BYU professor ghost hunting for organizational ghosts

Oct 27, 2023, 7:00 PM

A BYU professor has been hunting organizational ghosts for over a decade. (Canva)...

A BYU professor has been hunting organizational ghosts for over a decade. (Canva)


PROVO— A BYU professor has been hunting ghosts for over a decade. More specifically, he’s been hunting and studying organizational ghosts.

What is an organizational ghost and how do they affect me?

Associate professor of management Jeff Bednar explained that organizational ghosts are individuals who have such an important impact on an organization that even when they leave, their legacy remains.

“As a result, they’re able to continue to have a really profound influence on the way people go about their jobs, the way they make decisions, the way they approach their work,” he said.

These organizational ghosts often influence us as we make daily decisions. They can influence others through the memories we have with them, or imagining how they would act if they were in our shoes.

Bednar said these ghosts influence us when we ask questions such as:

  • What would [this individual] do?
  • If [this individual] were in this situation, I think they would approach it this way
  • [This person] would be spinning in their grave if they knew I made this decision

These ghosts can be powerful in helping us make decisions, which Bednar said is connected with how they lived when they were near us.

“Part of the reason they continue to be influential after they were gone is because they were extremely influential when they were around,” he said.

Why are organizational ghosts important?

One of the most important factors of organizational ghosts relates to the company culture they leave behind.

Bednar said that new leaders will benefit if they know about an organization’s ghosts. Mainly because they will be better informed to make decisions that relate to the company’s values and culture, and build relationships with existing employees.

“As new leaders enter a new role, the decisions that they make are being judged by new followers,” said Bednar. “And the standard by which they’re being judged is often a previous leader who people revere.”

Bednar and his colleague Jacob Brown from the University of Illinois conducted a large part of their research as they observed two companies merging together. It was in their interviews, observations, and study of the history of these companies that they began to fully understand the impact of organizational ghosts.

“[Organizational ghosts] were really having this important influence on the culture and the way leaders were approaching decisions, and the way new leaders were accepted,” Bednar explained.

On a personal level, he said these ghosts can go unnoticed, but often have great influence on our day-to-day decisions.

“They often operate in the background, shaping in the present the way that we think, the way that we feel, the way that we act, and the way that we make decisions.”

He said most all of us have organizational ghosts, or mentors, in our pasts who continue to play important roles in how we approach decision making in the present. These ghosts play a role in creating an intersection between past, present, and the future.

“Being able to appreciate and be aware of those influences in the past that are shaping our decision making in the present, enable us- I think- to create and navigate an uncertain future in really important ways.”

What’s next?

Bednar said they will now be working to create informational guides for new managers and leaders so they can better understand these organizational ghosts and be successful in their leadership goals.

He is also planning to travel to Oxford Univeristy in the Spring to continue his research, specifically focusing on how long organizational ghosts can last and create an influence on others.

Bednar and Brown’s research was recently published in the Academy of Management Journal, detailing their process and findings.

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BYU professor ghost hunting for organizational ghosts