HBR’s Most-Read Research Articles of 2021


What will it take to make work better? Over the past year, HBR has published a wide array of research-backed articles that explore topics ranging from retaining employees to overcoming meeting overload to fostering gender equity in the workplace. In this end-of-year roundup, we share key insights and trends from our most-read research articles of 2021.

As the workplace rapidly transforms in the wake of the pandemic, social movements, and more, a fundamental question remains: How can we ensure we’re making work better — for employees, organizations, and society at large?

Over the past year, HBR has published a wide array of research-backed articles exploring that question, looking at everything from retaining employees to overcoming meeting overload to fostering gender equity in the workplace. With the year coming to an end, we decided to take a look at what resonated most with our readers in 2021. Our most visited articles include a broad range of ideas, but several distinct trends emerged:

Managing Through the Great Resignation

Our two most-read research articles from the past year both focus on one of the biggest issues on all our minds: the Great Resignation. In Who Is Driving the Great Resignation?, data from nine million employees at 4,000 companies around the world sheds light on which segments of the global economy have experienced the most resignations. It turns out that rates have been highest among mid-career employees, and among those in the health care and tech sectors. The article recommends that firms take a data-driven approach to boosting retention by quantifying the problem, identifying the root causes that are driving employees to leave, and developing tailored retention programs.

A related piece, Research: Why Rejected Internal Candidates End Up Quitting, explores a common driver of resignations: If an internal candidate is passed up for a new opportunity, research shows that they are more than twice as likely to quit shortly thereafter. Of course, not every internal candidate is the right fit for the job, so what can organizations do to encourage internal applicants while still making the necessary hiring decisions? The authors found that rejected internal candidates were half as likely to quit if they interviewed with a hiring manager, or if they were passed over for another internal candidate, since these signals suggested that even though they didn’t get the promotion this time, their candidacy was taken seriously. In other words, even if an employee is rejected today, they are more likely to stick around if they feel they have a good chance of advancing tomorrow.

What Employees Want (and Need) to Thrive

Of course, convincing people not to quit is really just the bare minimum. Three of this year’s most read research-based articles explore what it takes for employees to not just stick around, but to thrive at work. What Your Future Employees Want Most discusses survey data suggesting that people want flexibility, diversity, and success metrics that prioritize value over volume. Another piece looks at what employees really mean when they say they want flexibility and suggests that especially in the hybrid era, what they’re often talking about is autonomy. To offer employees the autonomy they need, the authors argue that firms must establish principles, not policies; invest in developing employees and fostering a sense of belonging; and provide employees with the tools they need to succeed.

Similarly, the authors of Research: What Do People Need to Perform at a High Level? leveraged survey data from more than 14,000 U.S. workers to determine the practices and cultural norms that help organizations best support their employees. Their analysis revealed that people perform best when firms provide clear expectations, are open to questions, don’t have too many rules, support creative problem solving, reward strong performance, acknowledge employees’ emotions, and provide a clear sense of purpose.

Tips and Tricks to Improve the Workplace

Our readers also showed a strong interest in tactical, research-backed tips and tricks that both managers and employees can use to improve life at work. The Psychology Behind Meeting Overload describes six psychological pitfalls that lead us to schedule and attend too many meetings, and offers strategies to help us overcome them. For example, a phenomenon known as “Pluralistic Ignorance” often leads people to assume that they’re the only ones who feel that a meeting is a waste of time, even if everyone secretly agrees it’s useless. To address this bias, the authors suggest that leaders should proactively encourage feedback, and that they should use that feedback to regularly identify and eliminate unproductive meetings.

While meeting overload is a perennial problem, there are many workplace challenges that have been particularly amplified by the pandemic. For instance, organizations that have taken a financial hit may be searching for ways to motivate their employees without breaking the bank. In Research: A Little Recognition Can Provide a Big Morale Boost, the authors find that symbolic rewards such as thank-you notes, small gifts, or public recognition can be an effective complement to monetary compensation. They suggest that to maximize impact, firms should consider the best messenger and timing, make it public, pay attention to details, and remember that a small gesture can make a big difference. 

Limited resources and new modes of working have also forced many employees to take on additional informal leadership responsibilities. While these duties can be a valuable form of professional development, Research: Informal Leadership Comes at a Cost suggests that without effective support, informal leadership can be energy-depleting and harm employees’ performance. To minimize these downsides, the authors argue that managers should provide leadership coaching, clear expectations, and a healthy pipeline of informal leaders to minimize the burden on any individual employee. At the same time, they recommend that informal leaders themselves should proactively monitor and protect their own energy levels in order to recognize and prevent burnout before it becomes a serious problem.

Gender at Work

The last trend we identified was a consistent interest in research-backed insights around gender in the workplace — both the myriad benefits of gender equity, and the ways in which systemic inequity continues to hold women back. Interestingly, the two top-performing pieces described below also both leverage machine learning to analyze large, qualitative datasets and glean insights that might otherwise be inaccessible, highlighting the growing role of AI tools in management research.

First, Research: Adding Women to the C-Suite Changes How Companies Think describes the results of an in-depth study of 163 companies that looked at M&A activity, R&D investment rates, and an automated linguistic analysis of corporate documents over 13 years. The study found that after women join the C-suite, companies become more open to change and less open to risk, leading them to shift their focus from M&A to R&D. Researchers further found these effects were strongest when women were well-integrated into the top management team, which was more likely if there were already women in the C-suite and if there were fewer total new appointees.

Finally, while it’s been established that male employees tend to advance faster than female employees, quantifying the root factors driving this disparity can be challenging. In Research: Men Get More Actionable Feedback Than Women, researchers share the results of a machine learning analysis conducted on more than a thousand pieces of open-ended feedback given to employees. The analysis found that men were encouraged to set a vision, leverage politics, assert their space, and display more confidence, while women were encouraged to focus on execution, cope with politics, get along with others, and be more confident. This suggests that even if it is ostensibly positive, feedback provided to women tends to be less actionable and less useful for leadership progression than feedback given to men.

Ultimately, the blessing and the curse of research is its specificity. While we may seek clear, cut-and-dry answers, a research-backed approach forces us to acknowledge the nuance and limitations of our own understanding. But as we look towards a new and hopefully brighter year, it’s reassuring to remember that there’s no shortage of data-driven insights to guide our policies, strategies, and choices — if only we’re patient and openminded enough to consider them.

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