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A manager's guide to workplace procrastination.

All procrastinators are not created equal, but all waste a lot of their employers' time and money. The key to managing procrastinators is determining which kind they are: undisciplined, insecure, or well-intentioned and over-extended. Each type has a different psychological profile, and approaches that might work for one could be counterproductive for another. For example, classic time management training may be most effective for the well-intentioned over-extendor, somewhat less so for the insecure procrastinator unless combined with counseling, and least effective for the undisciplined type. Other approaches are suggested here, including good job design that increases autonomy, clear accountability, and employee screening.

Introducing Procrastination

In this increasingly frenetic and competitive climate, employees are expected to manage the resources available to them to perform their jobs. However, many are squandering the most precious and scarce resource at their disposal, time, by procrastinating on tasks and thereby costing themselves and their organizations. To procrastinate is to "voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay" (Steel, 2007). This behavior, despite its costs, is common in schools, workplaces, and other life domains. By understanding why it occurs and how to prevent it, managers can optimize performance and productivity. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to provide managers with an evidence-based framework for reducing dilatory behavior. Scientific research has explored the causes and effects of procrastination and provides clues as to how best to manage individuals with these tendencies.

Most scholarship has focused on academic procrastination, as up to 95% of students have procrastinated on academic tasks (O'Brien, 2002, as cited in Steel, 2007). In fact, 30% to 60% report doing so regularly (Pychyl, Lee, Thibodeau, and Blunt, 2000) and 75% would label themselves as procrastinators (Ports, 1987, as cited in Steel, 2007). This is unfortunate, as procrastinators achieve lower GPAs (Steel, 2007), take more years to finish college (Hill, Hill, Chabot, and Barrall, 1978), and are more likely to commit acts of academic dishonesty (Roig and DeTommaso, 1995). In addition, procrastination is a frequent source of negative emotions for students, often responsible for feelings of agitation (Lay and Schouwenburg, 1993) and self-blame (Pychyl et al., 2000).

However, the problem is not limited to college campuses. Some researchers estimate that 20% of the population may be "chronic procrastinators" (Harriott and Ferrari, 1996). These individuals postpone or avoid important activities in multiple domains of their professional and personal lives, often at significant costs to their mental, physical, and economic well-being. Procrastination is associated with lower levels of career advancement (Mehrabian, 2000), longer periods of unemployment (Lay and Brokenshire, 1997), and increased rates of stress and illness (Sirois and Tosti, 2012). Procrastinators are also more likely to be unmarried (Steel, 2010). It is interesting to note that most individuals with these tendencies realize their behavior is problematic and would prefer to behave differently (O'Brien, 2002, as cited in Steel, 2007).

Procrastination at Work

As timely performance is a requirement of most jobs, procrastination is particularly problematic in the workplace. Evidence suggests that procrastination and poor performance go hand-in-hand, as procrastinators miss more deadlines than non-procrastinators (Van Eerde, 2003a) and make more errors and work at a slower speed than nonprocrastinators when performing timed tasks (Ferrari, 2001). This challenges the notion that procrastinators "work best under pressure." Even the legendary Jack Welch has something to say about procrastination. Welch and Byrne (2001) cite procrastination as a common trait among "C players," or executives representing the bottom 10% of performers on Welch's "vitality curve."

In addition, workplaces may experience "second-hand procrastination," as other employees often must work harder to compensate for the lost productivity of a procrastinating coworker (Pychyl and Flett, 2012). Dilatory behavior, therefore, is likely to affect morale and group cohesion. When asked to evaluate examples of procrastination in hypothetical workplace scenarios, most employees expressed overwhelmingly negative opinions of the fictional procrastinating colleague (Ferrari, 1992). Interestingly, the harshest evaluations were made by employees who self-identified as procrastinators, confirming that procrastinators view their behavioral tendencies as problematic, inappropriate, and in need of change.

The time costs of procrastination can have real financial consequences for organizations. Malachowski (2005) estimated that the average employee loses two hours of each work day to such time wasting activities as surfing the Internet for personal use and socializing with colleagues, resulting in a salary loss of $759 billion per year across the American workforce alone. This calculation was based on a relatively conservative per employee estimate of $5,720 in wasted annual salary costs; D'Abate and Eddy (2007) put the figure closer to $9,000. In an economy that is increasingly characterized by tight profit margins and pressures to reduce costs, such waste represents not only a financial burden to business, but may also make outsourcing jobs to lower-labor cost countries more attractive.

Identifying time-wasting activity is not always easy. Pychyl et al. (2000) conclude that procrastination cannot be identified solely by the activity performed. Seemingly productive tasks may be instances of procrastination if they are performed at the expense of other, more important activities. For example, an employee may surf the Internet as a way of avoiding more important tasks. However, it is also possible for Internet surfing to be a legitimate research activity. The stealthy nature of procrastination makes it difficult to identify and manage. Unfortunately, identifying procrastination is only going to become more difficult as smartphones, tablets, social media, and collaborative work environments, all of which represent potential distractions, become indispensable tools in the modern workplace.

Some authors have argued that there may be some circumstances where procrastination is useful. For example, Van Eerde (2003b) has suggested that for relatively simple, low-risk tasks, the time pressure created by delaying a task may create a sense of challenge that energizes performance and alleviates boredom. Similarly, Schraw, Wadkins, and Olafson (2007) found that students procrastinated strategically to create a balance between academic and social activities, to align their study schedules with classmates, or to create last minute pressure for motivation. As the negative effects of procrastination are well documented, it is unlikely that "creating pressure" will be a truly effective strategy in most contexts. Nevertheless, these examples highlight another potential complication in recognizing procrastination--the delay of lower priority tasks may represent efficient time management rather than dilatory behavior. Such a distinction is discussed next in more detail.

The Causes of Delay

Research into the causes of procrastination has explored two questions: What tasks are people most likely to delay? What types of people are most likely to delay a task? In a comprehensive qualitative review and meta-analysis, Steel (2007) answered both questions. Drawing on temporal motivation theory, Steel (2007, 2010) proposed that individuals will delay a task when at least one of the following holds true:

1) Low expectancy: They perceive a low likelihood of being successful at the task.

2) Low value: They do not expect to receive value or enjoyment from performing the task.

3) High delay: There is a long delay between performing the task and experiencing any meaningful benefit or cost.

In practice, this suggests that tasks that are 1) boring, tedious, or aversive, 2) ambiguous or difficulty to perform, and 3) involve delayed gratification are most susceptible to procrastination.

Regarding the second question, Steel (2007) found that individuals who score high on measures of impulsiveness and boredom-propensity and those who score low on measures of conscientiousness and self-efficacy are the most likely to procrastinate. Traits such as neuroticism, self-esteem, and depression were only weakly related to procrastination and, contrary to previous theoretical perspectives, Steel found little evidence to suggest that procrastinators are perfectionists or excessively fearful of failure. Finally, it is important to recognize that these individual differences may interact with the task characteristics laid out above. For example, individuals who are naturally impulsive are more likely to avoid aversive tasks.

Although the parsimony and empirical grounding of Steel's (2007, 2010) model is impressive, it fails to account for other variables that have been found to predict procrastination in certain situations. Based on an extensive review of the literature, Pychyl (2010) considers procrastination to be a self-regulatory failure in which a person is unable or unwilling to tolerate negative subjective states. In addition, certain illusions and justifications are used to sustain task avoidance. For example, individuals are known to be quite poor at affective forecasting, or the ability to predict future emotional states. As a result, procrastinators will often incorrectly believe that they will be more "in the mood" to tackle their dreaded task at a future date. Procrastinators are also susceptible to the planning fallacy, a cognitive bias which leads people to believe that they have more time to complete tasks than they ultimately do. Pychyl (2010) believes that overcoming procrastination involves creating habits to challenge these fallacies and face the discomfort or unpleasantness that the procrastinator is consciously or unconsciously avoiding.

A focus on the emotional underpinnings of procrastination helps explain the phenomenon of "self-handicapping," which has been cited as a cause of procrastination in several studies (Steel, 2007). Self-handicapping occurs when a person deliberately attempts to sabotage performing well on a task, with the goal of having an excuse (for example, running out of time) for less-than-perfect performance. This strategy, while dysfunctional in the long-term, provides a short-term method of preserving self-esteem in the face of possible failure. Although Steel could not find a direct relationship between procrastination and fear of failure in his meta-analysis, a more recent study (Haghbin, McCaffrey, and Pychyl, 2012) found that fear of failure predicted procrastination for individuals with a low sense of competence. For individuals with a strong sense of competence, however, a fear of failure may decrease procrastination as this fear may motivate such individuals to perform their best (Haghbin et al., 2012). These findings highlight the complexity of understanding procrastination among individuals.

First Step--Recognize the Type

As the research demonstrates, there are many roads to procrastination. However, in the authors' experience, workplace procrastination often follows a pattern. Managers may benefit from recognizing different types of office procrastinators, allowing interventions to be appropriately targeted to the underlying causes of this paradoxical behavior.

The first type is what we call the "undisciplined procrastinator." As Steel's (2007, 2010) research suggests, some procrastinators suffer from excessive impulsiveness or boredom-propensity that make unexciting and detailed-oriented work tasks highly susceptible to delay. These individuals have trouble maintaining their attention for a sustained period and deal with this limitation by avoiding tasks that need it. In addition, undisciplined procrastinators are unwilling to invest the time or concentration necessary to reflect on and prioritize their responsibilities. This disorganized mindset makes it difficult to break complex projects into more manageable subtasks, creating a feeling of being overwhelmed. Undisciplined procrastinators are particularly likely to justify their behavior by claiming to "work best under pressure." Finally, the general lack of conscientiousness of the undisciplined procrastinator makes his or her working style sloppy and prone to errors.

In our experience, the following are signs of an undisciplined procrastinator:

* The individual is generally calm and steady for long periods of time, but demonstrates shorts periods where work is performed at a frenetic pace.

* The individual spends more time complaining about an upcoming project than initiating action on the task.

* The individual has many excuses why a larger, more detailed-oriented project must be put on hold while he or she works on more trivial and less difficult activities.

* He or she continually seems unaware of where a current project stands in relation to its anticipated deadline. Of course, other behaviors can be expected due to the undisciplined procrastinator's lack of focus, order, and planning. This type of procrastinator may often be viewed as lazy, disorganized, unfocused, and not "giving their all" or "working up to their potential" in the workplace.

On the other hand, the "insecure procrastinator" suffers from a poor self-concept and lacks the ability to effectively regulate his or her negative emotions. These procrastinators are unsure of their ability to perform and are threatened by the prospect of receiving feedback from others. This lack of self-efficacy makes initiating tasks daunting. In addition, the insecure procrastinator often suffers from aversive emotional states, such as depression or generalized anxiety. To cope with such emotions, this procrastinator may seek the comfort of familiar and less threatening activities, or prefer tasks that do not entail a high risk of failure. The insecure procrastinator's inability to regulate his or her emotions results in a motivational paralysis, in which challenging tasks are either avoided or require "handholding." Self-handicapping is a favorite tool of the insecure procrastinator, particularly when performance will be evaluated by others.

The following are typical of the insecure procrastinator:

* The individual needs repeated reassurances, guarantees, or validation.

* He or she often requests to delay a task for the purposes of research or more thorough planning, even though such activities are unnecessary.

* The individual frequently downplays performance expectations.

* He or she often displays exaggerated signs of frustration and confusion.

Several patterns of behavior may resemble procrastination, but fail to meet the formal definition set out in this paper. For example the "well-intentioned over-extender" is a highly motivated and committed individual who seeks or accepts more responsibilities than he or she can effectively handle. As a result, the well-intentional person misses deadlines, abandons projects, or otherwise fails to meet performance expectations. However, these individuals are not (technically) procrastinating as they are not voluntarily delaying their initiation or execution of tasks. These individuals, however, may suffer from poor time-management skills or the inability to assertively express their time constraints. It is important for mangers to identify this problem, as these individuals may require different interventions from those described in the next section.

Finally, some dilatory behaviors may appear to be procrastination when, in fact, they represent efficient time management. Employees who appear to have a clear, valid rationale for delaying tasks, do not exhibit any of the emotional effects of the undisciplined or insecure types (for example high anxiety as deadlines approach, or expressions of low self-efficacy), and complete tasks on time and well (unlike the well-intentional, over-extender), may be best left to continue their preferred work style. It is the manager's responsibility to be attuned not only to the effects of procrastination, such as sloppy work or missed deadlines, but also to the behaviors of employees throughout the work process. It is important to be able to distinguish between varying, but efficient time management styles, and purposeful delay behaviors that are harmful to the individual and the team, department, or organization that rely on his or her performance.

Next Step--Intervene

Time management training. Perhaps the most widely used tool for dealing with procrastination is time management training. Typical elements of such a training program include the following (Claessens, van Eerde, Rutte, and Roe, 2007):

1) providing insights into where people spend their time;

2) helping individuals reallocate time to more important tasks;

3) encouraging daily planning (e.g., to-do lists);

4) methods for prioritizing; and

5) strategies for handling the unexpected.

Although Claessens et al. (2007) suggest that time management training often increases an individual's perception of time control and may lead to lower stress and higher job satisfaction, there is only weak evidence that it leads to higher job performance. While the well-intentioned over-extender may benefit from such training, we do not believe traditional time management training is an adequate intervention for most types of workplace procrastination. Such programs are not likely to rectify the impulsiveness of the undisciplined procrastinator, nor do they address the emotional challenges of the insecure procrastinator.

Nevertheless, there may be ways of crafting time management training to benefit the undisciplined procrastinator. As individuals often have a specific time of day when willpower peaks, Steel (2010) advises procrastinators to arrange for important tasks to be done during this time. In other words, training that teaches participants to identify and utilize these "internal prime times" is likely to benefit people with impulsive tendencies. Van Eerde (2003b) found a reduction in procrastination over a month-long period among participants of a time management training program that included this element. Moreover, identifying internal prime times requires developing of self-awareness on the part of the procrastinator, which may be beneficial in other ways, for example by shedding light on impulsive tendencies or focusing difficulties.

Other components of a training program that are likely to benefit an undisciplined procrastinator are mental contrasting and implementation intentions (Steel, 2010). Mental contrasting occurs when an individual imagines a desired future state and contrasts this with his or her present reality (Oettingen, Mayer, Sevincer, Stephens, Pak, and Hagenah, 2009). These psychological "reality checks" have been found to significantly improve goal commitment and to energize effort. Participants in a time management program might be asked to take some time to focus on the pride and satisfaction they would feel at having accomplished the tasks they have been delaying. Focusing on the positive consequences of a task may make them more in the present, thereby compensating for the undisciplined procrastinator's tendency to focus on short-term outcomes at the expense of longer-term ones. This mental imagery would immediately be followed by focusing on the gap between these goals and their current status. After goals are strengthened through contrasting, trainees should be encouraged to formulate implementation intentions--specific action plans that describe when, where, and how such goals will be accomplished (Gollwitzer, 1993). Pychyl (2010) and Steel (2010) both identify implementation intentions as a powerful self-help strategy, and other research suggests that they can improve self-regulation (Gollwitzer and Sheeran, 2006) and reduce task procrastination (Owens, Bowman, and Dill, 2008).

The insecure procrastinator, on the other hand, is likely to benefit from time management training augmented by a counseling-based approach, where the focus is on minimizing or eliminating the dysfunctional cognitions. Negative cognitions about oneself and others are a symptom of many procrastinators (McCown, Blake, and Keiser, 2012). In fact, Flett, Stainton, Hewitt, Sherry, and Lay (2012) argue there is a pattern of negative cognitions, beliefs, and ruminations that the authors refer to as "procrastination cognitions." Because such cognitions often create the negative emotions that the insecure procrastinator seeks to avoid, challenging them is likely to have therapeutic value. Specifically, these individuals are likely to benefit from highlighting past instances where he or she was successful at a similar task or received positive feedback. Such highlighting of past successes attributed to internal, controllable behaviors (rather than external, uncontrollable factors) may increase self-efficacy and reduce self-doubts about the person's abilities. Mindfulness training, in which individuals are encouraged to bring their attention into the present moment, may also alleviate some of the anxiety and depression that may be a result of excessive rumination on possible (negative) future outcomes (Sirois and Tosti, 2012). Recent research suggests that encouraging individuals to forgive themselves for prior acts of delay is likely to reduce negative affect and future procrastination (Wohl, Pychyl, and Bennett, 2010). However, this strategy should not be used on the undisciplined procrastinator, since it will serve to justify the dilatory behavior rather than alleviate the guilt associated with it.

Work environment interventions. Good job design, such as increasing the autonomy employees have to perform tasks, has been found to reduce workplace procrastination (Weymann, 1988). In fact, individuals who feel that their need for autonomy is not being met will respond by procrastinating more (Haghbin et al., 2012). Skowronski (2012) suggests that greater autonomy equips employees with the ability to make tasks more enjoyable and reduce boredom, which is often a precursor to procrastination. In addition, empowering employees with greater autonomy is likely to boost self-efficacy and confidence in job performance, resulting in feelings of accomplishment and control. As the insecure procrastinator suffers from a lack of self-confidence, increasing job autonomy is likely to be a particularly effective intervention for these employees.

In addition, work environments should be designed so that an individual's contribution and accountability are clear to all members of a group or department. By allowing a procrastinator's lack of progress to be hidden, for example if the person's task is less visible within the context of a greater project, or when group members aren't encouraged to collaborate on individual portions of a project, the workplace creates an opportunity for procrastination to exist with impunity. In addition, managers should actively reward those who exceed deadlines, highlighting the potential benefits (both to the individual and the group) of completing tasks ahead of schedule. The culture should reflect a focus on the well-being of the team and not reward behaviors that benefit individuals at the expense of others. It is also important to ensure that procrastination is not inadvertently glorified or reinforced. For example, an employee's ability to finish an important project the night before a big meeting should not be held up as evidence of that employee's "star quality"; projects that arise at the last minute and must be completed close to a deadline should be framed as an unpleasant exception rather than an acceptable modus operandi.

Employee screening. Finally, workplace procrastination may be reduced by explicitly screening for procrastination-related traits at the time of selection (Pearce, 2011), particularly in industries or environments where such behavior would be especially harmful (for example, where accuracy is paramount). Employees should be screened for conscientiousness and self-efficacy either by using validated personality inventories or through reference checks that explicitly include questions designed to address potential procrastination trouble areas. For example, when performing a reference check, one may ask not only whether the candidate was able to meet deadlines, but also how often he or she exceeded deadlines, or how the person's demeanor changed as deadlines approached.

Today's workplace is rife with distractions and reasons, real or perceived, to put off completing tasks. However, it is management's responsibility to address the procrastination tendencies of employees to avoid the performance-related, financial and reputational costs associated with inaccurate, incomplete, or poorly completed work. The typology outlined in this paper, along with specific strategies aimed at each type of procrastinator, gives managers new tools to tackle this harmful but all-too common human tendency.

Dr. Skowronski teaches organizational behavior, human resource management, and business communication. His research focuses on work stress, self-management, and counterproductive work behavior. Dr. Mirowska also teaches organizational behavior and human resource management. Her research interests include positive organizational behavior, emotion regulation, and self-management.

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Mark Skowronski, Ramapo College of New Jersey

Agata Mirowska, ESC Rennes School of Business
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Date:Jun 22, 2013
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