Lara Yang can remember the shock she felt when she arrived in Vancouver at age 11. Compared with the cultural tradition of collectivism in her native China, the more individualistic Western world seemed alien. Barely able to speak English, Yang tried to fit in at school by studying her peers’ behavior. That cultural assimilation triggered a passion for psychology, which eventually became her undergraduate major — along with computer science, a co-major designed to assuage her parents’ concern that a degree in social sciences would not be bankable.
But a bad experience with Silicon Valley’s “tech bro” culture not only chased Yang away from a career in software engineering, it also deepened her interest in human behavior. She eventually enrolled in the Stanford GSB PhD Program, where she currently studies organizational behavior in the hope of understanding workplace culture and identity.
Organizational behavior is not as sexy as, say, strategy or entrepreneurship. How did you end up in this field of research?
Because of my experience immigrating. The way people interact here is completely different from China, where it’s more collectivistic. And befriending people is even more difficult when you don’t speak the language. You have to put a lot more work into figuring it all out. How do you interact with people? How do you be cool and not the lame kid? I read a lot of psychology books when I was in high school, and I loved my psychology teacher. I was a teacher’s pet. When I got into undergrad, I wanted to major in psychology, but my parents worried that it was not a career with enough income. My dad wanted me to major in business, but I was naive and idealistic — I did not want to be a part of the capitalist machine. We compromised and I double-majored in psychology and computer science, a field in which I also developed an interest since learning programming in high school.
But a future in computer science wasn’t meant to be.
I came away from a software engineering internship not feeling good about the culture of the industry. I didn’t fit in. Most teams were male-driven, and my colleagues loved talking about gaming and soccer. I just felt different. Also, the team dynamics were quite complicated and overwhelming for a 19-year-old. I was traumatized. That’s how I landed in organizational behavior, because I saw a lot of problems with work relationships and how people collaborate and communicate that I was hoping to understand and help fix.
You found your fit at the Computational Culture Lab. What role does data science play in your research?
Data science allows us to uncover insights that we weren’t able to examine previously due to time and cost constraints. For example, in my own work, I’m trying to develop a measure of organizational identification using computational methods to see how organizational identification changes over time, which people haven’t really looked at before, as it’s impractical to survey employees four times in a year. So data science lets us study the same phenomena from different angles — at scale and extremely quickly. It’s quite sexy.
Can you talk more about the concept of organizational identification?
The main benefit is that people tend to stay at an organization for longer if they identify with it. Workers also exert more effort at their jobs, which leads to performance benefits. An important part of encouraging that is making people feel like their cultural values are aligned with the organization’s. So getting the right fit is important. Identification also helps employees feel at home, providing them a sense of belonging and affiliation. It empowers you. That’s how I feel at the GSB, which has become a part of my identity. Because I moved around a lot as a kid, I don’t really have a clear cultural identity. Having a strong anchor in the business school has made me really happy.
What data are you looking at?
At the Computational Culture Lab, which spans Stanford and Berkeley, we mainly focus on analyzing textual data. Email data is quite commonly used, which is also what I employ in my own research. Other forms of data that have been used in the past include Slack messages and quarterly earnings call transcripts. We believe that computational approaches complement other research methodologies like surveys or interviews. Depending on the needs of the organization, any or all of these research methods could be useful. Computational approaches are particularly well suited for scaling surveys to large sets of employees, where time and resource constraints might render surveys costly.
How do you measure whether an employee’s sense of corporate identification changes over time?
We use the words “I” and “we” and compare how similar an employee’s usage of these two words are at a given point in time. The idea is that the more an individual identifies with an organization, the more they perceive their self-identity and organizational identity to be similar, and the more they use the pronouns “I” and “we” interchangeably. The similarity between “I” and “we” is our linguistic measure of organizational identification. Change can then be observed by comparing levels of organizational identification across different time periods. We validated our approach by comparing our linguistic measure with widely accepted survey-based measures of organizational identification.
In another project, you investigated the relationship between spatial presence and cultural fit. How do you maintain a corporate culture when everyone is working remotely?
It’s more challenging. We tend to build a sense of community from the people we interact with in person, so remote working is especially challenging for people who are new to the organization and have never met anyone face-to-face. Online activities can help to make sure everybody keeps socializing, and some companies ship gifts (i.e., company swag) to employees so they feel they are still part of the community. On the other hand, the pandemic may have actually helped to foster organizational identity, because we have gotten a look into our colleagues’ lives through Zoom. We can see their pets and their children in the background. It’s more intimate and humanizes all of us. You feel a lot closer to them in a way. In a physical space, the power dynamics and structural hierarchy are more salient. But when you’re in Zoom, people might feel more equal.
How can businesses navigate the post-pandemic “hybrid” way of working?
It will be vitally important to assess employees’ well-being when they return to the office. Surveys regarding engagement and wellness have become increasingly popular to take the pulse of organizational culture and climate. Using those tools will give managers a good way to figure out where their organization currently is, how it has changed during the pandemic, and which teams or departments will need more support in transitioning back to the office.
Many executives are baffled by culture because it’s intangible. What steps can they take to maximize its value and minimize its risks?
Culture is one of the more ambiguous concepts. There are many definitions, but generally it’s about norms, values, and shared meanings between people. It’s about beliefs and codes. The first step is to think about what your culture is now and where you’d like it to be. It’s also important to align culture with organizational strategy. You can also hire specific individuals who might be predisposed to certain cultures. Of course, if you just focus on cultural fit, you might end up with a group of people who are exactly the same. You need to balance culture with diversity.
What’s your most useful takeaway from your time at Stanford?
The importance of taking risks and dealing with uncertainty. That’s definitely the most challenging element of the PhD program — the lack of structure and certainty over whether a specific research project is going to work out. I’m getting much better at coping with the uncertainty. But also what I’ve learned here is the scale of positive social impact you can make in this field. Businesses have a lot of capital, and it can be used to change the world for the better.
Is that what you hope to do next?
The number one goal for any PhD candidate is to be a tenured professor at a research institute. That’s definitely the shining star at the end of the tunnel that I’m trying to get to.
Photos by Allison Felt