Pay Attention to the Message

By Susan Chadwick

Two faculty members at the Jones Graduate School of Business are doing cutting-edge research — from different points of view — into paying attention and how interpreting messages results in professional success or failure, for individuals or their organizations.

Erik Dane concentrates on how individuals focus or widen their attention in the workplace to perform better. He calls it “mindfulness” or “focusing on the present moment.” It’s an old yet increasingly popular concept familiar to anyone interested in Eastern philosophy and one of the fastest growing research areas in psychology — and now business management.

Annie Zavyalova investigates how the public, through the media, pays attention to messages from organizations in response to an episode of wrongdoing. She calls it “social approval asset management.”

Dane is an assistant professor of management in the organizational behavior group. Mindfulness (and, more broadly, attention) is one of three areas, including expertise/experience and intuition/human judgment, that interest Dane personally and as a scholar.

“I’ve always been interested in philosophical topics, in Eastern thought and philosophy,” he says in his office at McNair Hall on a sunny winter day. Relaxed, personable, and clearly focused on the present moment, Dane adds, “There’s an emerging body of academic literature that examines what mindfulness is and why it matters.

“For centuries, people have been talking about the fact that one of the keys to life is living in the here and now,” says Dane. “And actually there is some hard evidence that focusing on the present moment enhances well-being and improves task performance.”

Some of that new evidence comes from Dane’s own research. He asks the question: does mindfulness in the workplace affect the bottom line?

Staying Focused When Everything Is Constantly Changing

In a paper published in January 2013 in the journal Organization Studies, Dane presents his findings on the role of attention in a dynamic work setting. In this case, the dynamic work setting was the courtroom and the subjects were trial lawyers.

The paper, titled “Things Seen and Unseen: Investigating Experience-Based Qualities of Attention in a Dynamic Work Setting,” looks into these intriguing topics: How do people focus their attention in a dynamic work setting where they must constantly adapt to changing conditions in real time? And how is the ability to focus attention linked to work experience?

Dane, who’s been teaching at the Jones School since 2007, observed three felony trials and interviewed 46 trial lawyers with a range of trial experience in three American cities. Comments about the stress level lawyers feel during trial included statements such as:

“I think my biggest hurdle in being a prosecutor was to remember to breathe and stop shaking.”

“Fear, I think, can kind of shut down any kind of ability to — whatever it is — to kind of just be in the moment and pay attention to what’s going on.”

Dane found that more experienced trial lawyers both focus and widen their attention more effectively. He writes: “... my findings indicate that in accruing certain types of experience individuals attain two key qualities of attention. Specifically, they develop the capacity to attend to a wide range of events (attentional breadth) and learn how to opportunistically incorporate these events into the overall message they seek to convey (attentional integration).”

A key aspect of attention is interpretation: making sense of what we notice, says Dane. “We tend to view what has occurred as either good or bad. In reality there is considerable ambiguity surrounding the events we encounter. One person’s threat is another person’s opportunity.

“That’s an insight I gained from the lawyer study. As it turns out, experienced litigators are able to incorporate virtually any event into the overarching case they’re presenting.”

Avoiding mind wandering or disrupted attention while operating in a complex, dynamic environment appears to be the key to avoiding catastrophe for individuals — or an organization made up of responsible individuals. However, there are exceptions.

“Mindfulness is not a panacea,” says Dane. “Some tasks may not call for mindfulness. And, in some cases, mindfulness may even prove distracting or a hindrance. For that matter, mind wandering may prove beneficial, as well — insofar as it is goal-directed.

“The mind is inherently a wandering creature and that’s not always bad,” he says. “The fact that the mind wanders can be useful” — as in planning for the future.

Managing Perceptions in the Aftermath of Catastrophe

But let’s say that catastrophe does hit an organization. Somebody, or a series of somebodies, lets their eyes wander off the ball in a not useful way, and as a result, there’s been a massive product recall.

That’s where Zavyalova steps in with her research into how the actions of a business (toy manufacturers, in this case) or other organizations like universities or the Catholic church direct the attention of reporters and shape the perceptions of the public following a scandal.

“I’m interested in negative events in organizations,” says Zavyalova with a smile. Her field, she says, is reputation or social approval asset management. And, like Dane, who is leading the pack in the emerging field of attention and task performance, Zavyalova is also mining new ground in organization theory research.

A bright-eyed, energetic assistant professor of strategic management fresh out of graduate school, Zavyalova has been teaching at the Jones School since the fall of 2012, having just received her doctorate in May of 2012 from the University of Maryland.

Her first paper, published in October 2012 in conjunction with Maryland and University of Georgia colleagues in the Academy of Management Journal, studied technical and ceremonial actions by firms following major recalls of toys and the impact of these actions on the tenor of media coverage.

The paper, which informed the research she’d done for her dissertation, is the first large-scale empirical investigation testing the influence of announcements of actions by a firm on media coverage. Titled “Managing The Message: The Effects of Firm Actions and Industry Spillovers On Media Coverage Following Wrongdoing,” the paper is also looks at press releases and blogs as sources of information.

Zavyalova examined millions of recalled toys dating back to 1998. She found that it “helped guilty companies to issue a technical press release.” But a merely ceremonial press release, a window-dressing announcement that failed to address technical issues or planned changes in response to a problem, actually hurt a guilty company. The public was not persuaded; they knew the problem had not been solved. “Information is so easily available today,” explains Zavyalova.

Can A Good Reputation Be Too Good?

Surprisingly, Zavyalova has found evidence that “it can be a bad thing” for a company “to be too well known.” In her current research focusing on athletic scandals in NCAA schools, she will propose that “it may be actually a good strategic decision to stay away from the media spotlight in general.” The reason: “People attribute wrongdoing to reputable organizations” because they confuse a better known business with a lesser known business that is actually the guilty party.

“Having a good reputation can be a double-edged sword,” she says. “The media pays more attention” and “tend to cover the top fifty schools a lot more.”

But Zavyalova found that alumni are loyal to their schools. Ironically, athletic scandals tend to increase alumni donations — up to a certain point.

A school, she points out, “is part of who you are, part of your identity.” And if an event “reflects negatively on you — you try to help your school.”

However, “if there are too many scandals, then alumni withdraw their support.” And what was the limit? “We found that it was six violations [of NCAA rules] or more.”

A third timely paper, also in progress, focuses on the child sex abuse scandal that has been rocking the Catholic church for decades. Also an empirical study, this paper looks at the handling of cases of alleged pedophile priests in some 340 parishes in the archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1970 to 2010.

Like the research paper on athletic scandals, which measures what it takes for devoted alumni to give up on their alma mater, this new research calculates the point at which “even dedicated people stop supporting” their church.

“Faith is an even bigger part of your existence than your school,” Zavyalova observes. “Detaching your faith from who you are is much more difficult” than detaching your identity from a school and sports team.

Zavyalova’s research in Philadelphia also uncovered some potentially explosive patterns in the way pedophile priests were moved around by church authorities.

“It was not random.”

Staying Focused When Your Ship is Drifting

Zavyalova was asked her thoughts on Carnival Cruise Lines’s public handling of the stranding at sea of the Carnival Triumph. The Galveston-based ship lost power in the Gulf of Mexico after an engine room fire on February 10 and was towed to Mobile, Alabama, on February 14. Reports from some of the 3,000-plus passengers described extremely unpleasant conditions on board, largely from lack of toilets and failed sewage systems, as well as lack of food and air-conditioning.

“It helped that [Carnival President] Gerry Cahill personally appeared to greet the passengers [when they arrived in Mobile] and apologized to them,” Zavyalova writes in a follow-up email. “But what Carnival should have done as soon as they could is find out why the fire started and whether it could have been prevented.”

The Triumph, she points out, was not the first Carnival cruise ship to have this same problem. “This will be the most difficult issue to address when reassuring customers that the ship quality on Carnival is not jeopardized.” CNN reports that “four of the company’s 23 ships have had problems in recent months.”

And there’s no point now to an expensive publicity campaign. “At this time, as my study suggests, it may hurt the company to spend money on TV advertising or other high-cost PR efforts, as customers and the public in general will be more likely to condemn Carnival for misallocating their resources.”

No doubt the 1,000-plus Carnival Triumph crew members were faced with an extremely dynamic and changing workplace situation as systems and routines broke down on the ship. And, according to Dane, they would have been helped by being mindful or by having mindfulness training. An increasing number of corporations, including General Mills, Google and Target, are offering their employees training in mindfulness to improve decision-making, efficiency, and cooperation.

“Unexpected events—things going haywire—that’s part of what constitutes a dynamic environment,” says Dane.

Dane has been studying the relationship between mindfulness and task performance in a similar service industry—the restaurant industry. He asked employees at seven different restaurants to report on how mindful they are at work and found that the way they answered correlated significantly with their job performance, as evaluated by their supervisors. Employees who reported focusing attention on the present moment performed their work better than those who reported lower levels of mindfulness.

“We’re not a very mindful society,” says Dane. But he notes that mindfulness, meditation, and yoga programs are increasingly popular, especially in the business world.

Carnival CEO Micky Arison was roundly criticized in the press for attending and visibly enjoying a Miami Heat basketball game while more than 4,000 miserable people drifted at sea aboard one of his cruise ships. Maybe he shouldn’t have let his attention wander. Says Dane, “The overarching question is: where is the mind and what are the implications for behavior in the workplace?”

This article is from the Spring 2013 issue of Jones Journal