Finding Meaning in Business Research

Professionals conduct research

What inspires business researchers? How do they find meaning in their work? After a day of expert research presentations at the 2019 Lerner Management Research Summit at the University of Delaware, a panel of academics from mid-Atlantic institutions shared with their colleagues at UD what inspires them to continue to search for answers to challenging management issues.

“The common thread is that all four guests are top scholars in their area with interesting and engaging research agendas,” said Associate Professor of Management at UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics Katalin Takacs Haynes, who served as moderator for the event.

The unique panel included:

  • Parthiban David, professor of management at American University’s Kogod School of Business, who presented on exploration and exploitation and how to keep the research engine running.
  • Daan Van Knippenberg, academic director of the Institute of Strategic Leadership and Joseph F. Rocereto Professor of Management at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, who is an expert on diversity mindsets, gender dissimilarity and individual performance.
  • Sean Martin, assistant professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, who spoke on the importance of social class in organizational scholarship.
  • Kisha Lashley, assistant professor of management at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, who presented on reducing stigma in the medical cannabis industry.

We reimagined [the Lerner Management Research Summit] as a day conference to bring together scholars from our geographic region and to establish our department and Lerner College as a center of research excellence,” said Takacs Haynes. “The goal of the panel was to inspire the attendees to think deeper about the meaning of our lives as researchers, scholars, academics. Hearing about the panelists’ search for meaning and how they found it was a profound experience, shared by many in the audience.”

“The Lerner Management Research Summit provided a great opportunity to reflect on the ups and downs of being a researcher in today’s hyper-competitive publishing environment,” noted Assistant Professor of Management at UD Dustin Sleesman. “We were able to get up-to-speed on some cutting edge thinking in our field. In fact, I implemented some of the ideas in a class on conflict and diversity just a few days after the event. I like to keep my ear to the ground to build the latest evidence-based management concepts into my courses at Lerner, and the Management Research Summit provided a valuable platform to help make that happen.”

What is the meaning of life as a business researcher?

According to Martin, “I don’t derive meaning from my work. I like what I study and I am passionate about my study. But in terms of meaning, I get it largely from external places. If I have to answer ‘what is the meaning of life through work,’ it would be my colleagues who also serve as my friends.

“Try to be bulletproof when it comes to these jobs because rejection is part of the role,” Martin continued. “At a certain stage you have to derive your meaningfulness and your purpose elsewhere. Finding meaning in other places allows me to be free to approach my work.”

“I don’t know either,” agreed Lashley. “I thought becoming an academic meant longer summer vacations. I’ve always been curious about a lot of things and I thought this was an opportunity to have other people pay me to study things I’m interested in. I always ask the question, ‘How can I use my role to make changes or impact other people’s lives?’”

Van Knippenberg added that, “I’m a father of three and that’s way more important to me than anything I would achieve professionally. The key thing in choosing motivation is that you should be passionate about what you’re doing. As long as it is interesting, motivating and satisfying, that is where you should get your motivation.”

The panelists all agreed that it is impossible to nail down exactly what the meaning of life is for a researcher. They also agreed unanimously that, whatever the meaning of life may be, it isn’t only found in work.

How do you find joy in your work in academia?

“Nothing has made a better contribution to the quality of life and happiness than knowledge,” Van Knippenberg said. “If there is so much value in knowledge, what should I be studying if I really think that knowledge can help others? What is the most valuable subject to study? What is the root problem? Within the domain I’m in, whatever expertise I have, what is it that I should be studying? I try to let my research agenda be influenced by what I think is important. But if you think of something as your duty to study, you’ll be miserable. You have to be passionate about it.”

“The university is paying us to have this fantastic job but it does come with some expectations,” noted David. “You really have to help the institution. Academia gives you this lifetime employment, but you are expected to contribute in ways. Sometimes you’re working on projects that may not be that exciting but you do have obligations to contribute knowledge.”

Martin added, “If you tie your value and self-worth to reviews or journals, you will never be happy or fulfilled. You need to have these things that are the core of you wherever you go.”

Lashley returned to the original question and noted that “In terms of what brings me joy in work, I like the interactions. I like to interact with students which can be a challenge because, with students, if you make yourself always available they’ll always be there.”

“One of the things that gives me a positive feeling is that I have a Ph.D. in social psychology and I moved to organizational psychology and management and ever since I moved I feel like I’m faking it until I make it,” said Van Knippenberg. “I get a very satisfied feeling when I try out something new that I haven’t done before and it works out. It makes me happy.

“Lot’s of the stuff that you would think of, like a rejection from a journal, you shouldn’t take it more seriously than it is,” Van Knippenberg continued. “I’ve come to the point where I’m the judge of my work. I know which pieces are better than others. It’s not about me and my work so much as it is about process. Look at the negative feedback and say, ‘now I know what I can do better.’

“A lot of signals we get are performance expectations,” said Van Knippenberg. “A much healthier mindset is a growth mindset orientation. One of the things that makes me happy in my work is that I still strive to get better at stuff. I’m resilient when I get set back because they are things I can learn from.”

Martin agreed, “I’m a bit of a slow worker, I have a relatively good submission rate. The reason that that strategy works for me is that I take feedback seriously not personally. I assume positive intent when I receive feedback. The more that we can try to assume positive intent, it improves our own mental health.”

The moderator, Takacs Haynes, joined the conversation and noted that, “We do have a lot of power in what we’re doing to shape the culture of management research so it’s really important that when people give feedback they do it in a way that is constructive.”

David added, “What makes me happy is the connection with my colleagues and the students. Resilience is a lot easier when you have tenure because the feedback isn’t as impactful on your career. I went through a period where I had nothing to present in my performance reviews. It was helpful to have really good mentors.”

“Our worst case scenario in this job [is that] you go to a school that no one has ever heard of and you still get the summers off and get to teach, so it’s still a really great job,” added Martin.

“As a reviewer, you realize that a paper that is submitted is not necessarily the same version of the paper that ends up published,” said Van Knippenberg. “You are not in the business of rejecting papers, you are in the business of publishing papers as a journal editor. The more experience I have the more I realize how much randomness there is in the system. Since there is so much randomness in the system you shouldn’t put your self-worth in its hands.”

CEEE Organizes Annual Book-Sharing Event One School, One Book

Students at Shortlidge Academy in the Red Clay Consolidated School District saved up thousands of dollars this year for a special celebration with a moon bounce. Sure, the money wasn’t actual U.S. currency — the school minted its own bills to give out as awards for...

2024 Lerner College Faculty Promotions Announced

The University of Delaware Board of Trustees approved the promotions of 87 faculty members at its semiannual meeting on May 14, including nine promotions for Lerner College faculty. All promotions are effective Sept. 1, 2024 Promoted to the rank of associate...

Lerner College Honors 2024 Alumni Award Winners

The University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics honored seven individuals during its annual Alumni Awards of Excellence ceremony on May 31 in Lerner Hall. Presented each year to select UD and Lerner College alumni, the awards recognize...