Anyone who’s ever worked in an organization of any size has probably witnessed the full spectrum of human behavior on display: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
But social psychologist Markus Brauer takes it a step further, using science to examine human behavior in all its complexities and designing interventions that help people and companies adopt new attitudes and positive practices. An affiliate faculty member in the Department of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business, he is a professor of psychology and the director of the Brauer Group Lab, a social psychology research laboratory, in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Brauer’s research looks at social behavior in a number of different areas and settings. From counterproductive workplace behaviors to diversity and discrimination to sustainability, the common thread is pinpointing the psychological processes involved—what makes people engage and what motivates them to change. He and his team also work with companies and nonprofit organizations to design new interventions and initiatives to reach a goal, for example, a sustainability initiative might aim to help employees reduce their carbon footprint in the workplace, as well as to assess the effectiveness of interventions already in place.
A natural intersection with business
Many WSB doctoral students take their statistics courses from Brauer, but his connection with business started much earlier. He lived in France for 16 years and taught at the University of Clermont Auvergne and at the École Supérieure de Commerce de Clermont Business School before arriving at UW–Madison in 2011.
“Business and psychology are not as separate as people might think,” Brauer says. “In France, I had one foot in the psychology department and one foot in the business school, where I taught organizational behavior and leadership, and to some extent, cross-cultural leadership.”
Traditional business fields like marketing, management, and leadership all deal with influencing behavior change, Brauer says, whether that’s consumer purchasing behavior or learning how to give feedback to employees. “It turns out that much of what business people in business schools are doing is closely related to what psychologists are doing. So it’s not surprising that across the country, many business schools actually recruit social psychologists to teach in the business school.”
Improving diversity initiatives
One of Brauer’s central lines of research is studying how and when diversity initiatives work.
“How do we get people to behave more inclusively? How do we get people to behave in a less discriminatory way? These are the big questions,” Brauer says.
He and his collaborators have completed their own studies on diversity initiatives, such as reducing the achievement gap and diversity climate in academic environments, but have also evaluated the interventions of others; the combined experience viewed from both sides has given them greater insight into the problem.
In the case of the achievement gap and climate, the two may be closely related, Brauer says.
“What seems to be the driving force behind the achievement gap is that it’s actually the climate at the university that is crucial, especially the sense of belonging,” he explains. “When people have a greater sense of belonging, their grades are better, dropout rates are lower, and the completion rate is higher.”
Brauer says these findings hold true for companies and organizations, not just within a university environment.
“In companies where employees from diverse backgrounds have a decreased sense of belonging, have the impression they don’t fit in, or do not feel welcome or respected—these are companies that will have a higher turnover rate. That is a problem for many companies in the sense that they have highly trained, highly qualified employees who will leave for the competitor. It’s a pure loss.”
Creating an inclusive environment
Brauer says his team often uses what he terms “normative approaches,” which are ways of changing people’s perceptions of social norms.
“If we can get employees in a company, for example, to develop the perception that this is a place where diversity is a core value, where inclusion is valued, where not caring about other people is inconsistent with the company’s philosophy, then that is when people will change,” he says. “People are very willing to adopt new behaviors once social norms are salient and spelled out for them.”
Creating an inclusive environment goes beyond simply an environment where there is no discrimination.
“As an employer, once I’ve recruited employees from underrepresented groups, I need to then create an inclusive environment” Brauer says. “An inclusive environment is one where people make an active effort to be welcoming and respectful. I think it can mean a variety of things, like knowing what terms are offensive, just being kind, chatting with people at the coffee machine. In a team meeting, it can mean taking someone’s suggestion seriously rather than just letting them talk and then continuing the conversation as if this person hadn’t said anything.”
As a researcher studying discrimination, Brauer says the offshoot findings, such as calculating the loss of talent and the financial cost for American companies and taxpayers, are impactful but hardly what make the case for why people should care.
“I think there’s an ethical obligation. It’s simply morally unacceptable that individuals are treated differently simply because they belong to different social groups. That’s why this line of research is so meaningful to me.”
Read more about Brauer’s work:
- “How to Promote Inclusion in 750 Words”
- “Incorporating Social Marketing Insights Into Prejudice Research: Advancing Theory and Demonstrating Real-World Applications,” (PDF) forthcoming in Perspectives on Psychological Science
- “Reducing Prejudice,” from Social Psychology: How Other People Influence Our Thoughts and Actions, ABC-CLIO.
Markus Brauer is a professor of psychology and the director of the Brauer Group Lab, a social psychology research laboratory, in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business.