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Mike Christian: Understanding the mind-body connection at work

Professor Michael Christian - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business SchoolMike Christian had to literally weather the storm before he truly found himself.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Christian was studying for his PhD in industrial organizational psychology at Tulane University. In the aftermath of the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, the city prepared to rebuild and Christian – having lost all his possessions – reflected on his next step.

A different road called to Christian, now an associate professor of organizational behavior and Sarah Graham Kenan Scholar at UNC Kenan-Flagler. He went to the University of Arizona, where he finished his PhD in management. “Psychology was a fundamental way to understand management,” says Christian. “I thought I would flourish more in business school.”

“When I look back, if I had not had what I thought was a devastating experience – Katrina – I might not have ended up at UNC Kenan-Flagler, where I now consider home,” he says.

Christian’s motivation for studying psychology grew from his experiences in business. From 1999 to 2003 he managed a upscale restaurant in San Francisco, which was experiencing big economic highs during the dot-com bubble. When the bubble burst in 2000, the restaurant faced significant losses and had to make big changes. While his team won an award from the San Francisco Bay Guardian for their efforts, Christian was left with memories of his mistakes and questions about how to effectively adapt to change.

Katrina and his experiences with managing change are what influence Christian’s research today. Human energy is the main focus of his work. “How do we maintain and replenish energy in the face of stresses at work or at the times when we don’t feel well physically?” he asks.

Christian has found that employees’ finite amount of energy can be sapped by factors such as sleep deprivation, pain and self-control. When their energy is low, people are more likely to behave inappropriately and make unethical decisions, Christian’s research shows.

“Good people sometimes do bad things because they are not feeling their best and have less self-control,” he says. “It takes more effort to do the right thing. Your physical state can lead to small, unethical transgressions. Once you get started on this path, it could lead to bigger ones.”

Christian has studied this slippery slope of unethical behavior, citing Bernie Madoff as an example. Jayson Blair, The New York Times reporter caught in a plagiarism scandal, wrote a letter to Christian agreeing with the research and mentioned that he had found justifying his behavior easy when he didn’t get caught, which led to a vicious cycle. The validation was meaningful to Christian, who hopes Blair includes the research and lessons learned in the lectures he now gives on journalistic ethics.

The takeaway for managers is to focus more on the well-being and health of employees because it matters to the bottom line. Besides the fact that a lack of well-being can lead to lapses in judgment, stress is costly too, with higher rates of absenteeism and loss of productivity.

Christian applies these ideas about business to the way he teaches his courses. “A good teacher needs to do his best to teach individual students,” he says. He tries to interact with his students and learn about their career goals and interests.

His research and teaching have garnered attention and honors. Poets & Quants named Christian a “Best 40 Under 40” professor, and the Association for Psychological Science honored him as a “Rising Star.” He received grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the study of ethics and the John Templeton Foundation for the study of imagination and creativity.

A number of courses at UNC Kenan-Flagler have Christian’s stamp on them. He teaches undergraduates and MBAs about group and team dynamics. An MBA core course and an Executive Development program on resilient leadership are built on his research, offering lessons in being more mindful and harnessing the power of personal energy.

Playing a role in the MBA Leadership Immersion, an immersive capstone elective in the full-time program, is a special experience for Christian. He and colleague Matt Pearsall help students hone their leadership skills with a challenging set of experiences and simulations, allowing students to learn by doing.

In a past Immersion challenge, students worked with the Phil Ford Foundation, which aims to combat childhood obesity. They served as managers of a basketball event and created the “MBA NBA.” Students recruited players for six teams and coached them, planned a tournament, sold tickets, managed concessions and promoted the event. They raised nearly $7,000 for the foundation.

“There were times of conflict and times of great accomplishment,” says Christian. “In other words, it was like the real world.” He appreciates collaborating with his colleagues, including leadership development director Mindy Storrie, who orchestrates all of the Leadership Immersion experiences. “I’m just one piece of the puzzle,” says Christian.

One of his favorite courses is an introduction to organizational behavior for PhD students in which he teaches how to conduct research and contribute to scholarship. “I have a passion for teaching, but I’m a scientist at heart,” says Christian. His dedication earned him the Weatherspoon Award for Excellence in PhD teaching in 2016.

“Mike has been such a great addition to UNC Kenan-Flagler,” says Dave Hofmann, Hugh L. McColl Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and senior associate dean for academic affairs. “From award-winning research to award winning-teaching and beyond, Mike contributes to the School in so many ways. In addition to impacting students in such meaningful ways, having individuals like Mike on our faculty helps us recruit great scholars because – through his collaboration with others – he makes everyone better.”

Bringing work home isn’t a problem for Christian, who also credits Hurricane Katrina with helping him meet his wife, Jessica Siegel Christian – who is now also a UNC Kenan-Flagler professor. “It’s awesome to have someone at home who understands what I’m doing at work,” says Christian. “We get each other.”

Their family grew with the arrival of their son in 2015. “Asher is the joy of my life,” says Christian. “He’s becoming a little person, and it’s amazing to watch him grow up.” Playing with his son and spending quality time with family – including his parents, who moved to Chapel Hill – are especially important to him.

That family time includes outdoor activities. “Our son instantly calms down when he’s outside,” Christian says. Indeed, the professor himself is pretty athletic – he can be found playing basketball with undergraduates at the gym. “It’s quite a challenge for me,” he says. “I come home with a lot of bruises.”

But if anyone can take it, it’s Christian. He’s also worked as a tennis instructor, a guard at a rink (when he didn’t know how to ice skate), a telemarketer for a low-budget magic show and a ski bum in Bozeman, Montana. Those experiences might well provide a lifetime of fodder for research projects in his quest to understand the mind-body connection at work.