Lehigh University
Lehigh University

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The Human Side of Business

Naomi Rothman

It may be tempting to think of the business world as a place run on hard numbers where sentiment has no standing. But like all human relationships, business negotiations involve complicated emotions, and how you express your feelings during a given interaction can affect the outcome in very different ways.

That’s where Naomi Rothman’s research comes in. Rothman, an assistant professor in the department of management in the College of Business and Economics, studies the social consequences of emotions, power and justice in the workplace.

Her primary research examines the role of emotions in decision making and how emotional expressions shape social interactions.

Almost all of the prior research into emotion and management focuses on single emotions, such as anger or happiness. But Rothman studies ambivalence, which involves the simultaneous experience of multiple emotions in conflict.

People who express anger are perceived to be aggressive and dominant and can usually get others to concede in competitive negotiations. However, Rothman has found that people who express ambivalence elicit perceptions of deliberation and submissiveness, leading people in competitive negotiations to want to take advantage of them.

However, the situation changes in a more cooperative environment, where preliminary evidence by Rothman suggests that people feel empathy for ambivalent counterparts and they may become more creative in their negotiations, coming up with solutions that benefit both parties.

“Americans value decisiveness and consistency in leaders,” she explains. “But the takeaway is that, though people tend to take advantage of ambivalence, if you can create a cooperative environment, ambivalence can allow for more creativity. We shouldn’t be so quick to take advantage of people who are ambivalent.”

Among other emotions, Rothman also studies how empathy affects decision making. With Steven Blader at New York University, she looks at whether empathy always leads to justifiable helping, or whether it can lead to preferential treatment

“In a work context, we care a lot about equity,” she says. “Empathy does make people provide more help to those in need because it makes them think differently about fairness—it becomes less about equity and more about helping those who need it.”

Another area of interest for Rothman is power, especially the behaviors and characteristics that a manager has that make you perceive him or her as having power.

Rothman and her collaborators differentiate between power (control over resources) and status (being respected and admired). Fair leaders are perceived to have status, whereas unfair leaders are perceived to have power. While a long history of research has shown that fair leaders are better leaders, this research by Rothman and colleagues shows that people will still choose unfair leaders for certain roles because they think they have more power.

Rothman’s background is in social psychology and sociology, and she brings a new focus on organizational behavior to the management department.

“I do social psychological research because organizations are made up of human beings,” she says. “If we understand how and why people behave as they do in interactions with each other, we can be better teachers of management and develop better managers.”

Story by Emily Groff

Posted on Monday, November 07, 2011

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