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How Statistics are Twisted to Obscure Public Understanding

Mark Twain attributed to Benjamin Disraeli the famous remark: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ In every industry, from education to healthcare to travel, the generation of quantitative data is considered important to maintain quality through competition. Yet statistics rarely show what they seem.

If you look at recent airline statistics, you’ll think that a far higher number of planes are arriving on schedule or early than ever before. But this appearance of improvement is deceptive. Airlines have become experts at appearance management: by listing flight times as 20-30 per cent longer than what the actual flight takes, flights that operate on a normal to slightly delayed schedule are still counted as arriving ‘early’ or ‘on time’. A study funded by the Federal Aviation Administration refers to the airline tactic as schedule buffering.

It is open to question, however, whether flights operating on a buffered schedule arrive ‘on time’ in the sense that ordinary people use the term. If a flight is scheduled for 2.5 hours and takes, on average, only 1.5 hours to reach its destination, then is any flight that arrives at its scheduled time really on time? Or have...

We Remember Our Coworkers’ Misdeeds, but What about Our Own?

Every office has them: colleagues behaving badly. Whether they always pad their expense reports, call in sick then go to the beach, or just avoid refilling the printer paper, their shenanigans seldom stop.

New research from the Kellogg School’s Maryam Kouchaki may help explain why. Simply put, her findings suggest that people recall their unethical behaviors with less-than-vivid clarity—increasing the likelihood that they will take similar actions in the future.

“It’s a phenomenon that we see over and over in organizations, in everyday life—people repeatedly engaging in unethical behavior,” says Kouchaki, an assistant professor of management and organizations. “This paper is our attempt to answer why.”

None of us like thinking poorly about ourselves, she explains, so as a defense mechanism we tend to have murky memories of when we acted poorly in the past. This faulty recollection, her research shows, can lead to unethical behavior in the future, since we don’t have our own experiences at hand to act as a deterrent. She calls the phenomenon “unethical amnesia.”

However, this phenomenon can be avoided. “A habit of self-reflection helps to keep such memories alive and to learn from them and to not act unethically...

'Get Out of My Face!' We’re More Antisocial in a Shared Office Space

“If we all work side-by-side in an open-plan office or ‘hot desk,’ moving from place to place, it’s sure to increase collaboration!”

It turns out that may be wrong. If you don’t have your own space, perhaps you are better off working remotely with your cat for company.

Our research found that there were increases in “employee social liabilities” in shared working spaces: distractions, uncooperativeness, distrust, and negative relationships. More surprisingly, both coworker friendships and perceptions of supervisor support actually worsened. Although prior researchers have claimed shared work spaces can improve social support, communication, and cooperation, our results indicated that coworker friendships are of the lowest quality in hot-desking and open-plan arrangements when compared to those with their own offices or who share offices with just one or two others. It is possible that these shared offices may increase employees’ use of coping strategies such as withdrawal and create a less friendly environment in a team.

As part of our research, we surveyed 1,000 working Australians. We asked them whether they shared their office space with others, what sort of coworker friendships and supervisor support they had, and any negative relationships they had (such as lack of...

How the Next Administration Can Hit the Ground Running

On Nov. 8, the President-elect will begin the next phase of the transition to power that culminates with Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, 2017. The next administration will have an opportunity to improve mission performance in ways that can positively impact millions of people across a range of areas, including health care, the environment, and how they receive government benefits. To achieve outcomes quickly and effectively, new leaders will need to understand how to manage complex policies and programs across multiple agencies. Embedding management capacity at the highest levels of government should start during the transition and build through the first days of the administration and beyond. 

To help inform new leaders about the link between management and positive outcomes, the IBM Center for The Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service collaborated over the past year to develop a Management Roadmap. Released Sept. 13, the Roadmap aims to help the next president implement key policy and program priorities while avoiding obstacles and reducing risk. The Roadmap will help to inform the new administration about critical management issues and actions that can strengthen government’s capacity to address national challenges.

Drawing on lessons learned from previous administrations and...

What Does It Take to Foster a Culture of Responsibility?

In many organizations, it is all too common to see coworkers throw one another under the bus. Some of us may have even engaged in some finger-pointing ourselves when a project went south, or when a big pitch landed with a thud. After all, nobody enjoys being perceived as a failure, even to oneself.

But what if things were different? What would happen in an organization where employees, rather than racing to absolve themselves, jostled to take the blame?

On a recent trip to the U.S. Army’s National Training Center, Ned Smith, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, was surprised to find just such an organization. In after-action reviews and debriefings, soldiers of every stripe, from privates to company commanders, stepped forward.

“It wouldn’t be much of an overstatement to say that they are almost competing to take the blame,” Smith says. “ ‘No, it was me…,’ ‘It was my guys,’ ‘No it was me,’ ” Smith says. “That’s not something you readily see in corporate America.”

How does a hierarchically structured organization like the military foster an environment where people are willing to take the fall when things go wrong? Smith and...

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