Industrial metal parts.

From the Assembly Line to the Classroom

I started my career as an assembly line worker in a factory that produced steel building products for one of the nation’s largest steel manufacturing companies. In this position I was a member of the AFL-CIO labor union. Even from this early stage in my career I was impacted by how poor the working conditions were and how adversarial the relationship was between management and the hourly workers. Although at the time I had not yet envisioned teaching at a business college and conducting research, it was nevertheless clear to me that the types of management practices pervasive at this company did not result in engaged employees and actually created a very toxic work environment.

Chad Brinsfield

Chad Brinsfield

After two years as an assembly line worker I was offered a position in management. The company provided partial tuition assistance if the degree was related to one’s job, so pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration seemed like the most viable and rational career route. After completing my bachelor’s degree I took a position with a large producer of automotive glass. I was hired into this company as a warehouse supervisor, but during the next five years worked in information systems, marketing, operations management and, eventually, was offered the position of general manager. Also during this time I went back to school to pursue an M.B.A. This was an impactful experience, not only in the tactics and strategies I would learn to increase bottom line performance but also in its reinforcement of my view that maximizing shareholder value was the core purpose of business (this seemed to be the prevailing wisdom at the time).

After six years with this organization I decided that I wanted to run my own company. Because of my background and available opportunities, I started a distribution business that transported commercial freight for manufacturing and wholesaling organizations. Customers eventually would include K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Wilson’s Sporting Goods, Siemens Corp., Cargill, Emerson Electric and Enron Logistics Corp. After seven reasonably successful years in business, in 2001 two large customers unexpectedly filed bankruptcy and, subsequently, did not pay their outstanding invoices. Around this time the rate of growth in the economy also began to slow. Both events reduced demand and put downward pressure on pricing in the distribution industry. To make matters worse, around this time fuel prices began rising, which dramatically increased operating costs. Given the reduction in expected returns and increasing risk, I decided to sell the business in 2003.

Considering my background in business, and the important role work plays in peoples’ lives and society, I believed that I could have a positive impact by helping to educate the business leaders of tomorrow; moreover, the human side of work always had interested me, so I enrolled in a doctoral program in organizational behavior and human resources management at The Ohio State University. As a doctoral student I had the opportunity to collaborate with leading scholars on a wide variety of organizational behavior-related topics. As a result of these opportunities I have worked on projects related to trust in the workplace, workplace commitments, emotions and fairness, employee monitoring, social capital, and employee silence and voice. Trust in the workplace, workplace commitments and employee silence and voice are three areas in which I am especially excited and continue to actively conduct research.

Trust is a topic with wide ranging implications for individuals, organizations, and society. For personal and professional relationships to flourish, trust is essential. Without trust, commerce can become inefficient and corrupt, and people may suffer a wide range of negative psychological consequences. I have a deep interest in trust and it is also of relevance to the missions and values of St. Thomas and The Opus College of Business.  I have co-written three book chapters on trust in the workplace.

The first of these chapters looks at the role of trust in social capital. Developing and sustaining social capital requires a complex orchestration of building trust and managing distrust. While efforts to build trust are important and admirable, building and sustaining social capital also requires the effective management of distrust. This chapter articulates a number of strategies for leveraging trust, and managing distrust, to build and sustain social capital within the workplace. The second of these chapters examined how trust can function as a heuristic. A heuristic is a mechanism for processing information that allows the decision maker to select some information and ignore other information as a way to make a quicker or “easier” (less complex) decision. During the last three decades, heuristics have been studied extensively by decision-making theorists. This chapter advances our understanding of heuristics to demonstrate how interpersonal trust judgments also can function as heuristics. The third chapter discusses issues associated with empirically researching trust. We also discuss implications arising from conceptualizing trust and distrust as distinct constructs, as well as measurement challenges associated with trust development, decline and repair over time.

The topic of commitment first was examined outside of the workplace in the fields of sociology and psychology and now is frequently examined in a broad range of academic disciplines. Within the management sciences, commitment has historically been one of the most frequently examined constructs. This is likely due to the impact workplace commitments have been shown to have on important individual and organization relevant outcomes, such as absenteeism, turnover, motivation, performance, prosocial behaviors, and employee well-being. Working in conjunction with colleagues, I recently co-wrote an article published in the Academy of Management Review, wherein we address widely acknowledged concerns regarding the conceptualization, definition and validity of the commitment construct. We reconceptualize commitment to highlight its distinctiveness and improve its applicability across all workplace targets. We also developed a continuum of psychological bonds reflecting the different types of attachments people can experience at work and reconceptualized commitment as a particular type of bond reflecting volitional dedication and responsibility for a target. This research should bring clarity, consistency, and synergy to the research and management of workplace commitments.

Another primary area of research interest, and the focus of my dissertation, is employee silence and voice. In the workplace intentional silence may have profound impact on both individual and organizational outcomes; however, despite decades of research on employee communication-related constructs and processes, lapses in communication continue to be cited as factors for poor organizational performance, low job satisfaction, high levels of employee stress and depression and widely publicized corporate scandals (e.g., Enron, WorldCom, Abu Ghraib prison, the Bernie Madoff scandal). My dissertation represented one of the first attempts to empirically investigate the various underlying motives for intentional silence in the workplace. To achieve this I conducted four studies with over 1,300 subjects from two universities and three manufacturing organizations. This research is currently under review, and I hope to have it published next year.

I feel fortunate to be at a university that is very supportive of both excellent teaching and research. As a result, I have experienced a significant synergy between the work I do in the research domain and how that translates into the classroom. My research informs my teaching, and interacting with students and hearing about their experiences also informs my research. I can’t think of a better career than to explore ideas and share them with students.

Chad Brinsfield is assistant professor of management at the Opus College of Business.

 From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.