Some businesses employ people whose sole job is to skirt, or even brazenly violate, ethics and the law. These employees occupy informal, “illicit roles” within their organizations, and are often obscured from public view.
Examples of these roles include a fixer at a law firm (like George Clooney’s eponymous character in the film “Michael Clayton”) or an international business executive tasked with bribing local government officials.
The legal and ethical risks of such roles are obvious, but what risks emerge when one of these illicit role members unexpectedly leaves the organization? New research co-written by a Johns Hopkins Carey Business School professor suggests that teams organized with illicit role occupants are more vulnerable and less resilient than teams without them.
The paper is entitled “Shady Characters: The Implications of Illicit Organizational Roles for Resilient Team Performance” and is co-authored by Carey Business School Assistant Professor Colleen Stuart and Celia Moore, an associate professor at Bocconi University in Italy; it is forthcoming at the Academy of Management Journal.
The researchers reached their conclusions by studying data from the National Hockey League. Stuart says sports provide insight into team performance because of the access to real-time, quantifiable data like individual statistics and team wins and losses.
The NHL was chosen over other sports because of the presence of an informal, illicit role occupant called “the enforcer,” a team member whose principal duties include fighting players on opposing teams and engaging in other violent and illegal behavior.
“Hockey is also a nice setting because these teams are built to withstand changes in composition,” Stuart said. “Players get injured all the time; there are a lot of redundancies built into these teams.”
The findings might surprise hockey fans: despite their lack of contribution on the scoreboard, an injury to an enforcer disrupted team performance more than some formal, core roles, like team captain and centers. Perhaps more surprising: the loss of an enforcer and that of a goaltender, perhaps the single most important player on a team, have almost the same effect on team performance.
The study also presents two additional findings: teams that choose to replace enforcers with a substitute enforcer tend to recover slower than teams that don’t; and the enforcer’s experience with the team and in the role can exacerbate the effect.
Using this data, the researchers believe they can understand more about how illicit role occupants in other contexts impact team performance.
In doing so, the researchers posit a few theories for these results. The first theory is that illicit role occupants are harder to replace because their jobs are informal and highly specialized, leading to a dearth of competent replacements within the team structure.
Because of the illicit nature of the role, the researchers argue discretion is necessary. As such, the transfer of knowledge between an illicit role occupant and a formal role occupant about the nature of the work is limited.
“Illicit role occupants may be kept separate from the organization’s core work to protect other members from associated risks,” the paper states. Later adding: “When an illicit role occupant leaves a team, it will be less clear who (if anyone) will take on his or her responsibilities.”
Further, the researchers found that experience matters. The longer an enforcer is with the team, the more disruptive his loss is. The study also shows that when teams choose to replace an enforcer with another enforcer, the rate of recovery is further slowed.
On the surface, these findings may suggest illicit role occupants are valuable to team success. But the researchers have a more nuanced conclusion: the dramatic effect felt by losing one of these team members exposes the organization to unnecessary performance dips — having an illicit role occupant, makes your team more vulnerable and less resilient to that person’s departure.
“An analogy to help illustrate the relationship of an enforcer with his NHL team is to think of them as safety blankets: it may be initially painful when they go away, but they might not have been needed in the first place,” the paper states.
The researchers do acknowledge, however, that in some contexts, “sustained performance may depend on illicit roles more than we would like to admit.”
“We are not saying that having someone who specializes in doing bad things is going to necessarily make your team better. But once teams become dependent on these members, illicit role occupants may be needed to maintain a certain level of performance,” Stuart said.