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Psst, Boss: Co-workers most powerful influence in organizational change

Janet Bercovitz
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
The seeds of workplace change may come from the top, but take root from the bottom up, according to a new study co-written by Janet Bercovitz, an Illinois business professor.


Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The seeds of workplace change may come from the top, but take root from the bottom up, according to a new study co-written by a University of Illinois business professor.

The findings show co-workers create a local culture that wields powerful influence over their colleagues when organizations try to break from tradition and launch initiatives, said Janet Bercovitz, a professor of business administration in the U. of I. College of Business.

If most close co-workers embrace new ways of doing business, others will likely get on board. But if most of those cohorts resist, others are apt to follow that lead, too, even if it runs counter to their own training, according to the study, “Academic Entrepreneurs: Organizational Change at the Individual Level,” which appears in the February issue of Organization Science.

While management directives can also sway employees, some may conform only to please higher-ups, Bercovitz said. In contrast, she says workers are more likely to actively embrace change modeled after cohorts.

“What is key is that people are influenced by their social unit more than generally acknowledged and that needs to be the starting point when looking at how you make organizational changes,” said Bercovitz, who co-wrote the study with University of Georgia professor Maryann Feldman.

The study tracked nearly 1,800 faculty members at two university medical schools to gauge participation in new programs that let colleges pursue ownership and commercialization of inventions developed with federal research funding.

Universities across the country are pushing the new initiative to help boost revenues, but have encountered resistance from some faculty members who contend their work should be open and available to all rather than licensed to private parties, Bercovitz said.

Despite support from top administrators, the study found that faculty members were influenced most by peers when deciding whether to follow rules requiring them to disclose research findings.

“What we see is there’s a reversion to the local norm,” Bercovitz said.

The study found that individual attributes also play a part, and that faculty members who trained at institutions with successful, well-established disclosure programs are more likely to participate at their new schools. That training, the study says, set an expectation for their future career.

But the study says the influence of co-workers is so strong that when faculty members join a workplace where practices differ from their own training “they will conform to the group, rather than sticking with what they knew from their prior experience,” Bercovitz said.

“Individuals who were trained to be entrepreneurial will revert if co-workers are not engaged,” Feldman said. “Likewise, if individuals did not train under entrepreneurial expectations, their local group can catalyze a change in behavior.”

Bercovitz says the study’s findings of a “bottom-up approach” to organizational change could help universities seeking to lock faculty members into routinely disclosing their research, which can bring in much-needed revenue and also attract more research funding.

“It’s important to build a critical mass of people who are behind a practice. If you do that, then it spreads,” she said.

Bercovitz says the findings also could help other businesses with change by highlighting the intra-organizational social dynamics that are involved.

“A university is actually much more institutionalized, so it’s a harder place to change,” she said. “Faculty have a lot of independence, so it’s not like companies where they can just say ‘Do this or I’m going to fire you.’ ”

Editor’s note: To contact Janet Bercovitz, call 217-265-0696 or e-mail