By Karen Guzman
Standing amid a raucous crowd of protestors at the famous “Battle for Seattle” in 1999, Marissa King glimpsed her professional future.
King had traveled to the Seattle, where thousands were protesting a meeting of the World Trade Organization, for her undergraduate sociology course. “It was a huge protest, and we were supposed to observe the social movements that were coalescing there,” says King, a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management.
“A wide spectrum of people had mobilized from across society in a way that was really bottom-up, and they were having a large impact on, what would seem to be, a very distant, impenetrable international organization,” she recalls.
The experience stirred a sense of wonder. “I became fascinated by the idea of, ‘How do you inspire collective action?’” King says. “And the questions around collective dynamics: How do you get individuals to come together to create larger scale social change? From there, I really became interested in understanding how social networks work.”
When King talks about “social networks,” it’s not just the online type that she’s referring to. “I’m interested in what happens when people come together and how it produces something that’s greater than the individual parts,” she says. “I’m interested in the patterns that emerge.”
King, who earned her PhD in sociology at Columbia University, never thought she’d pursue her interests at a business school. But her academic advisor saw a good match at Yale SOM and urged King to apply just as she was finishing her graduate work.
“I did as much training in an interdisciplinary program as I did in sociology, and so when I was beginning to think about where I wanted to take a job, being able to continue with an interdisciplinary approach was really important to me,” King says. “Yale SOM fit.”
When she arrived 10 years ago, the Organizational Behavior group was small, but that changed quickly, as interest in the discipline grew and Yale SOM became a leader in the field.
“We often had dinners together, all the faculty and our graduate students,” King says. “Ten years ago, we could all pretty much have dinner sitting around the same table, and now it’s hard for us even to fit into someone’s house.”
The field’s growth isn’t surprising, King says. “There’s a growing recognition in business of how important leveraging your talent is,” she says. “In order to do that well, you need the tools that we focus on in organizational behavior.”
The Yale SOM mission is also conducive to studies in organizational behavior. “When you have a school that takes educating leaders for business and society seriously, it’s our job to foster personal transformation in our students as we prepare them to lead organizations,” King says. “You need to rely on the tools from organizational behavior to transform insights—whether from sociology or psychology—into lived behavioral change.”
King also has faculty appointments in Yale’s sociology department and at the School of Public Health. The cross-disciplinary synergy has helped fuel her research.
“Within weeks of arriving at Yale, people from multiple different departments reached out both to welcome me and to get me involved in their own research and what was happening in their department,” King says. “A lot of my ongoing collaborations are with faculty in multiple departments, and that is unique to Yale.”
King’s recent projects have explored the societal cost of loneliness and how the opioid epidemic spreads. At the root of some of today’s most pressing societal problems, she says, is isolation and a lack of human connection that’s become endemic, and is often exacerbated by the proliferation of digital connections.
“We’ve known for decades that a lack of social connection is associated with poor mental health,” King says. “It’s associated with poor physical health, too. But I think what we’re starting to understand is the reality of how significant those consequences are.”
Digital “friends,” King says, don’t cut it. “We need real, tangible social interactions. They impact your health, your wellbeing, your job promotion, and they keep us grounded in humanity. I actually think that online networks detract from our ability to engage with one another in person.”
King’s forthcoming book, Social Chemistry: Decoding the Elements of Human Connection (Dutton), explores the topic further, illustrating how individuals can build more meaningful and productive relationships, drawing on insights from neuroscience, psychology, and network analytics. It will be published in June 2020.
At Yale SOM, every MBA student gets the chance to work with King. The core course, Managing Groups and Teams, which she co-teaches, is the first course that first-year students take. It’s an introduction to teamwork dynamics.
“Our goal is to allow students to learn about themselves as individual leaders, and also to really drive home the importance of working together well, not just to leverage individual talents, but to allow everyone to work collectively to achieve things that are greater than they would be able to do alone,” she explains. “We want to impart a set of tools and processes that should be widely applicable to any team our students find themselves on.”
Many students find the course transformative. “One of the things I love about students is their willingness and desire to actually grow and improve, both as individuals and as leaders in a real way,” King says.
“One of the things that differentiates a student at SOM from students at other business schools is they really want to understand why things are the way they are,” King says. “There’s a deeper appreciation for understanding the how and the why. Cultivating that curiosity is a big part of what we all do, as teachers.”