Relational Architecture at Work: How Social Characteristics of Work Affect Attitudes, Behaviors, and Careers

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Wrzesniewski, Amy


An important feature of most work is that individuals are connected to others and embedded in larger organizational systems. Yet, classic work design theories and research have tended to focus on individuals in relation to their own tasks, neglecting the social context of work. In this dissertation, I expand on the social characteristics of work design and their effects on individuals’ attitudes, behaviors, and career outcomes. In three distinct empirical settings, I identify new relational mechanisms that affect individuals’ experiences at work, across a range of short- and long-term outcomes. In the first study, I focus on individuals’ relative positions in the organization’s pay curve and their physical proximity to other coworkers as drivers of how social referents are formed at work. Leveraging field data from a firm that dramatically increased the minimum salary level for its employees and an online experiment, I unpack the social comparison process in which employees engage. Contrary to expectations that raising pay for the entire workforce will yield a universally positive affective response from employees, my findings suggest that those “stuck” in the middle of the pay curve and those sitting near coworkers who benefitted the most have particularly negative reactions. In the second study, I build and test theory about how career choices are shaped by the social structure and context of the initial exposures individuals have to different types of work. Whereas prior studies on employer-job seeker interactions have focused on understanding the kinds of knowledge and information that are acquired through early exchanges, I show that the architecture of how early exposures are provided is also consequential. Using interviews and detailed archival data collected from an elite private medical school in the US, I find that the order in which clerkships are taken has a considerable effect on students’ ultimate specialty choice; specifically, the specialty students experienced first (among semi-randomly assigned clerkships) was more likely to be chosen as their final specialty, even after controlling for initial interests and despite their tendencies to avoid rotating into their preferred specialty first. In the third study, I examine workplace relationships, particularly individuals who work closely with a colleague. I theorize that these coworkers have both a direct effect on an individual’s career outcomes through the exchange of tangible and intangible resources, and an indirect effect due to the psychological associations that are triggered in the eyes of organizational decision-makers who must allocate credit for collaborative work. A unique dataset of Mexico City police officers and their quasi-random assignment to patrol partners allows us to disentangle the two pathways while controlling for endogeneity in how relationships are formed. I find that there are trade-offs to working with partners who occupy high-status positions. While high-status partners bring benefits through the access they create to high quality learning, they also bring costs of affiliation with high-visibility others that can result in less credit being assigned to the self. Taken together, this dissertation advances our understanding of individuals’ experiences at work, with an emphasis on the interpersonal and social nature of work and organizational life. It offers insights into the ways that different social dimensions of work influence employees and the organizations that they are part of, contributing to research in work design, careers, and employment relationships.

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