ASU professor's research into psychology of the workplace earns top faculty honor
Blake Ashforth named Regents Professor for work on how people find identity and connection in their jobs
It was a soul-sucking job at a bank that helped to set Blake Ashforth on the path to a distinguished career as a researcher at Arizona State University, where he studies the psychology of work.
Ashforth, an expert on organizational behavior who holds the Horace Steele Heritage Chair in the Management and Entrepreneurship Department of the W. P. Carey School of Business, has been so excellent in his field that he has been named one of the five newest Regents Professors at ASU — the highest faculty honor, which is achieved by only 3% of faculty members at ASU.
Ashforth studies how people identify with organizations, which has produced fascinating studies on topics such as stigmatized jobs, bullying in the workplace and the “petty tyranny” of managers.
The professor, who has been at ASU for 24 years, had an early love of psychology that began in high school when he read an account of the infamous Stanford prison study done in 1971 by psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo. In that research project, Zimbardo randomly assigned Stanford students to play roles as prison guards or prisoners.
“He wanted to sit back and see what happened. And what he found was the prisoners became cowed and the guards became abusive, and this happened in no time at all. We’re talking days,” Ashforth said.
He was amazed.
“I couldn’t believe the power of this situation to transform these kids into these weird people. It stuck with me,” he said.
As an undergrad, he studied both business and psychology, which were very different worlds.
“And I took a class in something called organizational behavior and I thought, ‘Hey, you can actually marry the two — the psychology of work.’”
So he worked at a bank while he pursued his MBA, where he had an "aha!" moment.
“I realized, ‘I could be these professors and do what they’re doing,’” he said.
So he quit the MBA program and started on his PhD at the University of Toronto.
“Because of my experience at the bank, where I saw a system that just crushed the spirit of people, my dissertation was called, ‘The Experience of Powerlessness,’” he said.
“It was about how we create these institutional systems that choke the spirit out of work and cause people to wither and act out.”
Back in the 1980s, the field of organizational behavior was fairly new.
“It was the Wild West in terms of what we could work on, and I loved it because there were so many cool questions to ask and there was so little on them,” he said.
Decades later, there are rigorous theoretical models, but it’s still a dynamic field.
“We’re always responding to the changing conditions of work,” he said.
A dark side
Ashforth has covered a wide variety of topics in his career.
“If there’s one thread, it’s understanding how systems affect individuals, which gives me lots of scope to play with different applications of that idea,” he said.
“Within that, my biggest area has probably been identity and work, which is how you develop a sense of self from what you do, the work itself, the workers you work with and the organization. And I look at both the pros and cons.”
On the positive side, identifying with your workplace can give a sense of connection.
“And we’re all looking for some kind of meaning beyond the paycheck,” he said.
But there’s also a dark side.
“The issue is not that you identify too strongly; it’s that you identify exclusively,” he said.
“So if the only thing in your life is work or family or your sports team or your religion — pick anything you want — it leads to an inherently myopic view of what your life is all about.”
That scenario could lead people to behave unethically on behalf of their organization.
“We can lose ourselves if we don’t use the wisdom of multiple identities to counterbalance what we bring to any one situation,” he said.
Ashforth has studied different manifestations of respect and dignity in work, and especially stigmatized jobs. That can mean work associated with garbage, such as a janitor; socially tainted occupations in which people work with stigmatized groups, like prison guards; and jobs that are morally dubious, like a casino worker.
“Given that society looks down their nose at people who do stigmatized work, why do they do the work? Did they choose it freely? Do they enjoy it? Do they want their kids to do it?”
Ashforth talked to many people in low-status jobs and found that they do find dignity.
“There’s always a lot of turnover but for those who hang in for any length of time, they find compensations — usually pockets of autonomy or meaning or connection,” he said.
“And that was a pleasant surprise because those jobs are out there and they matter.”
Many of Ashforth’s journal articles have inviting titles: “Petty Tyranny in Organizations,” “You Are About to Party ‘Defiant’ Style: Socialization and Identity Onboard an Alaskan Fishing Boat” and “Curiosity Adapted the Cat: The Role of Trait Curiosity in Newcomer Adaptation.”
He has also studied spirituality in the workplace, the role of “putdown humor” in bonding employees, how prisoners who work in call centers develop a positive identity, and how workers such as gynecologists and undertakers normalize extraordinary conditions.
Ashforth works on six to 10 research papers at a time. More recently, he has looked at the ways that gig workers — who don’t belong to an organization — create connections and identity, and how workers deal with dueling identities on the job, such as soldier medics or shelter workers who must euthanize animals.
Getting the research out
Over his 35-year career, he has seen the importance of teaching become more prominent.
“In 1985, which was when I became a full-time professor, teaching was almost an afterthought,” he said.
“It was not taught in the doctoral program, and you were suddenly dropped into a classroom with zero preparation. And it didn’t really matter because back then, schools were almost dismissive of students’ evaluations. They didn’t care.”
Professors needed to focus on producing research in order to get tenure.
“But institutions now routinely expect and monitor teaching to make sure you are doing a good job in the classroom, and that’s really changed the way we socialize our doctoral students,” he said.
“So now, if you’re a really good researcher but an awful teacher, you will not get tenure at most Research 1Universities classified as having very high research activity. schools.”
Ashforth laments that younger researchers face a much harder time getting published in the top research journals, which can impact their careers.
“You can go three or four rounds of reviews and then the paper is bounced. That was unheard of 15 years ago, and now it’s common,” he said.
“To me it’s incredibly unfair.”
He also believes that the tenure system needs to better reward researchers who publish for a more general audience — including the businesspeople who can most benefit from the study results.
“There’s a translation issue in business schools in that we do research that goes into top journals but for the most part, it’s only read by people like me and we’re not the ones running organizations,” he said.
The conventional ways of getting research into practice is through teaching, consulting and writing textbooks.
“But even then, there’s a lot of research we do that doesn’t get known,” he said.
“There’s a lot of background that has to be in a research article for it to be compelling, but that same level of detail and rigor is very off-putting if you’re not trained in the discipline, so why would a manager pick up a management journal?” he said.
“There’s too much jargon and analyses they can’t understand.”
He believes that contributing to publications such as the Harvard Business Review should also be considered.
“What we need is a collective importance. We need to understand as a field that we should all be doing this, but until we change the reward structure, it’s not going to happen.”
He has written several articles for the Harvard Business Review, most recently about how people who work remotely befriend coworkers.
Although Ashforth has taken deep dives into such harsh workplaces as an Alaskan fishing boat, he has found ASU to be a great place to work.
“The reason I’m still here after 24 years is because I think this place is so incredibly collegial and very well run,” he said.
“I have seen at my previous schools the impact of bad deans and bad chairs, and it’s extremely corrosive. Here it’s been a joy. The politics are minimal, wasted meetings are minimal, and there’s an energy in the hallway and a passion for research.”
The life of a researcher can be solitary, Ashforth said, but connecting with colleagues is beneficial personally and professionally.
“It’s those collaborations that make everything come alive, and it also makes the research so much better.”
Top image by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
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