Behaviors in Business: Dr. Susan Murphy

How many of you have been stuck in a group project and there's one or two group members who just slack off? They're the reason you hate assigned group projects. Dr. Susan Murphy researched and continues to study social loafing which is the tendency, when we work in groups, to exert less effort and somewhat explains those students in group projects. As the only female, full-time professor for the School of Management, Dr. Murphy focuses on social loafing culture and performances in work groups. Dr. Murphy has received the President's Award for Teaching Excellence in 2015. In this interview, not only does she explain a little bit more about the behavior behind the dynamics in group projects, but she also reminds us how we as students, should be following our bliss.                                                                                                            Photo courtesy of California Lutheran University

Her Campus at Cal Lutheran: Why did you decide to become a Business professor?

Dr. Susan Murphy: I had gotten my MBA and I started working at a large organization and very quickly found that what I was doing wasn’t really what fascinated me. I was part of the market research part of this organization; I found that I was more fascinated by why people did what they did and why some people were very motivated in what, appeared to me, to be less than challenging jobs. This became my fascination and I realized if I really wanted to do what made me happy and “follow my bliss” as Joseph Campbell says, that I would need to go back and get my Ph.D., which I did and that turned out to be the right choice because this is truly what I love doing.

HCCLU: Have you always taught at Cal Lutheran?

SM: I taught at the University of Dayton for two years, which is a Catholic university in Dayton, Ohio. I was just finishing up my Ph.D. so my first year there I was getting ready to defend my dissertation. Once I defended that, I was there for another year. Then I went to Wilmington College, which is a Quaker school in Ohio as well. That was a really interesting place because they had their main campus in a very small part of town and then had to branch campuses in Cincinnati area that addressed more of a business program. So I was based out of both of those branches. The Quaker tradition as part of the culture and rules of the college was really interesting. For example, every decision had to be made by consensus, so whenever the faculty met, if ever anybody had any sort of objection, we could not move forward. So we had this very interesting informal policy that if you disagreed and we really wanted to move on, you would just miss the meeting. So it was more difficult, but it was a great environment. Since both of those were faith based, coming to Cal Lutheran was a logical step for me. I didn’t teach at any of the colleges or universities because they were of a particular religion, that was just a commonality. But I liked them because all these universities value ethics.

HCCLU: What’s your favorite part about teaching?

SM: It depends on the day, if you’re asking me to be honest. Some days it really is the students that are clearly really bright, engaged, and motivated and I’m always amazed; my feelings about the youth of America is bolstered. Some days I just enjoy the process of getting ready for class, like finding out what’s going on there that’s new and how can I bring that event into class to talk about. There’s also the students that are shy and don’t want to speak in front of people and have real evaluation apprehension. I’ve had a couple where they learn that they have to do a presentation and then they panic and I’ve had a couple who just didn’t come to class when they had to present and would come talk to me about their fear of speaking in public. But I tell them that they couldn’t be more fearful than I was and give them advice about some of the things I did to get through times I had to speak in public. Then sometimes, after they graduate, they’ll send me notes, which I keep, thanking me for sharing my experiences. So there are two sides of it; people who are pretty together and prepared and those that feel hesitant and less sure of their skills.

HCCLU: You just mentioned how you didn’t like speaking in public, how did you get over that fear?

SM: It was a real process because when I started to get my Ph.D. I really envisioned myself in consulting or just doing research, because I was uncomfortable in front of people in general. But speaking in public truly is one of those things that if you can get through it enough times, it won’t feel so terrible. I have some techniques that I use if I have a speech to give in front of a large group of people. Speaking in public is like a skill you can develop, even though it’s really painful initially if you’re one of those people who experience that physical nervousness when speaking in front of people and you can’t control that issue. I realized that I really did like teaching and it was funny because I was kind of thrown into the classroom the first time I started and I was terrified, but I enjoyed the process. At times it was so enjoyable for me that I knew I needed to make this work as a career.

HCCLU: What are some of the topics you study or research?

SM: Social loafing is my focus; pretty much all of the research that I’ve done involves social loafing in some way. Social loafing is the tendency, when we work in groups, to exert less effort. I’ve looked at in from a number of standpoints, my dissertation looked at it from the standpoint of what’s more important: your relationship with other team members or your relationship with your boss, in regards to whether or not you social loaf. I found that your relationship with your boss is more important. Therefore, if you really like your boss and you have a really great relationship, then you’re less likely to social loaf. I’ve also looked at some of the cultural aspects of social loafing. I did some work with one of our colleagues here, who’s gone now, but we looked at work groups in China and looked at gender as well as being Chinese. We found that Chinese people in general tend to social loaf far less than other cultures. But we also found that males still tend to social loaf more than females, which is pretty consistent across different nationalities.

HCCLU: What seems like the most interesting discovery you’ve made during your research?

SM: There’s so many, but it’s probably some of the gender dynamics. Socialization explains a lot of the gender dynamics. Females are generally socialized to view forming relationships as prevalent and important, but for males it’s often about exhibiting power; the power dynamic is more important to them. This informs us that females tend to take more of the administrative tasks in a group because of that, because it allows us to facilitate the work within a group and monitoring how the group can all get along. Whereas with the males, that’s less likely to happen. The nationality dynamics are also pretty interesting; some of the research has been done in different nationalities and it dovetails a bit with the Geert Hofstede information.

HCCLU: Have you learned from your students at all?

SM: Absolutely, in all classes there are one of two things that I’ll learn. I find it happens in the MBA classes for sure because a lot of them have so many years of experience from different areas and I’ll learn something from an area that I wasn't necessarily familiar with. When we have our international MBA classes as well, I can’t even begin to describe how much I’ve learned. I currently have a number of students from Qatar and there are big differences in terms of culture and sometimes I have to draw answers out of them because some of them just don’t want to contribute.

HCCLU: What’s your favorite part about working with Cal Lutheran?

SM: When I started 16 years ago, it was significantly smaller and the international MBA program was just getting started so being able to see it go from this very small program to one of the larger programs at the university is amazing. I’ve been able to be part of some amazing aspects of contributing to the growth of the university.

HCCLU: Is there a significant difference between Cal Lutheran’s culture and the culture of the other universities you’ve taught at?

SM: Yes, the University of Dayton was a much larger university and a little bit more formal. Wilmington College was the opposite of that, but also both of them didn't have the demographics to support that type of institution. Whereas, with Cal Lutheran we have a lot of young people so our demographic is supported, but for the other two they were trying to find ways of existing because there weren't a lot of 18 to 20 year old students. Being in Southern California has also made a huge difference in culture, in general, from a lot of standpoints. I'm pretty sure if I went back to either of those places today there wouldn't be things like parking for green vehicles and I doubt there would be a Prius on campus.

HCCLU: Why did you take such an interest in social loafing?

SM: I don't remember what first got me interested in social loafing, but I know in my Ph.D. program, when you worked with groups of people it became very clear when there was somebody who was not pulling their weight. It's funny because in the classes I teach now, I put my students into groups to work and I feel like I can just watch the group dynamics and you can sense which groups are going to have problems with social loafing. Now everything I do, I feel like I attend to social loafing. In the faculty retreat, we play Jeopardy and one of the categories is research and I was the answer for one of the categories but everyone knew it was me because I'm the only one who talks about social loafing. Now I always notice when it's going on around me and it's pretty prevalent.

HCCLU: Would you say social loafing is big problem that needs to be fixed?

SM: I think it's sort of inevitable, it's the way we are as creatures. I think there are some things you can do, from a task standpoint, that can make it less likely. If your groups are too large it becomes more of a problem and if you have lower task visibility, which would mean I couldn't really tell what anyone is doing, then people will be more likely to social loaf. There's a few things that make it more or less common, but I think it's inevitable, it's a byproduct of working in groups. Even the research they've done looking at rope pulling; you think you're pulling hard, but once someone else joins you, you aren't pulling as hard. So it's not always a conscience decision, sometimes it just happens.                                                                                                                                                                Photo courtesy of Pexels

HCCLU: What's the biggest life lesson you've learned so far, through your research, your career, and life in general?

SM: Always do what is right from an ethical standpoint and the rest will fall in line. That's what I love about Cal Lutheran because the university encourages acting ethically. I think in some places that's not always the case, but we all live with ourselves at the end of the day and it's nice working for an organization where ethics is part of the deal. 

HCCLU: Do you see students working ethically here at Cal Lutheran?

SM: Absolutely, I'm always amazed at the students here because the things that are important to them are normally based on ethics. They ask themselves, do I want to work for a company that's in the same ethical space that I'm in; they take into account corporate social responsibility. It's almost like everyone is really concerned with both macro and micro issues. The students here seem particularly attune to those issues. 

HCCLU: After teaching here for the past 16 years, have you seen a shift in students' viewpoints?

SM: I have, especially in my class. I have my students do value surveys and I've seen a migration across the value graph. I think younger people are more concerned with issues like the environment, there's a realization that those issues are important now, whereas at one point, they weren't on peoples' radars. Now students understand that we are caretakers of the planet, but you wouldn't see that type of acknowledgment 20 years ago.

HCCLU: What is one thing you hope your students learn from you?

SM: That there is a place in this world for everybody. I hate to see someone who's 18 to 20 years old fail a test or a class and thinks life is over. Because it's not, there are a lot of people who are incredibly successful but failed in something or failed in a lot of things. So when I see students feeling like they don't have the skills, I firmly believe that if you know enough about yourself, you can find a place where you really fit. Everyone can be successful to a certain extent. There's a place for everybody, no matter what your personality is, your skill set, or whatever; you just have to keep looking for that place until you find it. I gave a speech at the Opening Day Convocation and it mentioned finding where you fit so you have that flow, so the confluence of all those things, the things you love to do and the things you're good at. I fear sometimes students decide when they're 18, "okay, this is where I fit," and when it doesn't work out, it's like the end of the world. But you need to explore things to find where you belong.  

HCCLU: Do you see that type of attitude in students often?

SM: Yeah I do. I think there's a lot of pressure because school is so expensive, so there's a real fear of disappointing people or wasting money. But I think it's unfortunate, but everyone needs to remember that life is long, so if you don't love what you're doing, it's going to be much more difficult.

HCCLU: What's your favorite quote?

SM: "Follow your bliss" and "The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek," by Joseph Campbell. He's about not hemming yourself in the wrong path, don't disregard the importance of making a living, but remembering that there might be different paths that might make you happy, that if you just force yourself to stay on a path, that might not be your path to happiness. I also love the quote by Michael Jordan, "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. "