Tilcsik (2014). Imprint–environment Fit and Performance: How Organizational Munificence at the Time of Hire Affects Subsequent Job Performance

András Tilcsik – Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

Jonathan Cromwell – Harvard Business School
Cheng Gao – Harvard Business School

Article link: http://asq.sagepub.com/content/59/4/639

Question 1. The core theoretical contribution of this paper is that the “imprint-environment fit,” which you define as the fit between the current organizational environment and the one that existed when an individual started working in an organization, has a significant effect on individual performance. When in the process of working on this paper did you figure out that this would be your main contribution? What was the seed of this intuition and how did it develop into the final version that you write about in your paper?

This paper was a chapter in my dissertation and later my job market paper, but initially—when I was developing my dissertation proposal—I had a different research agenda in mind. I went into this setting with an interest in job performance as an outcome, but I was curious about a different set of independent variables, particularly the interplay between organizational culture and social network position. The data I had been hoping for, however, was simply not available. But I soon realized that this context was suitable for developing and eventually testing some potentially interesting theoretical arguments about newcomers’ experiences at the time of hire and their subsequent performance. Once I made this choice, the potential influence of imprint-environment fit emerged as a plausible story quite naturally from the literatures on imprinting and newcomer socialization. Monica Higgins’ book on career imprints and a 2009 Organization Science paper by Gina Dokko, Steffanie Wilk, and Nancy Rothbard provided the seed for this idea by making the point that a given imprint may be beneficial under some circumstances and detrimental under others. Also, there is a very nice paper about position imprints from 2007 by Diane Burton and Christine Beckman in ASR, which highlights the importance of “fit” when thinking about the performance implications of imprints. Over time, the idea of imprint-environment fit became more specific and refined thanks to feedback from many different people. As a result, the final version was much more explicit about the mechanisms that might underlie imprint-environment fit and how the direction of imprint-environment misfit might matter.

Question 2. We find this paper interesting from a methodological standpoint because it utilizes both quantitative and qualitative methods. However, we noticed that this paper places more emphasis on the quantitative analysis and that the qualitative analysis was relatively shorter compared to other mixed-methods studies (e.g., Edmondson, 1999). Could you talk about how you decided upon the particular balance of mixed methods in your paper?

You are right—this is indeed a primarily quantitative study, despite the inclusion of some qualitative data. Even at a relatively early stage of this research, I had some hypotheses that were quantitatively specifiable and testable with the available longitudinal performance data. In many cases, this might provide enough material for a paper. But I was also very curious about the underlying mechanisms, and I couldn’t really get at those without knowing more about the context. I felt I needed to know more than what I could get from just a few informal conversations with a handful of informants. And I felt that it would be helpful for readers to understand what my abstract theoretical concepts actually looked like on the ground, and the qualitative data helped in that regard.

At the same time, I was very aware of the limitations of the qualitative data that I had been able to collect, and the stronger emphasis on the quantitative methods in the paper reflects that. I see these qualitative data as potentially interesting and informative, but ultimately more illustrative than conclusive. I had interviews conducted in essentially a single period, and many of the relevant interview sections relied on people’s memories of events from several years earlier—a serious limitation even though I tried to triangulate between employees who were the focus of the study and their supervisors, who often had important information about the performance of various employee cohorts in different situations.

Question 3. Sticking with the theme on methods, we found another interesting feature of your paper. In your quantitative analysis, you test hypotheses using separate regressions for each organization in your sample. There are numerous ways that you could have analyzed data from multiple organizations. What are the merits of running separate regressions for each organization as opposed to a pooled analysis?

In this case, a pooled analysis would have introduced several complications. For one thing, the main dependent variable, performance ratings, was measured on different scales in these organizations, and some of the norms about how to rate employees were also different. It was also not obvious that the key independent variables capturing organizational munificence were experienced in exactly the same way in the two organizations. Of course, a pooled analysis with firm fixed effects could have accounted for time-invariant differences in intercepts, but it would not address potentially important interactions between firm dummies and all the various independent variables. For these reasons, I felt it was cleaner to run separate regressions for each firm. And, because I only had two organizations, running separate regressions for each didn’t balloon the paper to an unreasonable length.

Question 4. Given your interesting findings, what do you feel are the most important implications for practice that this work could have?

Most broadly, I think the paper offers a cautionary tale about employee socialization. Despite having a formal, standardized program for all employees, variation in organizational munificence can radically reshape the context of socialization and thus change how and what newcomers actually learn during this critical period. Managers often have a vision of what all new employees in a particular position should experience and learn, and they might create programs and policies to make that happen, but the environment can easily disrupt those plans and impose a lasting imprint on a cohort of employees that is quite different from what managers had intended. But this doesn’t mean that managers are powerless. In fact, after understanding this lesson, the managers in both firms suggested several actionable interventions to address the issue. One common suggestion was to try and counteract extreme environmental influences on newcomers during years that are either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. The idea would be to make sure that newcomers, especially those with little prior work experience, don’t come out of their first year with a narrow set of skills and approaches that are useful only in exceptional periods. So managers might actively diversify the experience of newcomers who arrive in extreme resource periods. In this case, for example, managers suggested that in busy, high-demand years, one intervention would be to occasionally expose newcomers to slower, internal, early-stage development projects, which are less typical in such periods but are critical in building important skills for slower times.

Question 5. As we have worked on research projects, we have found that there are particular moments throughout the course of a project that get us more excited about a paper – whether that’s getting access to really interesting data, getting significant effects on an interesting finding, or getting positive feedback from a scholar we admire, et cetera. What was one of your favorite moments from working on this project?

It’s hard to pick one moment; it was more like a series of moments. I was fortunate to present this paper at a bunch of different seminars and workshops and discuss it with many scholars whose work I admire and whom I have not met before. In that sense, it was through this paper that I met many of the people whom I now know in the profession. And while I couldn’t incorporate every piece of advice I received, I have to say that it indeed took a whole village of scholars to raise this paper—in fact, it took a particularly large village that included not only my faculty mentors and grad school colleagues but also a large number of scholars whom I met while on the job market, as well as the editors and anonymous reviewers at ASQ, who devoted a great deal of effort to helping me improve this work. So my favorite thing about this paper is that working on it gave me a strong sense of belonging to a larger community.

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