Haas School of Business

Faculty Giants: Barry Staw

A Game Changer in Organizational Behavior

By Victoria Chang

Barry StawIf you’ve ever poured more time or money into a bad decision despite mounting evidence to sprint the other way (think bad investments and bad relationships), then you’ve experienced what Haas Professor Barry Staw calls “escalation of commitment.”

Staw, who retired at the end of 2012 after 32 years, coined the phrase in 1976 in his seminal paper “Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy: A Study of Escalating Commitment Toward a Chosen Course of Action.”

To this day, “Knee-Deep” remains one of the most highly cited studies in organizational behavior (OB), and the concept is a mainstay in business school courses. It helped pioneer the field of behavioral decision theory, a sub-area of behavioral economics, and is just one of many examples of Staw’s far-reaching influence on the field of organizational behavior. That influence was recognized in 2008 when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management’s Organizational Behavior Division.

“Staw’s work has illuminated people’s thoughts, actions, and feelings in organizational and social settings in incredibly important, convincing ways,” says Keith Murnighan, a leader in the field of OB and professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “I know of no one in our field who has done so much provocative, important work.”

No One-Trick Pony

Many academic scholars dream of having one brilliant idea in their careers. Staw has achieved much more.

Staw’s classic study on intrinsic versus extrinsic reinforcement is counterintuitive, like much of his work. The study showed that ROTC members who were not going to be sent to the Vietnam War (due to their draft lottery number) were actually more committed and worked harder in the military organization than those who knew they were going to war.

Staw also reintroduced the concept of personality back into OB in the 1980s when it was unpopular to do so. He showed that whether people were unhappy or happy in junior high could serve as a predictor of job satisfaction late into their 50s and 60s. Because of this early work on happiness, there’s now a whole branch of psychology called positive psychology and a popular field of emotions in OB.

Staw’s most cited paper, “Threat-Rigidity Effects in Organizational Behavior: A Multilevel Analysis” (1980), argues that when people or organizations are under threat, they tend to be less adaptive. Rather, they become rigid in thinking and actions; revert to prior, known behavior; and add more rules and regulations.

“People and organizations actually do the worst thing that they should be doing,” says Staw. “Instead, they should be looking for new approaches and innovating.”

More recently, Staw has studied culture, creativity, and innovation. In a 2006 study that involved 204 university students, he concluded that firms who focus on individual employee achievement and uniqueness are more conducive to creating innovative ideas than companies who emphasize a more team-based structure.

The upshot of this research is that companies should protect individual perspectives, Staw says. “Organizations try to hire people who fit with the culture, but should instead look for people who are different,” he says. “Nurturing individualistic perspectives is better than having a corporate-wide direction.”

Real-Life Inspiration

Everyday life inspired Staw’s research. For example, the failure of his father’s discount chain, ABC Stores, inspired his escalation of commitment research. The store was once ranked the seventh largest discount chain in the country, but was eventually wiped out by larger chains like Kmart.

“Most people who were in my dad’s situation were taking their personal money out of their businesses,” recalls Staw. “But my father never gave up; instead he doubled down with every cent he had ever earned. He nearly lost everything.”

Beyond research, Staw has taught hundreds of Berkeley MBA and PhD students since coming to Haas in 1980 from Northwestern, where he earned his PhD and worked as a professor.

Haas Professor Jennifer Chatman, PhD 88, a leading expert on organizational culture, studied with Staw as a PhD student. “Barry has had a huge impact on my thinking and on my career,” says Chatman. “He always opened Pandora’s box, getting me to rethink things and to ask the less obvious questions.”

Even during retirement, Staw expects to closely watch the field of organizational behavior evolve from the sidelines, sort of—he has no immediate plans to move to Hawaii and golf full time. “Hopefully I’ll be fading out slowly,” he says. “I’ll miss working with our students and colleagues the most.”

And they will miss him: Berkeley-Haas, the OB and management community, and the world will be losing a creative thinker who is never afraid to challenge conventional thinking, hallmarks of Berkeley-Haas.


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