Interviewer: Diana Urlichich
Dr. Jill Waymire Paine is a professor of Organisational Psychology at the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, Spain. She studies how leaders can strengthen follower engagement and commitment during change initiatives using targeted, deliberate, persuasive communication. Her dissertation on this topic received the Susan G. Cohen Doctoral Research Award from the USC Marshall School of Business. Aside from her publications as an active researcher, Dr. Jill published a book entitled Organization Change: A Comprehensive Reader
Diana: What sparked your interest for organizational behavior, and psychology in general?
Well, I studied psychology in university, I actually always thought I wanted to be a pediatrician, and study pre-medicine, and I took psychology courses as well and absolutely fell in love with it. To be honest, the reason for taking psychology was really my honor’s thesis in university. I studied pre-medicine and English literature, and my advisor (wisely) recommended that I pick a topic that I wanted to do. I wanted to look at the relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity, and it required that I take psychology courses and I fell in love with psychology. I dedicated most of my senior year to psychology courses but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life anymore. I didn’t know if being a pediatrician was my calling or becoming an English literature professor, or whether neuropsychology was what I thought I was interested in.
I don’t recommend this, but this was the the way that I decided to approach it: I actually moved to silicon valley, it was right at the beginning of the .com craze, and it was a really great time to be young in San Francisco with all of these new companies emerging and booming, sometimes failing just as quickly. I decided to work in business, and it actually worked, I fell in love with what I was doing. I worked in consulting, and I worked more on the strategic communications side, and competitive positioning, with marketing still being there. I worked with large companies in the technology sector like Oracle, as well as smaller startups that were trying to determine first what business they wanted to play into, so we sometimes had to create the market to determine the competitors, and also trying to find the market opportunity. That was intriguing but what I realized was most that the important feature for a company’s success was not the quality of the business model, but it was really more so the quality of the leadership and what type of leaders were in place, what happened to the relationship between the founders when capital investing came in, and what happened among the board members as well. What was their growth strategy, how did they target future employees, how did they examine candidates, did they have an idea of what kind of culture they wanted to create, and of course I didn’t know what these things were at the time but I was determined to find out. And through my research of course, which was on organizational behavior and psychology, and I was determined to match my interests in science with my desire to help people and it was a perfect fit, so I went back to school to study that.
Diana: Did you face any particular difficulties when balancing so many things at the same time (your career and education), and in general throughout your career?
The answer is yes, yes, and yes! Balance has always been something that is very important to me and something I value, but I think the question that I realized is more not do I have balance, but balance on what, and at what time? So throughout different phases of my life those components changed. For example, you can think about balancing the role within my career, whether I am consulting or doing statistical analyses or teaching or writing, etc. But there is also a balance between personal life and work as well. I have two small children, and a husband who travels a lot so there’s those elements to balance. There’s also just overall balancing having an interesting life, so I take guitar lessons with my six-year-old, for example, and that is very important to me and being physically active, doing things like that. I take Spanish classes (I live in Madrid, so that’s essential!). Those things make me feel like I have a balanced life. But at any one time, I think I have to focus on how to round that out, but that’s a value I actually have so I don’t mind working on it, if that makes sense.
Diana: What’s an average day like for you?
Well, if you choose to do a role like academia, in my area, research, I study organizational change so the nature of what I do, I study change inside real organizations going through change. And so therefore I have to interact with the business world as well, of course as an academic, I interact with my students, and I am teaching, and I conduct research and so that requires days of analysis and I do writing just about every day, and so I do a lot of thinking and reading and studying and prepping for my classes.
There is no real typical day, which is actually something I set out to find in my career. I wanted to have diversity, and as a consultant you work with different clients and they might have different projects and you’re doing different things. However, as an academic, particularly when you’re studying firms and working in the business world too, there are different tasks. Writing is an essential part of academia, and I took a course as a PhD student as how one can structure that and one way to practice is to do it every day. At least 5 days a week, I wake up very early, and between about 5:30 and 7:30 I do my writing and it’s wonderful. It’s one of my favourite times and it’s hard to stop but my kids wake up at that time and then I get to spend time with them. I turn off all technology and help them (my 6 year old) get ready to go to school and have breakfast with them and get ready myself. I take my little one to school and say goodbye to him and then I go into work where at that point I have to do emails, and catch up on the morning, but I’ve already had an important writing session. I’m lucky if I get another one throughout the day but if not at least I have that and I can continue to write.
One of the challenges with academia is that we go into great depth with our research but a lot of it is up in our heads, so we try to take notes and we get very good at doing that because we have to pick up that stream of thinking or writing later. Often it’s helpful to just sort of, maintain it and keep it in your head every day, so that’s the benefit of daily writing. It depends on my day, sometimes I’m teaching and just I go straight into doing that, sometimes I have a client call where I’m interviewing or collecting quality of research, or I’m trying to understand if we can make a project work or have a proposal. Today, for example, I had my morning working on a grant that we are creating and writing up a grant proposal and then I worked for my PhD course, I had a double session of my PhD course, and then I finished working on my grant, and now I’m talking to you (which is lovely), and then I have a meeting with a client, feeding back results on a research project we recently did. Then I’ll be writing up another paper and another project that’s due to my colleague before the end of the day.
Diana: Do you have a favourite research project/ something you are most proud of?
Well, I really do enjoy the research that I’m doing, I think my favourite is probably related to people who I am working with or clients or co-authors, colleagues on my side. Last year, I started looking at the construct of change fatigue. I study the experience of change, at multiple levels of analysis. We know that we have this environment which has to change more frequently and on a larger scale than ever before, but what we don’t know is whether people are capable of ongoing change, and being engaged and committed to change. And often they are going through multiple changes at the same time. This may be too challenging for individuals, and for organizations to sustain this long-term. So that’s what we are examining and I’m working with a large-scale global law firm right now, and they have just recently had a new chairman, the first female ever and the first person outside of their headquarters. Now, 6 months later, they launched a new strategic plan and vision for the firm, and what my colleague and I are examining is people’s responses to this longitudinal, so this long term change, and these multiple changes that are intrinsically involved in this vision and leadership change.
We are examining, at the organizational level, and the individual level, the level of engagement over time, and if there are certain groups or practice areas or departments that are more engaged at one moment than others, as well as the amount of fatigue. We want to see practices that lead to positive responses over time, and those which maybe don’t, and also what leads to system change fatigue. There ways in which we can intervene to make organizations more successful as they need to change, but what can they do? Maybe we can ask one part of the organization to have a leading role at one part of the change while another is resting, and we have that shift of roles over time, so one part is never overburdened. We are going to be using sociometric analysis at some point but right now we are only looking at the leader communication about that change and responses, various different variables that may be influencing these responses to change.
Diana: When do you think this project is going to be finished?
We are already in our second year, collecting our fourth survey this spring, then another in summer and another in fall, so we will have about 6 full surveys. We will work on our first publication based on that but because it is longitudinal and we have a great relationship with the law firm, now it’s about figuring out what the right questions are and how do we meet this law firm’s needs and how do we help them really learn about how to make this change more effective. Also, what do they need to do to maintain the momentum and be successful and the changes that they need to remain competitive. At the same time, we want to know how can we generate new research questions and find out those things so we have a pipeline in multiple papers which this research will actually serve.
Diana: Is there any advice you would give undergraduate students about degrees/ making the most of their degree?
I guess the first piece [of advice] would be taking a deep breath and to realize that, particularly in your generation, you will have more than 10 careers in your lifetime, that’s not even job changes, but nothing is permanent necessarily and I study change and we know that change is the only thing you can count on. So to think that if I make the wrong decision, the rest of my life is over, is not really true and we don’t have the day where you pick a career and you pick one company and you’re there forever. Your story is an amalgam of various decisions, so I would say the most important thing is to focus on what you care the most about.
It took me a while to get there, but the way that I figured out what I’m most passionate about, what I’m intrinsically motivated to continue to study, despite challenges, despite rejections, I really found that there are two things in my studies: one that I was very interested in psychology. The motivations that underlie people and their goals. I aligned myself with one of the top psychologists and I went to Columbia University to do my studies. He’s fantastic and a leader in the field, he is in the psychology department at Columbia, his name is Tory Higgins, and I just was fascinated with his research and his theories. But my other area that I was really interested in was this organizational change and how do we make it more effective and how we interact. I also aligned myself with my advisor, who is a leader in organizational change, but he was more involved in organizational psychology. My dissertation included both of these individuals, and a critical person at the business school who puts these together. My research was really at the confluence of these fields so I realized that those were what I cared about. That’s kind of if you will, my sweet spot: the area that I feel like I have my unique voice and my own perspective. I’m also very driven and so curious, and I’ll continue to do it even for free, so you want to find the thing that drives your greatest passion, the thing where maybe you have a unique contribution, like a skill, a talent. So, finding where you can actually contribute to making this functional resource engine. For me, that’s being able to have relationships with these firms and get data from real companies and my consulting experience is what allows me to be able to do that. But everybody has some sort of configuration that works well, so your passion your talent and the way in which you can support those things. If you can find an amalgam of those, you’re usually going to be in a place where you can excel and be intrinsically motivated in what you do.
We are grateful to Professor Paine for taking the time to support the Bugle, and for being interested in helping out younger students with finding their place in the world.
This interview is presented in the Bedford Bugle with the permission of Professor Paine. Its content may not be reproduced or used outside the context of the official Psychology Society blog and for any other purposes without the permission of the Bugle and of Professor Jill Waymire Paine.