Everybody wants to work for a great manager in a well-run organization. Fortunately, people can be taught to lead effectively as students in Stephen Wagner’s classes discover at Governors State University.
The professor of management in the College of Business has spent time on the corporate side with giants like Sears, Roebuck and Company. He’s also published research on the human side of business, a field called Industrial-Organizational Psychology. “I come to my classes from the perspective of practical experience and research experience,” he said. “I hope that’s my calling card.”
Wagner, who joined GSU in 2011, has received the College of Business’ Outstanding Producer Award, GSU’s “Why Not” Award, the GSU Excellence Award, and the Center for Online Teaching & Learning Exemplary Course Award.
GSU Newsroom: What interests you about this field?
Wagner: I majored in psychology as an undergrad and discovered Industrial-Organizational Psychology, which examines how individuals interact within groups and social structures, specifically in a business setting. I wound up doing research in the 1990s on sexualization of women in the media, and on political advertising emphasizing fear, comparing the effectiveness between left-wing and right-wing voters. I also researched traditional topics like the best way to do a performance appraisal.
As I finished my Ph.D., I got a job at Sears working with six industrial organizational psychologists. Sears was using tests to select employees long before everybody else was. They started using empirical research for personnel selection in the 1950s. They treated the interview like a scientific instrument. Headquarters designed the interview questions and very little in the process was left to the discretion of local management.
GSU Newsroom: What can you tell us about your research on employee stock ownership?
Wagner: Sears gave me the data for my dissertation on employee ownership. Sears had already scientifically validated that having happy employees results in happy customers, which will result in a better bottom line. I applied that idea to employee ownership. Employees would get stock in Sears either from a 401(k) type of plan or a stock purchase plan. I could determine how much stock people in a specific department owned and even its dollar value.
I thought if more people own stock, they’re going to think and act like owners of the business. They would feel more responsible for it and would make suggestions that would improve efficiency. As a result, there would be better sales for that department.
And I was right. I published my research in 2003 and the study has been cited many times since then by other researchers, including a recent citation from one of favorite scholars, so it’s gratifying that the research is still relevant.
GSU Newsroom: How would you like to see companies approach performance reviews?
Wagner: There’s a big move away from the annual performance review right now. It’s dreaded on both sides; managers hate to do it, and employees hate to receive it. In a class I teach on performance management, which is part of our new human resources management curriculum, we’re looking at a new way of giving online, strategically aligned performance feedback. We live in this data-rich world, so why don’t we meet more often and talk about performance on an ongoing basis? Why don’t we build systems that give performance feedback more directly and perhaps more objectively to employees?
GSU Newsroom: How do you incorporate new technology into your lessons?
Wagner: I teach an online course at the graduate level in organizational behavior. One thing that’s innovative about it is that the students do group projects. And we meet as a class over video teleconferencing. In the real world of work, there are virtual teams with never-ending product development cycles. It’s called “chasing the sun” because a team in New York City hands off a project to designers in Japan, who turn it over to designers in Spain, and the work goes on 24 hours a day. There are more mundane uses of virtual teams, too.
In almost all my classes, I have group projects. Students tell me they don’t like group projects and I say, “Management is a group project! It’s all about working with others to get things done, and today that often means teleconferencing.”
And I have a pretty rich LinkedIn network that’s grown because of my students. I get to learn what they’re doing and how their careers are progressing. It allows me to see the results of my work, which is really satisfying.
GSU Newsroom: What’s unusual about your students at GSU?
Wagner: The vast majority have worked, so when I talk about unions in my labor relations class or performance appraisals in my human resources course, they bring their own experience to the table. They’re very interested in what we’re talking about because it’s relevant to them.
GSU Newsroom: What’s next?
Wagner: I just returned from a sabbatical where I studied gamification, a popular trend to create serious games to learn something. Now, I’m gamifying the curriculum to create a role-playing game for human resources managers where they’ll advance through an HR career and develop management competencies. I’ll pilot the game in my graduate-level HR class this spring.