Interview with Dr. Case, Sanger Junior Faculty Fellowship Awardee

by | Apr 6, 2021 | Sanger News

Earlier this year, Dr. Charleen Case was awarded our Sanger Junior Faculty Fellowship. The fellowship provides summer funding plus an additional $5,000 of research support to fund projects related to the Center’s mission of leadership development. The selection committee applauded Dr. Case’s significant contributions in the areas of leadership and influence, as well as service to the Center during programs such as Full-Time MBA Orientation.

We caught back up with Dr. Case to learn more about her research, her plans for the funds, and her experiences teaching at Michigan Ross during the past year. The full interview is below!

Thanks for taking the time to help us get to know you more, Dr. Case! You’ve had experience teaching in our BBA program. What is the most rewarding aspect of working with Michigan Ross BBAs?

From my very first interactions with the Michigan Ross BBAs, I was immensely impressed. Not only are they exceptionally bright, creative, and hardworking, but they are full of passion and a desire to improve themselves, their communities, and the world. In my one-on-one meetings with my students over the years, I have had the opportunity to learn more about their diverse interests and how they plan to use the skills they have acquired at Ross to help others – it is extremely inspiring and adds immense meaning to my own work!

How have you adjusted to teaching online? Give us your biggest positive and your largest drawback.

Oh, boy. My answer to this question might vary on a day-by-day basis! In truth, overall I believe that I have adjusted reasonably well. When it comes to my experience as a professor, I think the biggest positive has been that I have been able to experiment with new teaching tools – I have loved some of the online simulations Management & Organizations (MO) 300 adopted this past year and I hope we can continue to implement them, even when we’re meeting in person again. The largest drawback, without a doubt, has been missing that real-time, in-person connection with and social feedback from my students. When you’re presenting material to a class of 80+ students on Zoom, it is a bit unsettling to not receive that instantaneous social feedback that you’re accustomed to receiving in the classroom. For instance, it was challenging to assess my students’ reactions to the material because I couldn’t hear those small sounds of understanding or confusion I can pick up on in an in-person class. And it was difficult to see – and therefore interpret – their facial expressions. Admittedly, the most unnerving part was the dead silence after telling a joke. Even though I knew the silence was due, at least in part, to everyone being muted and not because my jokes fell flat, it made me a bit self-conscious!

What research are you working on right now? 

One of the projects I am most excited about right now is one I am working on with a few of my MO colleagues. MO Ph.D. student, Katherine Bae, leads this project, and my other co-authors include MO professor, Sue Ashford, and Ross BBA alum, Harrison Miller. In this project, we examine how people respond to a potentially uncomfortable situation: when their boss asks them for negative feedback. Across several studies, we find that people’s decision to share their negative feedback or withhold it from their supervisor depends on how the supervisor manages the hierarchical tensions that are always present in the supervisor-subordinate relationship.

If their supervisor has demonstrated a penchant for being dominant over their team, subordinates are less inclined to share their negative feedback, even when the supervisor explicitly requests it. In contrast, if their supervisor has demonstrated a penchant for earning prestige among their team, such as by considering their team’s opinions when making decisions, or by generally behaving in other-serving ways, subordinates are more inclined to share their negative feedback when it is requested. 

This difference in feedback-giving behavior emerges because people believe that dominance-oriented supervisors’ requests for negative feedback are disingenuous. That is, they don’t believe those supervisors truly want to hear anything negative about their performance. When a prestige-oriented supervisor asks for critical feedback, however, their team believes the supervisor’s request to receive criticism is genuine. Moreover, people with dominance-oriented supervisors tend to be fearful when faced with giving their supervisor negative feedback, whereas people with prestige-oriented supervisors do not experience that same degree of fear.

These findings are important for leaders to keep in mind. On our quest to become more effective leaders, it is vital for us to seek (and receive) critical feedback on how we are doing. And not just from our peers or from our own bosses, but from the people we lead. If, however, we generally behave in an overly dominant fashion that intimidates those around us, then our team members will have a difficult time being open with us about how we can improve. That will stall our development. If we want those we lead to be open with us, we would do well to amass prestige within our team. We can do this by using our knowledge and skills to help members of our team, as well as by listening to and considering our team members’ perspectives and opinions when making important decisions that affect them. These kinds of behaviors require deliberate practice but, if we practice them with consistency, over time we can increase our team members’ willingness to share with us the kind of difficult feedback we need in order to improve.

What about future projects for this summer?

There are a few different yet related projects in various stages of development that I am working on now and will continue to pursue this summer. At a broad level, I am interested in exploring the tension between social connection and hierarchy dynamics that can emerge in mentorship relationships. The mentor-mentee relationship is an interesting one because, in comparison to formal organizational reporting relationships between a supervisor and their direct reports, mentor-mentee relationships generally feature greater social intimacy. However, despite the relational trappings that come along with social intimacy, such as mutual self-disclosure and openness of emotional expression, the mentor-mentee relationship is nevertheless hierarchical such that the mentor generally has more experience, status, and power than the mentee. I am interested in exploring how this tension is experienced by mentors and by mentees, what strategies they use to navigate that tension, and how the strategies they use to deal with that tension affect the relationship. 

The Sanger Junior Faculty Fellowship included a grant for your work. What are your plans for the grant money?

First, I’d like to say again how grateful I am to Sanger for awarding me that grant! I am excited to use those funds to collect data for the mentorship projects I have underway. For now, that means conducting some preliminary research using online samples. However, once I can safely conduct research on-site again, I will be using those funds to run in-person studies on campus.

Which paper of yours are you most proud of?

Please don’t make me choose! I think it’s a tie between my 2018 and 2021 papers (see list of papers on the Michigan Ross website) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It is difficult to pick one because these two papers are interrelated. They both examine how highly prestige-oriented leaders respond to situations that have the potential to jeopardize their social approval, such as when those leaders must make an unpopular decision or when they must give negative feedback to a team member.

Your work lately has been investigating the role of prestige-oriented leaders. What exactly is a prestige-oriented leader? Is this a good or a bad trait to have?

People who are highly prestige-oriented are those who tend to gain influence and esteem in a group by demonstrating their value to the other group members. What that means in practice is that they use their knowledge, traits, and skills to benefit their team and demonstrate prosocial tendencies such as being generous to and considerate of their team members. Consequently, their group members respect them, admire them, and are open to receiving their influence.

Prestige orientation is a lot like other types of semi-stable traits; it is not binary. Rather, people tend to vary in the extent to which they are prestige-oriented, much like they vary in the extent to which they are extroverted or conscientious. It also is something that is context-dependent. This means that although someone might have a baseline tendency to behave in a highly prestige-oriented way, they might not act that way in all group settings.

When it comes to whether being highly prestige-oriented is good or bad, the answer is not so simple. On the surface, prestige orientation seems unequivocally good – of course, we want team members who add value to our group and behave in generous, considerate ways. And, for the most part, research demonstrates that prestige-oriented individuals are good to and for their group. However, my work demonstrates the Achilles heel of highly prestige-oriented individuals: they tend to be particularly concerned with earning and maintaining social approval. After all, their social influence in the group hinges on their group members’ favorable impressions of them, if they behaved in ways that brought about disapproval, their influence would wane.

Due to their focus on maintaining their group members’ good favor, highly prestige-oriented leaders, therefore, have a difficult time making unpopular decisions, such as those where what is best for the success of the group is at odds with the team members’ preferences. When faced with the possibility of losing their social approval, highly prestige-oriented leaders tend to make decisions that pander to their group members’ desires rather than prioritizing their group’s performance and success.

Can a person be both a prestige-oriented leader and a dominance-oriented leader? Is flexing into both possible?

This is a great question. Dominance orientation usually is contrasted with prestige orientation. Highly dominance-oriented people tend to wield influence by being particularly assertive and authoritarian. They tend to demand deference from others, sometimes coercively, and are not especially concerned with maintaining their group members’ social approval. 

Although dominance orientation and prestige orientation sometimes are pitched as opposites, they are not opposite ends of the same spectrum. When I ask people to assess their own dominance and prestige orientation, I tend to find either no relationship or a slight positive correlation between the two. However, when I ask people to rate someone else’s dominance and prestige orientation, I tend to see a slight negative correlation among them. What does this mean?

When people perform self-ratings, they can conjure up examples of how they behave across many contexts. For instance, they might recall behaving in dominance-oriented ways at work and prestige-oriented ways when coaching their daughter’s basketball team. This can cause them to self-rate themselves highly on both. However, when someone evaluates their coworker’s dominance and prestige orientation, they generally only see how that person behaves within the narrow context that they interact with them. As such, they might rate their coworker high on dominance orientation and low on prestige orientation, even if that person behaves in highly prestige-oriented ways outside of work. 

What this discrepancy suggests is that, while people do have the capability of enacting both dominance- and prestige-oriented behaviors, their default mode might be to display only one type of behavior with their team at work. Because people generally indicate a capacity to behave in both dominance-oriented and prestige-oriented ways, they should be able to practice both at work. As with any leadership behavior, doing so would require deliberate practice. While I am not aware of any research explicitly examining whether and how people might flex between dominance and prestige orientations at work, I suspect that honing an ability to do so could be beneficial. This is an interesting question worth pursuing!

What are the top three habits, in your opinion, of an outstanding leader?

I think it is important for leaders to habitually (1) engage in systematic self-reflection, (2) practice adopting a beginner’s mindset, and (3) foster trust with and among their team members.

Fast Facts: Dr. Charlie Case

Personal website

Adrian, MI

Ph.D. Florida State University 2017
B.A. Miami University 2010

Courses Taught in Past Year
Last winter, I taught MO 321, a BBA course on leadership development. This fall, I taught several sections of MO 300, the junior year core class on behavioral theory in management.

Research Focus
How people’s motives for status and for connection drive their social behavior, and how those motives promote or undermine effective group functioning and group member well-being.

Words to describe your teaching style
Enthusiastic, interactive, inclusive, and quirky

Weight lifting, trail-running, reading fantasy novels, adventure camping

Favorite Ann Arbor Spots
Aventura, Blank Slate Creamery, and Jolly Pumpkin.

I have three perfect kitties: Sagan (8-year-old female) and my two boys, Franklin and Newton (2.5-year-old brothers).