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Updated 10:00 AM April 6, 2009

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  Distinguished University Professor
Business researcher lauds staff support

Business research often focuses on ways to help executives lead organizations, but Stephen M. Ross School of Business Professor Jane Dutton's work shows it's the employees at the lower rungs of the ladder that often make the difference.

Dutton, the Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration and Psychology, says that people in support positions are "amazingly resourceful," in spite of work-related and interpersonal challenges that many of them face.

"Staff people here at U-M have been critically important in terms of helping and enabling me to do my work, whether it's teaching or research or whatever," Dutton says. "My whole career, especially since I came to Michigan, has been about trying to show and explain how people in the lower ranks make a difference for organizational effectiveness.

"I can't begin to tell you how privileged I feel to be able to write about this and be affected by the stories that I hear."

Dutton will discuss "Beauty in Everyday Work: Seeing the Resourcefulness of University Staff" during the Distinguished University Professorship Lecture at 4 p.m. April 14 at the Rackham Amphitheater.

Drawing upon her research on high-quality connections and relationships at work, Dutton's talk will address the resourcefulness of university staff in two different contexts:

Cleaners at the hospital and the work they do for patients and their visitors.

Faculty support staff within an academic department and the work they do on behalf of faculty.

"I'm trying to spotlight the different forms of resourcefulness and ingenuity needed, especially in these under-resourced jobs, in order to get high-quality work done, work that often goes above and beyond the formal requirements of the job," she says.

Dutton says her research on employee resourcefulness introduces several core ideas of what she calls her "complete passion" — Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS).

"(In this kind of research), what you end up looking for is vitality and life and competence in the system," says Dutton, co-founder and co-director of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship. "And by focusing on the resourcefulness of staff, I'm, in part, doing that. My talk will try to illustrate what a POS perspective offers to researchers and practitioners interested in organizations."

One thing it does, she says, is focus on positive deviance, or moments of extraordinary human competence. It also looks at the capabilities or resources that allow for moments of positive deviance and how people make positive meaning in different situations.

"I am excited about the business school and university being so supportive of POS, especially in these dire times, as it offers ways to understand how you activate resourcefulness from within the individual, from within the group and from within the organization," Dutton says. "When situations are constrained, I feel like the POS perspective has particular applicability."

In addition to her POS work, Dutton is an expert on strategic change and identity and organizations. She is author of the book "Energize Your Workplace: How to Build and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work" and has just completed co-editing the book "Exploring Positive Identity and Organizations" (with Laura Morgan Roberts), which builds upon the earlier book "Exploring Positive Relationships at Work" (with Belle Ragins).

Dutton joined U-M in 1989 after being on the faculty at New York University. She received her doctorate and master's degrees in organizational behavior from Northwestern University and a bachelor's degree in sociology from Colby College.

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