Career & Success

A Dozen of Our Favorite Insights Stories of 2021

Just some of the original ideas and fascinating research coming from Stanford GSB faculty this year.

December 13, 2021

A person working on a computer, reading the Insights articles page on the Stanford GSB web page. | Credit: iStock/BrianAJackson.

A smart way to start the day | iStock/BrianAJackson

What a year, huh? Here are a dozen stories published by Stanford Business in 2021 that help make sense of what’s happening — and shed light on new research and ideas to carry us into 2022 and beyond.

Pandemic Innovation

If COVID-19 had a motto, it might borrow Stanford GSB’s: In less than two years, the virus changed our lives, our organizations, and our world. We asked Stanford GSB faculty members to share how they’d been engaging with this unique and urgent moment. From the mechanics and ethics of vaccine distribution to imagining the post-pandemic workplace and economy, Susan Athey, Paul Oyer, Ken Shotts, Michael Spence, and their colleagues shared the ideas they’re exploring and the lessons they’ve learned.

Economics & Ethics

Nearly 100,000 people are on the waiting list to receive a kidney in the U.S. Determining the fairest and fastest way to get them new organs is of particular interest to people who think about questions of scarcity, allocation, and efficiency — economists and operations experts such as Stanford GSB professors Mohammad Akbarpour, Paulo Somaini, and Stefanos Zenios. “The payoff is saving people’s lives,” says Dean Jon Levin. “That’s an inspiring challenge.”

Financial Fixes

Right after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March 2020, the U.S. Treasury market came dangerously close to a meltdown. Professor of finance Darrell Duffie warned that the disruption revealed serious weaknesses in the Treasury market. As a member of an international body of leading financial experts this fall, he helped make proposals to shore up the system before the next crisis. “This is probably not the last time this will happen,” he told Stanford Business. “Major structural changes are needed.”


Before they started breaking and making headlines, most people never gave a thought to supply chains. Yet Hau Lee, a professor of operations, information & technology, has been thinking about them and their impacts for four decades. Recently, he’s been exploring how supply chains can be harnessed to run factories fairly and minimize environmental damage. “We are adopting technologies to make global supply chains more efficient and flexible and to serve consumers well,” Lee says. “At the same time, we should be sure we are not doing harm to society — and, ideally, not only not doing harm, but contributing back.”

Generation Gaps

The good news: More people are dedicated to getting racism and sexism out of the workplace. The bad news: Ageism… not so much. “Even fair-minded people seem to prioritize race and gender over age,” explains Ashley Martin, an assistant professor of organizational behavior. In a study, Martin found that younger workers often see older colleagues as obstacles to their own advancement. Even in an increasingly egalitarian culture, bias toward older people remains “a uniquely challenging prejudice.”

Emission Statements

This year’s COP26 climate summit was long on stirring pledges but short on concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, a relatively painless step could be taken right now, argues accounting professor emeritus Stefan Reichelstein: require corporations to disclose their CO2 emissions. “Mandatory disclosure actually leads to voluntary reductions,” he says. “By making the numbers visible to all of the company’s stakeholders, it creates an incentive for management to take action.”

Gender & Opportunity

An entry-level salary in engineering and tech for a man is more than $4,000 higher than what’s paid to a woman with comparable credentials. Stanford researchers discovered that only one attribute separates these new STEM hires: self-confidence. “We see students who have taken four or five years of hard classes, some have done internships, but our data implies that employers are so swayed by the confidence with which these 22-year-olds are expressing what they can do,” says lead author Adina Sterling, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB.

Culture vs. COVID

Countries’ cultures can be classified as “tight” or “loose” based on how strictly they enforce social norms, according to Michele Gelfand, a professor of organizational behavior. The U.S. is famously loose, yet its response to the pandemic has shown how the advantages of openness and optimism can become liabilities in a crisis. “We have this afforded optimism. It’s a great thing to be an optimistic culture,” Gelfand says. But, she notes, “That’s not a great trait in a context of a collective threat.”

Number Crunching

“It used to be that only scientists and academics and engineers were thinking about data science, but now it has become a C-level issue,” says marketing professor Harikesh Nair, a cofounder of the Computational Marketing Lab, which identifies best practices for online marketers. Stanford Business interviewed Nair about his thoughts about the current state of online advertising, the challenges of running experiments when real-time commerce is measured in millionths of a second — and what kinds of digital ads annoy him.

Hidden Impacts

When a company implodes in scandal, all eyes fall on the executives whose incompetence or malfeasance brought everything down. Yet what happens to their employees? Assistant professor of accounting Jung Ho Choi and associate professor of accounting Brandon Gipper found that employees who’d worked at firms involved in fraud lost an average of 50% of their cumulative earnings over the subsequent decade compared with their peers. “Midlevel workers and below make up the majority of any firm, and their lives are completely upended just because they happen to work for a fraudulent company,” Choi says. “Workers usually suffer more than management, but they’re hard to trace, and this made me want to understand what happens to them.”

Remote Work

Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics (by courtesy) at Stanford GSB says it’s not just employees who have come to like working from home over the past months. Surveys of more than 30,000 Americans conducted by Bloom and his colleagues found that most full-time workers expected to continue working remotely at least two or three days a week. And the stigma of “shirk from home” has largely disappeared as employers have discovered that remote work can boost productivity. But, Bloom warns, “There is a tradeoff…. Every manager I’ve spoken with says that working from home can damage innovation in the long run.”

But Seriously

Humor isn’t innate, as most people assume. It’s a muscle that must be exercised and strengthened. In their book Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life, Professor Jennifer Aaker and lecturer Naomi Bagdonas make the case for flexing your funny bone and explain the research showing why you should lighten up a little at work. Even a well-deployed pun can make you seem more competent and confident. So go ahead, make a new year's resolution to drop more dad jokes on your coworkers!

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