DBA Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Stephen Humphrey

Meet Dr. Stephen Humphrey, Professor and Alvin H. Clemens Professor of Management at Smeal. Explore his practical approach to teaching the Seminar in Organizational Research Design course for Penn State Smeal Executive DBA students. Learn about his goals to help students think differently, develop problem-solving tools, and increase scientific literacy. Find out why understanding social interactions at work is crucial and how his research contributes to finding solutions. Visit his Smeal Directory profile for further information.

Dr. Stephen Humphrey, Alvin H. Clemens Professor of Management.



Some of the best and brightest minds in business call Smeal their professional home. Our faculty's contributions to teaching and research are heard around the world. And their commitment to partnering with our students is seen, heard, and experienced in our classrooms and beyond. 

Here, we introduce you to Dr. Stephen Humphrey, Professor, Alvin H. Clemens Professor of Management.

What DBA course(s) are you teaching?

MGMT 591: Seminar in Organizational Research Design

What are you excited to cover/explore and why?

This class is fundamentally about teaching students to build highly valid, highly valuable research. If one of the fundamental reasons why a student is pursuing a DBA is that they want to learn how to be an applied scholar, understanding how to transform a research question into a high validity research design is at the core.

What I love about this class is that we get to tackle the core, underlying principles of research design. Students get to think about fundamental tradeoffs, with the concurrent threats to validity, embedded in all studies. All of this then flows toward helping them design their own research questions and their own research studies. It’s a really practical class, which is one of the things I really enjoy about it.

What are some of your main goals/expectations as a professor to DBA students?

The Smeal College of Business is fundamentally an applied school (with applied disciplines,  such as management, resident within). Although some of us can–and occasionally do–pursue “basic” research, the purpose of our school is to answer questions relevant to today’s businesses. The DBA gives us the opportunity to truly live the “engaged scholarship” mantra, working with people facing real problems at work, and having the power, status, and ability to fix those problems. As a professor, I want to help the students to develop the tools to fix those problems.

This means that my goal is for the students to bring their own lives, experiences, and challenges into the classroom, giving us the opportunity to work together to find solutions.

My biggest challenge to the students is for them to be prepared to think differently. In the corporate world, leaders are focused on solving their own problems, finding solutions to issues resident in their team, department, division, or organization. In the DBA, we are going to ask you to think not just about your own lives, but to think about how to translate your experiences and challenges to a broader audience. This means the questions they must face are not limited to “how do you solve the challenges you are currently facing?”, but instead they must consider first “how would this problem translate to other organizations” before trying to answer “how do we create general solutions to this challenge?”

But, of course, my biggest goal is that our students walk away from our program with an increase in scientific literacy, which will help them become intelligent consumers of science– an under-appreciated skill (and one sorely lacking in society)–which will give each of our students an advantage in their work while also helping them add value to society more broadly. 

How would you summarize your research expertise?

Generally speaking, my area of expertise is social relations, meaning that I care deeply about understanding how people interact at work. My research questions have primarily focused on teamwork and leadership issues, but I am fascinated by interpersonal interactions broadly. This means that I have also tackled questions around negotiation, work design, reputation formation, interpersonal conflict, trust, and power.

Why is it important to you?

Despite the interest of some to live a socially disconnected life, the vast majority of work requires interaction between (sometimes many) people. We create teams because work cannot be effectively or efficiently done by individuals alone. We create multiteam systems because a single team cannot address the problem. We create organizations to help pool resources, standardize processes, and otherwise get more than a set of individuals (or teams) can do on their own. Work is therefore fundamentally a social relations problem.

And everyone has dozens of stories about social relations gone wrong. I had my Executive MBA students write two papers a few years back: tell me a story of a team that went well, and tell me a story of a team that went poorly. Every one of these students had many stories about teams that went poorly, whereas some students (with 20+ years of work experience) had to refer back to childhood sports teams to come up with a positive story about teamwork in their own life.

Put simply, many organizations fail miserably at the human side of work - what we call “organizing.” Because it turns out that a person is complex, and “people” (any group of individuals) are infinitely more complex. This complexity is what excites me about research in social relations, making finding solutions that much more worthwhile.
How would you describe your research approach?

I am primarily a quantitative scholar, who couples a realist ontology with a logical positivist epistemology. Right now, I can feel the reader’s eyes glazing over with that answer, so let me try a different answer.

I like to study teams in action. I usually start with a messy or complex situation and try to extract one solvable problem - one research question that can be answered. I am an empiricist, which means that I want to get data to help answer the questions (rather than just theorize about the potential solutions). And I’m an applied scholar, which means that I want my findings to be translatable back to the “real world.”

What was the most helpful advice you’ve received from a professor/manager that still holds true?

Early on in my career, I was told that the key to success was to do my job well, and don’t be a jerk - well, the word used there was a little stronger. I’ve always appreciated that advice because it helps me focus on two components of my work identity that I think are important: being a great employee and being a great colleague. I recognize that many people have succeeding ignoring the second component, but I take pride in succeeding the harder way – being great at my job while not running roughshod over everyone in the way.

View Stephen's Smeal Directory profile