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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Collaborative Grant Report by Caterina Suitner, Kim Peters, and Silvia Filippi

10.12.2022, by Media Account in grant report

Towards More Sustainable Organizations: The Role of Self-Management for Workers' Well-Being and a More Equal Organizational Environment


Caterina Suitner, University of Padua, Department of Developmental Psychology and Socialization
Kim Peters, University of Exeter, Business School
Silvia Filippi, University of Padua, Department of Developmental Psychology and Socialization

Duration in months:


Start of the collaboration:

3rd of January, 2022

Summary of the project and main results

Thanks to EASP, starting from January 2022 we consolidated a research collaboration aimed at investigating how organizational structure shapes employees’ well-being. Our research team is composed by scholars living in Italy and UK: Caterina Suitner (University of Padova) and Kim Peters (University of Exeter Business School). We also shared this wonderful collaboration with Silvia Filippi, a PhD candidate (University of Padova) who joined the University of Exeter as a
visiting researcher between January and July 2022.

Through the lens of social psychology, we decided to focus on a new form of organization: SelfManaging Organizations (SMOs). Indeed, today’s organizational life is rapidly changing, not only are organizations adapting to the rise of automation and to the increase of hybrid and remote patterns of working (Bailey & Kurland, 2002; Sparks et al., 2001; Wang et al., 2021), but they are also experimenting with fundamentally new forms of organizing structures. Hierarchical
organigrams feature traditional organizations, and restrict decision-making to a small number of people at the top of the organization’s hierarchy. This type of structure simplifies decision-making and provides a clear mechanism (i.e., status and power) through which conflicts can be resolved (Lee, 2019; Reitzg & Maciejovsky, 2015; Magee & Galinsky, 2008). The ability of hierarchies to serve these functions is highlighted by psychological research that has pointed to the centrality of
hierarchy in many contests and provided evidence that informal hierarchies often emerge in the absence of a formal one (e.g., Magee & Galinsky, 2008; Ridgeway & Walker, 1995). While this may suggest that hierarchy is an inevitable outcome of human evolution and the only viable solution for solving cooperation and coordination challenges in large groups (for an integrative excursus on an evolutionary perspective to hierarchy see Koditscheck, 2019), recent years have seen the rise of new forms of organizational governance that radically decentralize authority, such as Self-Managing Organizations (SMOs, see for example organizations such as Zappos, Valve, Semco, Morning Star, or Buurtzorg). The emergence of this kind of organization reflects the recognition of the limitations of the classic vertical models of organizations (Billinger &
Workiewicz, 2019). While having a "boss" can be useful in handling minor day-to-day problems, it is not always the best option when dealing with dynamic and complex issues (Lee & Edmondson, 2017).

Through a mixed methods approach, including five studies (one focus group and four online surveys) and high-powered samples, we provide a unique contribution to the study of the psychological processes behind organizational well-being by developing a 10-item scale that aims to measure the degree of shared decision-making authority inside the organization on a number of organizational functionings, such as task allocation, decisions on work methods, scheduling and determination of organizational goals and purpose. After a preliminary focus group with experts working in SMOs from different countries (Italy, The Netherlands, Switzerland, USA, Mexico; N = 7), we ran three validation studies with UK- and US-based workers (Ntotal = 1479) and we proved the newly developed measure to be highly reliable and valid. We replicated this result in last study involving Italian workers (N = 496).

Moreover, we found a strong link between perceived SMO and positive outcomes related to employees’ organizational well-being, such as increased identification with the organization, job satisfaction, work engagement, and welfare (namely, the extent to which the organization values and cares for employees). Importantly, perceived SMO was also associated with decreased burnout and perceptions of inequality inside the organization (namely the manager-worker pay gap). In line
with a social identity perspective (Tajfel, 1979), results revealed that the effect of perceived SMO on well-being indicators was explained by increased organizational identification.

In all the samples collected, we assessed a number of individual characteristics of participants to test whether perceptions of SMO change in relation to individual and organizational characteristics. Perceptions of SMO in organizations vary according to both individual and organizational characteristics. Specifically, people working in smaller organizations, such as Micro enterprises and SME or that having fewer employees, perceived higher levels of SMO. Following the same trend,
seniority was associated with perceived SMO. Moreover, although effects were small, perceived SMO was also linked to higher levels of wealth, both at the perceived and actual income, levels. Gender, political orientation, educational level, and age were not correlated with perceived SMO. Our results bring to light the complex and multifaceted nature of perceived SMOs and the likelihood that certain conditions must be met in order for this organizational strategy to positively affect employee wellbeing. These conditions include both organizational characteristics, such as the dimension of the company, the level of transparency, and alignment between the corporate mission and the goals of specific employee, and individual components, such as one’s seniority and socioeconomic status. Indeed, as suggested by Puranam (2022), SMOs are not governance organizational solutions that work a priori for everyone but must be adapted to both the characteristics of the employees and the features of the company.

Future research may investigate which individual and personality characteristics are most relevant when working in an SMO and which company characteristics (e.g., number of employees or type of services offered) are most suitable for applying a drastic break in the hierarchy, as in the case of SMOs.

The relevance of our research work is twofold. On the one hand, it offers a new theoretical perspective for analyzing the effects of the distribution of decision-making power within companies. On the other hand, and from a practical standpoint, it provides a simple, short, and intuitive tool that can be used in corporate practice to measure employees’ perceived level of shared decision-making power inside the organization.

As part of the dissemination, this work was presented to the International Conference on Social Identity and Health- 5 at Nottingham Trent University, England on the 23rd of June 2022. The manuscript is now in preparation and will be sent soon for review.

Overall, we conceive these studies as a first step toward a more comprehensive understanding of the role of shared decision-making power inside organizations in shaping employees’ well-being and identification with the organization. We want to thank the EASP again for giving us the opportunity to concretize this project and we wish that the present EASP collaborative research grant will favor an enduring and fruitful collaboration between our research units around this topic.