For Christian Thoroughgood, producing research that positively impacts workplace relations isn’t just a professional interest. It’s an obligation. Thoroughgood, who joined Robinson’s Department of Management as an assistant professor last August, was traditionally trained in the area of leadership research. But as topics like positive organizational psychology, diversity, and inclusion have emerged over the past few years, he’s become intrigued by how those themes interweave—and how they shape thinking on how colleagues can serve as allies to marginalized groups.
“Movements like ‘Me Too’ and Black Lives Matter have placed an onus on senior leaders to think about social issues within their own organizations,” Thoroughgood said. “We have a responsibility as scholars to provide empirical research for executives to draw from and inform best practices.”
One of Thoroughgood’s recently published studies unpacks the concept of oppositional courage, which occurs when members of the majority (typically white people) challenge discriminatory policies and procedures to promote a culture of equity and justice. Such acts are oppositional because they question the status quo, and courageous because they could jeopardize one’s own standing within the organization. Over the course of seven years, Thoroughgood and two colleagues gathered data from attendees at the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference. To establish a baseline understanding of how oppositional courage looks within the workplace, survey takers provided examples of critical incidents. Survey participants shared their perceptions of those behaviors as well as how the episodes affected their self-esteem and emotional well-being. Not surprisingly, acts of oppositional courage immensely impacted their overall job satisfaction.
“The core takeaway is that when cisgender people put themselves on the line on behalf of their trans colleagues, they are sending a powerful public message that is important to the marginalized group’s feelings of self-worth,” Thoroughgood said.
A paper on the study, titled “Because you’re worth the risks: acts of oppositional courage as symbolic messages of relational value to transgender employees,” appeared in Journal of Applied Psychology in 2021 and received a Responsible Research in Management Award from the Academy of Management Fellows Group. Co-authors include Katina Sawyer, assistant professor, The George Washington University, and Jennica Webster, associate processor, Marquette University.
Thoroughgood is in the process of finishing a supplementary study that switches viewpoints by focusing on the majority group: specifically, how they respond when white colleagues engage in acts of oppositional courage. The reactions comprise what Thoroughgood calls a double-edged sword: either moral elevation or moral inferiority. The former sparks inspiration to be a better person, while the latter often threatens one’s sense of self and results in negative gossip.
“Gossip generates benefits or costs,” Thoroughgood said. “Positive gossip can spur a wave of support for diversity and inclusion, while negative gossip can damage the courageous actors’ reputation and ultimately undermine their efforts.”
Two significant notes: 1. The study only includes perspectives from the higher end of the scale; professionals who perpetuate discriminatory policies were not considered. 2. To gather enough data and generalize the study to a wider range of marginalized groups, the research centered on racial and ethnic minorities.
Researchers like Thoroughgood have done the legwork and drawn practical insights for organizations to leverage. The challenge is disseminating the information beyond journals read mainly by fellow scholars. A big win for Thoroughgood was landing publication in Harvard Business Review (HBR) and appearing in HBR’s 10 Must Reads 2021: The Definitive Management Ideas of the Year, a book-length compilation of articles. The piece’s title, “Creating a trans-inclusive workplace: How to make transgender employees feel valued at work,” pretty much explains itself. Thoroughgood, along with co-authors Sawyer and Webster, collaborated with consultants and members of the trans community while developing the list of best practices.
“I’m happy the work is out there in the world. People don’t have to dig into erudite literature to find a guide,” Thoroughgood said. “As a researcher, it’s crucial to not only advance theory within the field but also answer the kinds of questions practitioners need to know about.”