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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

How does your early career imprint shape your future success?

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András Tilcsik

When we hear the term imprinting, many of us picture baby ducks following their mother, from a psychology class presentation. How does imprinting play out in the workplace?

The idea of workplace imprinting does come from that Psychology 101 concept. But the core idea is not about following a leader, it’s about the fact that there are periods in the life of an organism — whether it be a duck or a human being — that are more susceptible to external influence and more open to learning. In the case of the mother duck, that is the first organism a baby duck encounters during its formative period. Building on that idea, researchers have adapted this concept to management and organizations more generally.

There is research going back to the 1960s suggesting that the environment in which an organization is born — the particular social era or type of environment that exists upon its founding — has a persistent effect on what it looks like 10, 20 or 30 years down the road, in terms of how it is structured and how it operates.

More recently, researchers — including myself — have been interested in looking at career imprints. The idea is that, in every career, there are periods that are formative — i.e. more sensitive to influence and learning — and we typically associate those with periods of transition. Common formative periods would include moving from the world of education into the world of work, or switching from one position to a very different type of job.

Typically, at these times, people are very open to influence. There is a temporary unfreezing of their routines and habits, and that creates an opportunity for learning, and also, for taking on a particular imprint from the environment and behavioural cues experienced at that time. After a while, the formative period ends, and we sort of freeze our patterns: we stick with a certain set of routines and habits and skills that we have learned. Of course, we can still learn new things, but not quite at the rate as during a formative period.

Researchers have studied the effects that peers, mentors and a company’s culture have on people during formative periods. Columbia Business School’s Damon Phillips, for example, looked at lawyers who have been socialized in different types of law firms. Like other organizations, some law firms have a more egalitarian approach, with more female partners. He found that lawyers socialized in such firms are later more likely to found firms that subsequently promote more women into leadership positions.

A related finding from this literature is about founder imprints’: what an organization’s founders do and how they think and behave — even independent of the external environment — creates a lasting blueprint for how an organization operates. Early decisions put an organization on a path that strongly shapes its structure and culture in the long run.

In your research you have focused on imprint-environment fit. Please describe this term.

This can be broadly defined as the degree to which your early formative experiences match the demands and challenges of the current environment in which you find yourself . Previously, we had a tendency to look at imprints as these static, constant things — which is a large part of the story; but imprint-environment fit helps to highlight the fact that the effect of an early formative experience — while it might be persistent — is not necessarily constant. A particular set of experiences that are formative for you might be either helpful or harmful to you later on, depending on the current environment. So, it’s not about whether a particular type of imprint is always bad or always good; but instead, what is the interplay between present challenges and past formative experiences?

Imprint-environment fit can also be influenced by the state of an organization when an individual joins it. If you come into an organization a) when profits are booming, b) when times are extremely tough, or c) at a middle-of-the-road time, which is best in the long run for your performance? If extreme periods are relatively rare during your tenure in an organization, then coming in at either extreme might leave an imprint that, in subsequent periods, less frequently matches the challenges of the environment.

Of course, if the extreme scenario — either a really good or really bad time for the company — repeats itself, then an imprint formed in that kind of extreme can be beneficial. But on average, if the firm returns to its normal equilibrium state, having been imprinted at an extreme time might actually be harmful for job performance. For example, being socialized during a bad time for the organization could lead an individual to be more risk-averse, and that could be a disadvantage later on, if the environment demands some risk-taking.

I studied people in professional services, project-based work that really depends on clients—where the nature of the work can really change over time depending on how well the economy and the firm itself are doing. In these cases, I found that initial imprinting really matters. It’s not easy to break out of what you learn early on in terms of skills, habits and routines.

What sort of environmental cues have the strongest influence in the realm of workplace imprinting?

Most research has focused on the imprinted influence of peers and mentors. My Rotman colleague Bill McEvily and his co-authors, for example, have done some very interesting work on early exposure to different types of mentors in the legal industry. They have found that young lawyers early connections to someone with a lot of practical knowledge can be very influential — even much farther down the career road — in terms of how they practice law and manage a firm, which has implications for how quickly they can grow their firm once they become partners.

In my work, I highlight a different set of influences, which come from the economic environment itself — how the fortunes of the organization in which you are starting a new position influence your performance and career. I am finding that on top of all those peer and mentor influences, the economic fortunes of the firm you are working at can, in some cases, have a powerful influence on what you learn and retain going forward. As a result, even if I’m a very thoughtful manager and I’ve paired people with the right kind of mentors and peers, and put them through a certain set of experiences that I want every newcomer to have, as the economic environment shifts for my firm, the imprint that newcomers will carry forward — what they end being shaped by — will change.

Based on your research, describe a best-case imprinting scenario that would lead to optimal performance.

The best case would be join a firm at a time that is neither extremely good nor extremely bad for it — a time that will be representative of future times to come. And that is somewhat counterintuitive, because you would assume, “when things are going really well, that’s when you should start out.” But I did not find that to be the case.

Elsewhere in your research, you conducted the first large-scale audit study of discrimination against openly gay men in the United States. Can you tell us a bit about that?

That was my resume audit study. Other researchers have used this approach to study racial and gender discrimination, but for the first time, I applied this method to discrimination based on sexual orientation in the United States. In this field experiment, I applied for jobs by sending out fictitious resumes to real employers. The résumés were largely identical in terms of content, but I randomly assigned a small signal of minority sexual orientation to some of them: for instance, some applicants had served as the treasurer of a gay and lesbian campus organization at their college.

Overall, I found clear evidence of discrimination against gay men at the point of callbacks. There was an immense amount of regional variation, as you might expect; in some Southern states, the callback gap was much larger than in, say, California or New York, where it was, in some cases, non-existent. I also found that in jurisdictions where there is legal protection of some sort — either at the city, county, or state level — there was less discrimination.

These findings were then used in a testimony by M.V. Lee Badgett, a leading labour economist who studies sexual orientation, in a U.S. Senate committee hearing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

What’s next for you?

Today, people are switching jobs much more frequently than ever. What I’d like to figure out next is, do people carry the imprints I have identified in my research to other organizations? Whether the answer is yes or no, either hypothesis is interesting and potentially important from a managerial perspective.

In my second line of research on employment discrimination, I’m working on a couple of new resume audit studies. In one, I’m trying to figure out how a person’s demographic background affects their chances of getting hired into elite jobs. I’m looking at the effects of gender and social class background, and how they interact.

In a second resume audit study, I’m studying the labour market in China, where job hunting is totally different from Canada or the United States. You send in a résumé and you might get a callback within 30 minutes, and many employers are eager to do a quick interview and start you right away. Still, not everyone gets the jobs, especially the good ones, so I’m looking at hiring patterns, based on things like physical appearance, gender, and university status, and how these patterns differ between private firms, state-owned firms, and multinationals. China is the world’s biggest labour market, so it’s vital that we understand how it works and what drives it.

András TilcsikAndrás Tilcsik is an associate professor of strategic management and holds the Canada research chair in strategy, organizations, and society at the Rotman School of Management. His research focuses on organizations, occupations, and work, and he is particularly interested in the causes and consequences of inequality in labour markets and the workplace.
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