CEO Research Statement by Jennifer Deal

May 11, 2021

The Center for Effective Organizations is thrilled to welcome Jennifer Deal as a Senior Research Scientist. Her research statement follows:

Overall Research Program

My research is focused on addressing key issues leaders are facing by advancing theory and developing practical recommendations to improve leader, team, and organizational effectiveness.  In my research I work to understand the why of human behavior, because by understanding the why we can support clients in the what and how to strategically improve their organizations.  I think of my research like creating a map: If people have a map that is accurate at that point in time they can make better decisions when choosing which route to take.  If the map isn’t accurate, they may end up in a dead end – or somewhere they don’t want to be – and not know why.  But the topography of organizations is not static, which is why continuous learning and ongoing research is necessary for improving data-driven decision making.

While all of my research has been focused in the area of leadership broadly defined, the majority of the work has clustered in three areas: Generational Differences, the “Always On” work environment, and Cross-Cultural Leadership.

Generational Differences:  Separating Myth from Reality

My work on generational differences began as a result of issues I saw surface in executive education courses at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL).  Through a multi-year study that included (what were at that time groundbreaking) internet-based tools, my team and I found that the generally assumed differences among the generations were more hype than reality, and that the generations in the workforce at the time (Silents, Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers) were more similar than they were different.  This data-based perspective was new, coming at a time when the majority of the writing on the subject relied primarily on stereotypes that focused on the differences among generations and espoused the meaningfulness of differences that had vanishingly small effect sizes.  My work clearly demonstrated that the currently working Silents, Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers were substantially similar to each other with regard to values, affective organizational commitment, desire for development, interest in coaching, leadership, and concerns about organizational politics.  Common perception did not match reality; perceived differences were driven by understandable – and recurring – phenomena.  Specifically, the differences among the generations that people perceived were better explained by organizational level (professionals, managers, and executives have more in common with each other than they do with people of other levels), or life stage (people within a life stage have similar ways they live their lives which carry over into what they can and want to do in the workplace, and what they need from work).  These results served as the basis for a series of articles, and my book Retiring the Generation Gap (2007).

This research program continued as the focus shifted from Gen Xers to Millennials through the World Leadership Survey (a program of research I founded and ran at CCL), and through my work with the Center for Effective Organization at USC on a multi-year project exploring employee needs in 25 countries.  This research program focused on both cross-cultural behavior in organizations and developing a better understanding of Millennials in the workplace.  That work included two separate surveys in fourteen languages fielded to more than 70,000 participants in a six month period, interviews conducted in 25 countries, and focus groups in nine countries.  The results of that study were used by the organizations involved to address inaccurate perceptions of generational differences, and by leaders to better understand what they needed to do to create a positive work environment.  The data from that study were combined with data from CCL’s World Leadership Survey to create a larger database, and the results of the research using both datasets were presented in the book I co-authored with Alec Levenson in 2016 entitled What Millennials Want from Work.  Over time, the work on generations has been referred to in many articles in media around the world including The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Globe and Mail, Marketwatch, The Guardian, Fortune Magazine, CNN, Financial Times, and the New York Times.

Currently I am investigating the youngest group in the workforce (Gen C, born after 1995), specifically looking at the effects of increased anxiety and other attitudinal shifts on expectations of leadership and the workplace. Work in this area is ongoing.

“Always On” Work Environment

My work on the “Always On” workplace has received a great deal of attention in the past decade, but the program of research really began in with an early project done with Alec Levenson at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. This project focused on understanding what factors beyond compensation and promotion were driving turnover. It became clear through the research that work-life balance was a dominant issue for employees because of the increasing burden to be constantly working.  The results of that study were used within that organization by leaders as evidence to improve aspects of the workplace that would cause people to leave, and provide alternatives flexible work patterns and work-life balance programs that would encourage people to stay.

Continuing that work, I looked at how people perceived the smartphone (and other mobile devices) as affecting their load at work.  This CCL report (Always On, Never Done: Don’t Blame the Smartphone, 2013) demonstrated that the issues employees are having with feeling overworked aren’t a result of the smartphone, they are a consequence of inefficient and harmful organizational and leadership practices.  This report also provided recommendations for some specific steps organizations and leaders could take to help relieve the burden on their employees.  This area of research has been of great interest to the media, and has been referenced in a variety of outlets including on the NBC Nightly News, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, Toronto Star, The Guardian, Globe and Mail, Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times.  I have been told by reporters that the reason this report was picked up was because it was real research (rather than hype), written in a way people could understand and relate to, and that it pointed out that individuals couldn’t fix a problem that was fundamentally a consequence of unproductive organizational and leadership practices.

Most recently, my work in this area has focused on stress, fatigue, and the long hours work culture, research I have done primarily with colleagues at CCL.  I was also asked to partner with the organization Tork on a study looking at the relationship between lunchtime break behavior, leader attitudes, employee engagement, and retention in the USA and Canada.  While the organization’s goals for the work have been met, mine are ongoing and I’m currently collaborating with Lisa Kath at San Diego State University to more deeply investigate this area, both with these data and with other data we have from executives, managers, and professionals.

Cross-Cultural Leadership

I have believed for many years that a key component of effectiveness in organizations today is having a global mindset. My work on global leadership has focused on the area of cross-cultural effectiveness, the results of which became several academic articles, two co-authored books (Success for the New Global Manager, 2002, and Developing Cultural Adaptability, 2003), classroom curriculum, and skill-based activities for those interested in becoming more effective in working with others from different cultures or with different identities.  One substantial contribution of this work was demonstrating the critical importance of cross-cultural competency for effective leadership.  We were also able to demonstrate how many of these skills can be developed in the classroom, and created curricula and a process through which such development could occur.

Considering the cross-cultural implications is a thread throughout all of my research. For example, though the primary focus of my work on generations is understanding similarities and differences among generations, a strong secondary focus is on cross-cultural issues in leadership.  In every study I have conducted on generations I have ensured that the research has something to say to people from different cultures about generational differences in their context.  My most recent work on the subject (What Millennials Want from Work) included data from 22 countries.

Similarly, while the focus of the Always On work has been to better understand why people feel they can never escape work, this issue for many is a result of the global nature of the work and differences in cultural expectations around how work is done. The expansion of day-to-day work beyond the borders of any one state or country has resulted in a lengthening of the work day that causes employees to feel as if they must be available to their employer for the majority of the hours they are awake.  This is a global problem, one both private and public sector leaders are feeling a need to address. 

Other Research Areas

In addition to the research described above, I have been engaged in other research areas that aren’t my core focus but which leverage my interests.  For example, I have collaborated with USD faculty member Jennifer Mueller on research on perceptions of creativity in the workplace which was part of a Harvard Business Review article and was recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.  My contribution to the paper was to work with the team to gain access to organizations and to provide a real-world practitioner perspective to how the research could be applied by leaders within an organization.

I have also been involved in research on women in the workplace for all of my career.  Maura Stevenson and I published a paper looking at perceptions of women at work while we were in graduate school, and every project I have been involved in has included gender as a component.  Currently I am leading a project focused on women in the workplace.  It is focused on Projective Representation in the perception of legitimacy of decisions of executive teams as a function of the decisions and the gender composition of the team.  Essentially, how does the demographic make-up of the team making a decision affect employees’ acceptance of the decision, and does the subject matter of the decision interact with the demographic make-up of the team.  (Spoiler alert:  it does.)

Meet Dr. Deal