When Lambert Zixin Li was growing up in China, many of his public primary school classmates were the children of miners, and he got to see firsthand the hardship that some families had experienced. “I mean, these are my friends, that I grew up with, so I really have this compassion for changing the life conditions of all these people, especially working conditions,” Li explains.
That experience shaped Li’s worldview and was one of the factors that led him to the field of sociology. Today, as a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior at Stanford GSB, he’s interested in corporate social responsibility and governance — including companies’ own efforts to change their cultures.
“My research explores how corporations can authentically promote racial justice and health equity,” Li says. “The first debate is whether they should prioritize shareholder value or stakeholder value. Another debate is whether they act out of their true value or belief, or their prosocial statements are ‘defensive repertoire’ or impression management tactics.”
Li and his advisor, Sarah A. Soule, a professor of organizational behavior and senior associate dean for academic affairs, recently collaborated on a paper presented at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting that examined the reaction of stakeholders to corporate activism. They found that for-profit companies lose public support if they’re morally inauthentic — that is, if their business practices don’t reflect their stated prosocial positions. In contrast, certified B Corps, whose ostensible aim is to benefit employees, local communities, and the environment as well as shareholders, don’t see a similar drop-off in support, even if their practices don’t always match their ideals.
Li also studies how socially responsible management practices and policies can improve employee health and well-being, an aspect of corporate social responsibility that he says tends to get less media attention than climate change and other issues. One of his projects involved designing a field experiment to explore how social environments at work can reduce physician burnout in China, which is linked to medical errors with life-and-death consequences.
“My work as a sociologist is always focused not only on the big theoretical questions, but also on the practical problems that human beings are facing,” he says.
You were born and grew up in China, but you also lived and studied in Germany before coming to the U.S. To what extent did those diverse cultural experiences and your own family background influence your path?
I was born in a city in a mining area, and& occupational health and safety issues are dear to my heart, which led to my current research on employee health and well-being. I got to know some of the miners and their children and that really made a strong impression upon me, in terms of understanding the experience of people who used to be not as well off.
My parents also were a big influence. My dad is a prosecutor who does white-collar crime investigations in China. My mom is an auditor, doing internal auditing for Sinopec, the oil company. Their careers also had a huge influence upon my research interests, like corporate social responsibility, business ethics and related issues, corporate governance. Later, I moved around China and lived in other cities.
I went to high school in Germany for nearly two years — I speak German — but I decided that going to a German university wouldn’t give me a chance to explore knowledge outside my own discipline, because their education is more specialized. So, I came to the U.S. to do my bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley. The sociology department there is known for social theory and public sociology, which is about engagement with the public. That really instilled in me a passion for stakeholder-engaged research, responsible management, that sort of stuff.
What led you to come to Stanford GSB to pursue your interests?
If you’re a sociologist like me, you might focus on sociology PhD programs, and neglect to look at the hidden treasure of the business school. If you study organizational sociology or organization theory, you come to Stanford. My advisor, Sarah Soule, and some of the other professors at GSB are among the top sociologists in the world, publishing in elite sociology journals. There’s also the opportunity to share information with people who come from a diverse range of non-traditional backgrounds for a business school. I’m a sociologist, but we also have computer scientists, physicists, people with engineering backgrounds who are doing PhDs here.
At Stanford, you can study business from a social science perspective. We care about the practical and managerial and policy implications, but we also want to gain a better knowledge of the world. I think that is what really attracted me to come to Stanford.
You’re interested in companies’ role in social change and solving problems. How is your approach to that subject different from other scholars?
Traditional research focuses on how external actors, such as activists and government, pressure corporations to be socially responsible. My research actually is the reverse of that. I want to look at corporations’ agency to be participants in social change and progress.
But people may be skeptical of what corporations do. My work is to delineate the keys to the role of being a social change agent. Should corporations prioritize stakeholder value over shareholder value, for example, or at least try to balance the two? But I think it’s no longer even a question of whether companies should get involved in issues. If we look at the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, if you don’t issue a statement, you face a lot of backlash from both customers and employees. Being silent is seen as being complicit.
You’ve studied how corporations can convince the public that their involvement in a social issue is authentic. What did you learn?
One of my papers found that firms that proactively disclose socially irresponsible performance mobilize more public support than the firms that only say positive things about themselves. This finding counters the pervasive practices of greenwashing and woke-washing and highlights the importance of authenticity in corporate strategic communications on social and environmental issues.
But that’s just part of it. To be taken seriously, you really need to demonstrate your commitment to change, by appointing more people of color to your board, for example. If you’ve done that, then people may change their perception. They may have perceived you as morally inauthentic, but if you change your behavior to be more consistent with your statements, you’re going to be rewarded with acceptance. It mitigates the skepticism that some might feel about for-profit corporations doing social activity, compared to nonprofits. That is equally or similarly appreciated by conservatives and liberals.
Is it important for corporations to take positions on social issues? Can’t they just let government or activist movements lead change?
Corporations are important in terms of persuasion because organizations with symbolic and material resources are more likely to mobilize public opinion and support. During the pandemic, for example, if corporations issued a statement in support of wearing masks and getting vaccinated, their employees and customers were more likely to trust them, and maybe they follow the leader of the company. That’s especially true today, given our political polarization, because a conservative audience is more likely to be motivated by a corporate statement. In the U.S., trust in the government is really low, but trust in corporations is still high.
How do you see your work and career evolving?
First of all, I want to be a professor. But I’m also a strong supporter of the movement for responsible research in business, which actually is a group of like-minded scholars who think our work should have practical implications in the world. I think my work already has had some impact on the way people think about corporate social responsibility. In our program, Sarah Soule already has implemented some of our findings.
It’s hard to predict what the hot areas of scholarly inquiry will be in the future, and what’s going to happen in the world. But there are some persistent problems that society and human beings are going to face, such as public health and health equity. Justice and inequality are another thing that’s not going away. And the third problem is climate change and sustainability. I think we’ll either find the answer to those problems collectively or else human beings won’t prosper. I hope my research adds to the knowledge and expertise that corporations can use to help solve those problems.
Photos by Tricia Seibold