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Coming Back to Edmonton

March 10, 2016

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , (718) 398-7642,

Company newcomers compete with special intensity
against their former firms, study of hockey pros suggests

"I hated coming back to Edmonton to play...I never really felt comfortable. I always felt so much a part of the team and so much a part of the city.''

So said hockey great Wayne Gretzky a quarter century later about the sport's most famous trade – the 1988 deal that sent him to the Los Angeles Kings after he had four times led the Edmonton Oilers to hockey's most treasured prize, the Stanley Cup. In a newspaper interview 25 years to the day from the trade announcement, the star surmised that "I played maybe one good game [in Edmonton] after I left, and that was probably the All-Star Game when I got to play with all the guys again.”

Well, maybe. But in the season after the trade, Gretzky's Kings defeated Edmonton in the Stanley Cup playoffs, with Gretzky scoring a team-leading and team-record 13 points on goals and assists.

That achievement will come as no surprise to readers of "Coming Back to Edmonton: Competing with Former Employers and Colleagues," a new study that delves into the records of the National Hockey League to probe an issue of perennial concern to business managers, particularly in sectors where employees compete directly against individuals in rival firms or where there is frequent shuttling of staff between competitors, as in Silicon Valley. How do employees from competitors engage with their former companies? In a manner both conflicted and aggressive, the new research suggests.

In the words of the study in the April issue of the Academy of Management Journal, "individuals experience a conflict in their collective identity when they compete with their new employer against their former one." And so, "to reduce the conflict, individuals strengthen their identification with the new organization and de-identify with the former by competing harder against the former organization...exhibit[ing] more competitive behavior towards a former organization than towards a non-former organization."

At the same time, the study concludes, transplanted workers are likely to have qualms about competing with friends or colleagues they left behind, and so they mostly save their competitive juices for others in their former company. In the words of the study, "simultaneously identifying with former colleagues and the new organization does not result in an identity conflict [if the newcomers] direct their competitive behavior towards non-former colleagues in the competing organization."

Comments Thorsten Grohsjean of Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, who carried out the study with LMU colleagues Pascal Kober and Leon Zucchini, "Because of the difference in attitudes toward the former company and former colleagues, it makes sense for companies to hire not just single individuals from competitors but, if possible, entire teams. Interestingly, superstar though Wayne Gretzky was, the Kings traded not for him alone but for two of his teammates besides."

Based on data from the 2011-12 season of the National Hockey League, the new research consists of an analysis of checking, the most common defensive maneuver in the game, wherein a player rams into an opponent who is in possession of the puck in order to jar it loose. Checking is the study's measure of individual competitive intensity. As the authors explain, "in contrast to other measures, like goals, checks can be traced back to an individual's effort, rather than being the result of an overall team effort."

The study's sample consisted of all players active during the 2011-12 season who had been affiliated with more than one NHL team during their careers. Controlling for a variety of factors that can affect the amount of checking in a game (for example, whether the contest is against a divisional rival or is played at home or on the road), the researchers investigated players' checking patterns over the course of the season. All told, the analysis comprised some 430,000 observations, each of which conveyed the number of checks a player made against each player he faced in a single game. The number of checks per observation ranged from zero to four. Collectively the players in the sample accounted for 749 moves between teams and had an average of 2.33 previous NHL affiliations before joining their current clubs.

Players in the sample were found to do the most checking per game against skaters on former teams who had joined after their departures and so had never been their teammates. Compared to what amounted to a baseline group of hit recipients (opponents who neither had been teammates of players in the sample nor were currently on a former team of theirs), skaters in this group got rammed by sample members 10.8% more often.

Sample members did the least checking per game against ex-teammates who were no longer on the team where they played together, having moved to another club – 11.8% fewer hits than against baseline.

And at about baseline were hits against ex-teammates still playing for former teams, their status as ex-teammates serving to moderate the competitive zeal that players in the sample demonstrated against former clubs.

It was also found that the amount of checking against former teams and teammates tended to be highest in the year directly following departure before steadily receding in subsequent years and that checking levels tended to be higher the more years a player spent with a former club or teammate. The authors see the former finding as stemming from the need of transplanted players to prove their value to new teams and the latter as reflecting the increased difficulty of what they call de-identification. As they explain, "De-identification becomes more difficult the longer an individual has stayed with a former organization [so that] individuals show more competitive behavior when they face an organization in which they had a longer tenure."

Somewhat to the researchers' surprise, checking was not found to be significantly related to the circumstances of players' departure – whether they initiated the moves (typically as free agents), were traded, or were laid off. While the players in the last group tended to play more aggressively than others against their former teams, the difference was not statistically significant

In short, competing intensity, as it emerges in this study, is much more a matter of career and identity pressures than anger or desire for vengeance.

In conclusion, the authors see the study as having valuable implications for management practice. "When firms hire employees from competitors," they write, "they not only gain human and social capital but can also expect the new employees to work particularly hard when competing against their former employers... Consequently, employees who have recently moved might be the most appropriate to compete with former employers, since they show more competitive behavior towards their former organization and not yet less competitive behavior towards former colleagues. Individuals who have been with the new firm for some time can be staffed as if they had never worked for the competitor, but only if they do not have to compete against former colleagues."

The paper, “Coming Back to Edmonton: Competing with Former Employers and Colleagues” is in the April/May issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 123 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.

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