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BiteSCIze with Zoe Ziani
  • Who are you?

My name is Zoé Ziani, I’m French and I’ve been living in Boulder, CO since 2020. I have a PhD in Organizational Behavior which is a field at the intersection of sociology, psychology, and economics. 

  • How did you get into Behavioural Science?

I first studied economics and finance at university. While completing my Master’s degree, I got very interested in the 2008 financial crisis: I wanted to understand how such a thing could happen. Researchers in finance and economics could explain everything from an economic standpoint, but there was little discussion of how so many people working in so many different institutions (banks, credit rating agencies, …) could have been so reckless.

This is what got me interested in organizational culture, norms, compliance behaviors, conformity… I had been thinking about doing a PhD for a while, and when I discovered that a field like organizational behavior could help me answer these questions, I dug in.

  • What are you working on right now?

Well, multiple things… I’m working for a tech company in the recruitment sector. This is a fascinating area: The more I see of many companies’ recruitment processes, the more I’m convinced of the need for data-driven and research-based insights. 

In addition to that, I’m still writing content on my website (but also on LinkedIn), focusing on behavioral science insights. I’m also trying to kickstart a community of “people data” folks (people working in applied behavioral science, UXR, data science and people analytics) in the Boulder / Denver area  in Colorado.

Finally, I’m exploring consulting opportunities in people analytics. There’s a real need for collecting, analyzing, and utilizing data about people in organizations, but not all companies have the resource to build an in-house team, so I’m hoping to help these organizations.

  • What do you like most about what you do?

I love working with data about people, and I love solving issues. Give me a business problem you have, I will look for ways to find appropriate data, I will analyze it, and I will come back to you with insights and possible course of actions.

  • If you could work on / research any topic what would it be and why?

At some point during my Ph.D., I got really interested in the “implicit rules people use when networking.” What I mean by this is what people perceive as appropriate or inappropriate when building and leveraging their professional network. It’s a very complex and multi-faceted question, and there’s surprisingly very little research on it. I never quite had the time or the resources to study it though!

  • What is your favourite behavioural science paper/book/resource and why?

I don’t read a lot of behavioral science books, but I keep reading research papers in social / behavioral science. I’m always interested in new research findings and the methods they used. There’s a recent paper I particularly like, describing people’s tendency to systematically add things (rather than removing things) when trying to solve a problem. I love it because it’s applicable to so many business problems and organizations. In fact, I like it so much that I wrote a blog post about it.

  • Who do you think is interesting in the general field?

Who, I’m not sure! I’m extremely interested in people analytics: Using data about human behavior to identify and solve organizational issues such as “who should we hire? How do we make sure that people are engaged in their work? How can we encourage people to stay?” This field is picking up steam, it is well connected with the fields of HR and data science, but there’s still many opportunities to build bridges with the behavioral science community. 

  • What haven’t we asked you that we should have?

My spicy take on behavioral research! My experience has shown that there’s a lot of unreliable research out there, and that we should think twice before trying to apply things that have been “discovered” in academia. To me, practitioners are not there yet: “pop science” is still very popular, and scientific literacy isn’t as high as it should be.

  • Who is one person that we can speak to for our next interview and if you could ask them one question, what would it be?

Michael Schaerer, an OB researcher at SMU, Singapore. He recently published, with a dozen of other collaborators, a fascinating paper on gender bias in hiring decisions. What they find is very interesting in itself (they show that the bias in favor of male candidates has more or less disappeared, and that there is now a slight “bias” in favor of women), but it is their approach to research that makes the paper truly unique. To make sure that their research is as sound methodologically as possible, they hired a “red team” to provide critical feedback on their methods – analysis, data coding, theory, predictions… This is a fantastic approach that should be much more common in academia, and I’m sure Michael would have great insights to share! 

A specific question for him would be the following: How does he see the future of the field of organizational behavior, given how resistant it has been to methodological changes? 

Question from Amy Bucher

  • Zoe took a principled stance as a whistleblower against academic misconduct just as she was finishing her doctorate. I think it shows incredible strength of character. What has happened for her since, and how has the whistleblowing experience specifically affected her professional path?

I appreciate the nice words and support! Your question is giving me the opportunity to clarify two things: First, I didn’t leave academia because of my whistleblowing experience. I left academia because I did a Ph.D. to do science but realized that business academia is currently not oriented towards this goal. Second, I think no matter my PhD experience, the transition from academia to industry remains difficult for anyone: Business Academia is surprisingly disconnected from industry and leaving academia remains taboo.

As for the effect this experience had on my professional path, I would say it has been mostly positive: Many people reached out with words of support after the New Yorker article and my blog post came out, and I’ve been lucky to meet great people since then, in particular people who are working in fields I’m interested in.

That being said, I’ve been struggling in my professional transition to industry: Between a complicated immigration process, and the poor state of the job market for people with a research background, I’ve haven’t had a lot of luck finding employment in the US… But I hope things will change soon!

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