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Faculty Viewpoints

Advice for a Better 2021—According to the Research

We asked faculty with expertise in psychology, entrepreneurship, healthcare, economics, and more for their best ideas to bring the lessons of the last year to the next.

A crocus growing out of snow
Take Precautions—and Action—to Save Others’ Lives

Michael Kraus, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior

This year has been difficult personally and professionally for many people, particularly in the U.S., where the pandemic—and, in particular, the racial and economic inequities baked into it—have been criminally mismanaged. In the foreground of all of that, many of us have been expected (or required) to keep doing our work as if members of our social networks—members of our immediate family, close friends—weren’t becoming sick or dying. At my home, where my spouse is a nurse, I worry every day she goes into the clinic. For my daughter, a seven-year-old in New Haven’s public schools, I worry about her isolation from her friends as she tries her best to learn on a computer screen. Every single day, I am confronted by these impossible circumstances, and I despair because I have actually been one of the lucky ones.

My resolution for 2021 is that we do not lose sight of the gravity of this year. In particular, , by adhering to public health guidelines, by pushing (with a phone call to your senator, governor, or mayor) for equitable vaccination rollouts that prioritize those most vulnerable (including incarcerated people and those in nursing homes) and eviction moratoriums. A little bit of care in the new year will save lives.

Use Your Platforms for Good

Dr. Howard Forman, Professor in the Practice of Management

Our platforms (including, but not limited to, social media, traditional media, and teaching) give those of us in academic positions a unique opportunity, unavailable to the majority of the population, to educate and stamp out (or at least tamp down on) misinformation and disinformation. I resolve to use this carefully but more effectively to advance the public’s health.

Look Back at the Year for Lessons

Heidi Brooks, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Behavior

Here’s a brief review of an intense year as it looked from my eyes.

Q1: Mainly characterized by immersion in COVID. Son TJ stayed in his off-campus college apartment and was okay. Daughter Tilly came home and got sick almost immediately as husband Rick and I went down with COVID. I fell off my chair trying to teach my first virtual EMBA core session while Rick waited for me to take him to the ER. Rick’s time in the hospital was touch and go.

Q2: Mainly characterized by recovery and waking up. COVID exhaustion is real. Deep relief that we are alive. Now that I know how sick Rick became, it feels ridiculous that I taught instead of taking him to the ER that day in March. I’m clear that I love what I do, clear that I love Yale SOM students, and clear that there was something amiss in automatically teaching a class session before taking him to the hospital. (Turns out it would not have mattered; the hospital was clueless about how to deal with COVID, and they sent him home after 72 hours only for him to return again much more dramatically by ambulance—at which point I had gotten my act more together and was all kinds of bossy during his second stay.) It all felt like a wake-up call to re-evaluate how we work, live, and prioritize. We woke up from COVID to the loss of George Floyd—seemed like a good time to wake—and I fully joined the energy of a summer of woke with the movement for Black lives in the workplace. I felt like my voice and skills mattered.

“Given the personal experience of 2020, I look at 2021 with a certain resolve toward meaningful and deeply choiceful engagement with a precious life.”

Q3: We made a big family decision to sell our beloved family home in New Haven. Meaningful professional energy aimed at leadership and organizational cultures that make a difference in the experience of Black and brown professionals in the workplace. Meaningful professional energy aimed at holding space in a world rocked by political division and very confusing leadership dynamics during the U.S. presidential election. We bought a new family home in a quirky little village of Stony Creek near New Haven.

Q4: It’s now clear we are going to be OK. A tough year has left us personally more awake, more choiceful, and with a deep gratitude for the blessing of a life alive filled with amazing family, colleagues, students, and clients. I’m amazed how many balls stayed in the air during this year of working from home. I’m surprised and delighted to discover that my main course, Interpersonal and Group Dynamics, works well in virtual format.

Looking to 2021: Given the personal experience of 2020, I look at 2021 with a certain resolve toward meaningful and deeply choiceful engagement with a precious life. There will be a period of intentional discernment and lots of meditation. My son is scheduled to graduate from Brown in the spring. The unplanned discovery of courses and meetings that work well virtually gives us access and connection to voices around the world. Connection matters. Feeling lots of hope for humanity headed into 2021.

“Whatever your job is, ask yourself what resources you can mobilize for social impact, and how you might contribute to shifting the status quo to help create new and more just equilibria.” 

Practice Social Responsibility

Teresa Chahine, Sheila and Ron ’92 Marcelo Senior Lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship

Not everyone can or needs to be a social entrepreneur, but we can all learn from the principles, mindset, and skill set of social entrepreneurship to increase our impact. A core principle of social entrepreneurship is the concept of shifting the status quo to create a new and more just equilibrium. In my research with public health colleagues, we demonstrate a framework that applies systems thinking to identify levers of change in complex systems. Whatever your job is, ask yourself what resources you can mobilize for social impact, and how you might contribute to shifting the status quo to help create new and more just equilibria.

I’ll share a personal example related to health equity and racial equity. Since my job is primarily teaching, this fall I redesigned my course “Social Entrepreneurship in Public Health” to focus on health equity in the U.S., including racial equity and other interrelated drivers of health. I got to know local and national Black leaders, and supported their work by contributing financially and spreading awareness. I became politically active, volunteering for various campaigns, and I joined the founding advisory board of a new philanthropic fund for and by people of color. This is only a start; my personal resolution is to continue building momentum. Whatever your job is, whatever your path in life, you can ask yourself what it would look like to fully engage and take personal responsibility for racial equity and health equity, and mobilize the resources at your disposal to contribute to a new and more just equilibrium.

Keep the Best Innovations for the New Year

Mushfiq Mobarak, Professor of Economics

The pandemic was difficult on all of us, but it also taught us new things about ourselves, helped us identify news ways to be productive, forced us to innovate, and brought us closer to some family members and friends. I’d like to take forward these new lessons and innovations that make life better than it was in 2019, as we slowly shed the layers of constraints that diminished our lives in 2020.

Include Nature When Thinking about Responses to the Climate Crisis

Bradford S. Gentry, Frederick K. Weyerhaeuser Professor in the Practice of Forest Resources Management and Policy & Senior Associate Dean of Professional Practice, Yale School of the Environment

Yes, we need immediately to reduce the burning of fossil fuels while increasing our use of renewable energy. But we also need to pull carbon from the atmosphere, as well as prepare for hotter temperatures and more flooding. While technology has an important role to play in our doing so, we should also be investing in natural systems to help on both fronts. Forests grow by taking carbon from the air and converting it to wood, storing carbon over time. Natural areas also provide shade to help reduce temperatures, as well as filtration to help manage water. Finally, and as we have seen during the pandemic, spending time in nature is good for our mental and physical health. All reasons to make sure that nature-based solutions are important parts of the infrastructure we are building to address the climate crisis.

Find Ways to Stand Out

Florian Ederer, Associate Professor of Economics

The most important concept that I convey in my MBA course on Competitive Strategy and Behavioral Economics is that one should actively actively look for ways to differentiate oneself from the crowd. In economic terms, if you are exactly like everyone else, you will face tremendous competition from the crowd. You’ll likely be left with less credit, reputation, acclaim, and wealth than you deserve. As a result, every year I try to think of a few things that (hopefully!) not everybody else has thought of.

Be a More Up-to-Date Educator

Song Ma, Assistant Professor of Finance

The world changes fast around us—new technology and new ideas abound. As an educator, I think it is always useful to introduce up-to-date knowledge to students. This way, students are equipped with solid fundamentals and an ability to think, as well as a good grasp of that more current knowledge. In a new working paper that I collaborated on with my Yale SOM colleague Barbara Biasi, we evaluate the content of millions of U.S. university syllabi, and we find that there is a need to introduce more new knowledge into the classroom; failing to do so will hurt students, particularly students from more humble backgrounds.

Protect Your Decisions by Following Your Gut

Taly Reich, Associate Professor of Marketing

We often believe the best course of action is to make our decisions deliberately and rationally. However, new research has found that making decisions based on intuitive feelings offers greater choice protection—that is, you’re less likely to regret your choice or change your mind—in the face of new information.

Create an Implementation Intention

James Choi, Professor of Finance

Prompting people to form plans in advance that take the form “When situation x occurs, I will do y” makes it more likely that they will actually get y done. For example, my coauthors and I ran an experiment where we found that mailing people a form that encourages them to write down the day and time they will get a flu vaccine makes them 13% more likely to get a flu vaccine than a control group. (Both groups got information on when the vaccination clinics were happening.) In another study, we experimented with a mailing that encouraged people to get a colonoscopy. Including a sticky note that prompted the recipient to write down when and with whom they would get a colonoscopy increased subsequent colonoscopy rates by 15%.

These sorts of “implementation intention” plans work because they allow you to start executing action y on autopilot when you see the cue x, instead of having to create a plan to do y on the spot. So in the new year, consider making more implementation intentions in order to achieve your goals!

Recognize the Unsung Heroes around You

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management

Much of my professional activity in leadership and governance is analyzing the impact and response to both heroes and villains among top leaders—largely CEOs. This has led me to start a major research project on defining and studying the nature of courage. Sadly, we’ve seen cowardice too, especially in national politics, this past year. We’ve also seen courage, however—especially on the front lines of institutions far from the executives suites I have generally studied.

This has led me to a greater appreciation for the less well celebrated heroes around us. Of course, this includes critical care and public safety workers, along with delivery workers, grocery workers, and those restaurant workers still employed.

Here at the Yale School of Management, I miss seeing so many heroes and heroines: Kimberly, who greets everyone at our front entrance so warmly and skillfully; Wayne and his colleagues, who work through the night to keep the Dean’s Suite and the rest of the school safe and hygienic; Isaiah, Coralina, and all the stars of Charley’s Place, our beloved dining hall; and the AV wizards such as Froilan, Connie, Dana, Rob, Enoc, Abraham, Donny, and Jessica. That’s just a small sampling of our courageous colleagues. They and their great teams have put themselves at risk these past nine months for the rest of us who get far more recognition. They have the courage to give, and they are my SOM heroes. My New Year’s resolution is to be sure to show them appreciation every chance I have.

“The reason you don’t follow through with your New Year’s resolutions isn’t that you lack self-control, or are lazy, or are a bad person. You’ve simply set yourself up for failure by choosing something hard.”

Make It Easier to Make Changes

Zoe Chance, Lecturer in Marketing

One of my biggest takeaways from doing research in behavioral economics is that the single best predictor of behavior is ease, more than price, or quality, or comfort, or desire, or satisfaction. Overall, the easier something is to do, the more likely people are to do it.

So if you want to influence another person’s behavior, the single most important thing you can do is make it easier for them to do that desired thing, or harder for them not to do it. You can make it logistically easier—as Netflix does by looping the next show in the series to start right after the last (darn you, Netflix!). You can also just make it easier to remember. One of the cheapest and most effective “nudges” is a simple appointment reminder. Studies have shown that text-message reminders have significantly increased show-up rates for doctor’s appointments and court hearings; sped up loan repayments; and decreased late returns for library books.

Ease (or difficulty) is also the best explanation for the “intention-behavior gap.” That’s a jargony way to say, the reason you don’t follow through with your New Year’s resolutions isn’t that you lack self-control, or are lazy, or are a bad person. You’ve simply set yourself up for failure by choosing something hard. Haven’t you already wanted to do that thing before? How did the “want it really badly and beat myself up if I don’t do it” strategy work for you? When you’re expecting yourself to exercise when you’re busy and tired, or to ignore the cookie when it’s calling to you, or to put down your phone and turn out the light, you’re expecting a fight, and you’re expecting to be victorious when you’re depleted—tired, busy, stressed, hungry. Nobody has self-control in those situations.

But what if you just made it easier to do that thing, and harder not to? You commit to exercising with a buddy, knowing you won’t want to let her down. You store the cookies in an opaque container. They’ll still be there, but won’t jump out at you when you open the cupboard. The phone…well, I wasn’t leaving it outside my room, so I just had to block Twitter. And have already tried three times to open it. But I didn’t go through the unblocking procedure, because that would be hard.

Whatever New Year’s resolution you choose, or whatever self-improvement you’re looking for, make it easy, and take it easy on yourself—2020 was hard enough.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints