and romance?

The Romance of Leadership is a theory that was formulated to explicitly recognize and problematize our fascination with leaders and leadership. In our common language and culture, leadership is by default a positive, even heroic force. Bookshelves and websites are filled with the latest leadership wisdom and principles of effective management. Yet all too often, we attribute outcomes to leaders without recognizing the critical impact of followers, situations, economic factors, crises, and unanticipated factors. As a result, we are frequently guilty of avoiding responsibility and making the effort to critically examine the processes and structures that might lead to real change. Instead, we repeatedly expect new leaders to ride in on their proverbial white horses and “save the day,” often using the latest tools and techniques. And when they fail, we criticize them and begin searching for the next savior with promises of success and greatness. In many ways, it is a modern day fairy tale; hence, the “romance” of leadership.

Well, the United States government seems decidedly unromantic right now. Politics aside, what are some companies or industries that seem to be doing things right in the organizational behavior sphere?

There are many companies that seem to be doing things right in the OB sphere. Unfortunately, they are still exceptions rather than the norm. Until employees at all skill levels have multiple options to work at companies where they feel challenged and valued, we still have a long way to go. And unfortunately, there is little evidence that organizations can borrow or copy techniques that work for one company and quickly and easily implement them in their own cultures. It takes a core mission that understands the value and potential of everyday people, as well as the discipline and hard work to find ways to help them develop and succeed.

Read Michelle Bligh’s message from the dean’s office to learn more about how SSSPE students and faculty engage in holistic, interdisciplinary scholarship in the social sciences to solve meaningful, real-world problems and enhance quality of life in society.