Ethan S. Bernstein

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

Ethan Bernstein is an Assistant Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the Harvard Business School. He teaches the first-year MBA course in Leadership and Organizational Behavior (LEAD) and a PhD course on the craft of field research. His teaching and research address topics related to leadership, collaboration, teamwork, design thinking, and learning in organizations.

Professor Bernstein’s work has been published in journals including Administrative Science Quarterly, Harvard Business Review, Research on Organizational Change and DevelopmentCornell Law Review, and the Stanford Journal of Law, Business, and Finance, and it has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington PostThe New York TimesThe Boston GlobeNPRInc.ForbesFast CompanyBusinessweek, MSNBC’s Bottom LineYahoo! FinanceEsquireUnited HemispheresNikkei BusinessNikkei ShimbunLe MondeMaeil Business (Korea), and TEDx Boston, among others. His research has won awards including the inaugural J. Richard Hackman Dissertation Award, the Academy of Management’s 2013 Outstanding Publication in Organizational Behavior award, the Academy of Management’s 2013 Best Publication in Organization and Management Theory award, the Academy of Management's 2014 Best Paper Based on a Dissertation Award, the INGRoup 2014 Best Paper award, the 2013 Fredric M. Jablin Doctoral Dissertation Award from the International Leadership Association, the HBS Wyss Award, and the Susan G. Cohen Doctoral Research Award.

Ethan Bernstein is an Assistant Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the Harvard Business School. He teaches the first-year MBA course in Leadership and Organizational Behavior (LEAD) and a PhD course on the craft of field research. His teaching and research address topics related to leadership, collaboration, teamwork, design thinking, and learning in organizations.

Professor Bernstein’s work has been published in journals including Administrative Science Quarterly, Harvard Business Review, Research on Organizational Change and DevelopmentCornell Law Review, and the Stanford Journal of Law, Business, and Finance, and it has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York TimesThe Boston Globe, NPR, Inc.Forbes, Fast Company, Businessweek, MSNBC’s Bottom LineYahoo! FinanceEsquireUnited Hemispheres, Nikkei Business, Nikkei Shimbun, Le Monde, Maeil Business (Korea), and TEDx Boston, among others. His research has won awards including the inaugural J. Richard Hackman Dissertation Award, the Academy of Management’s 2013 Outstanding Publication in Organizational Behavior award, the Academy of Management’s 2013 Best Publication in Organization and Management Theory award, the Academy of Management's 2014 Best Paper Based on a Dissertation Award, the INGRoup 2014 Best Paper award, the 2013 Fredric M. Jablin Doctoral Dissertation Award from the International Leadership Association, the HBS Wyss Award, and the Susan G. Cohen Doctoral Research Award.

In his current research, Professor Bernstein examines how, and under what conditions, privacy makes groups more productive—and specifically how the sharing of information across and within boundaries affects learning, innovation, and organizational performance. In a world obsessed with transparency, his findings suggest that boundaries may sometimes provide unanticipated benefits and be an underutilized managerial performance lever. Put differently, attention matters for performance, and boundaries can be strategically important in directing it. 

Professor Bernstein earned his doctorate in management at Harvard, where he also received a JD/MBA degree. While a doctoral student, he was a Kauffman Foundation Fellow in Law, Innovation, and Growth, and he remains a member of the New York and Massachusetts Bar Associations. He holds an AB in Economics from Amherst College, which included study at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Prior to joining the faculty, Professor Bernstein spent a half-decade at The Boston Consulting Group in Toronto and Tokyo. Tapped by Elizabeth Warren to join the implementation team at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he spent nearly two years in executive positions, including Chief Strategy Officer and Deputy Assistant Director of Mortgage Markets, at the newest United States federal agency.

In addition to his organizational behavior courses, Professor Bernstein has taught a wide range of topics and students, including Accounting and Finance in the HBS MBA Analytics program, Operations at the Samsung Premier Leadership Development Program, Economics at Harvard College, and the Business Leadership Program at HBS.

Professor Bernstein is a self-declared culinary adventurer and avid cyclist, runner, skier, reader, and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me listener. Originally from Los Angeles, he lives in Newton with his wife, Maly (HBS MBA 2006), and young son.

  1. Overview

    by Ethan S. Bernstein

    Professor Bernstein’s research is currently focused on the relationship between transparency and productivity in organizations. He seeks to understand how observability affects learning, innovation, and performance—for both the observer and the observed.

    In the name of collaboration, organizations have striven for transparency in the workplace, literally tearing down walls in an effort to let managers and employees observe each other. Despite transparency’s broad appeal (at least to the observer), we know very little about how transparent observation—by managers, peers, subordinates, customers, the public—impacts performance.

    What if there’s a downside to all of this transparent observation? For example, when observed, we tend to put pressure on ourselves to meet the expectations of our observers—something we can do in a multitude of ways with different consequences for productivity.

    Drawing on field experiments, laboratory experiments, and qualitative field work, this developing body of research, representing collaborations across faculties and institutions, is increasingly finding a home in the organically emerging HBS “Transparency Lab.” Below are selected contributions by Professor Bernstein (past and forthcoming) to that growing body of research.

    Keywords: privacy; transparency; Field Experiments; Lab Experiments; China; manufacturing; organizational learning; Operational Control; Chinese Manufacturing; Interpersonal Communication; Design; Governance; Governance Controls; Government Administration; Innovation and Invention; Law; Management; Organizations; Organizational Design; Organizational Culture; Organizational Change and Adaptation; Performance; Groups and Teams; Networks; Social and Collaborative Networks; Strategy; Theory; Manufacturing Industry; Technology Industry; Service Industry; Consulting Industry; Financial Services Industry; Banking Industry; Bicycle Industry; Consumer Products Industry; Electronics Industry; Industrial Products Industry; Video Game Industry; Retail Industry; Legal Services Industry; Biotechnology Industry; United States; China; Japan; Taiwan; Korean Peninsula; Europe;

  2. Transparency, Organizational Learning, and Operational Control: Do Zones of Privacy Make Us More Productive?

    by Ethan S. Bernstein

    Transparency, or accurate observability, of an organization’s low-level activities, routines, behaviors, output, and performance provides the foundation of both organizational learning and operational control. Yet, in a world obsessed with transparency, Professor Bernstein’s first significant finding was that boundaries to transparent observation may sometimes provide unanticipated benefits, and may in fact be an underutilized managerial performance lever.

    Using data from embedded participant-observers and a field experiment at the world’s second-largest mobile phone factory (located in China), he found that transparency on the factory floor systematically reduced workers’ performance by 10 to 15 percent as they concealed their activities through codes and other costly means. This finding indicates that creating zones of privacy may, under certain conditions, increase performance. In addition, in a curious phenomenon Professor Bernstein defines as the “transparency paradox,” he finds that less transparent work environments can yield more transparent employees. Those results have been replicated in an increasingly wide range of contexts—from technology companies to retail organizations to knowledge work.

    By balancing workplace transparency and privacy, organizations can avoid the “transparency trap” by encouraging just the right amount of “deviance” to foster innovative behavior and boost productivity. Successful companies do this by creating four specific types of privacy boundaries: around teams of people (zones of attention), between feedback and evaluation (zones of judgment), between decision rights and improvement rights (zones of slack), and for set periods of experimentation (zones of time). On-going research continues to dive deeper into how to most productively implement these zones of privacy.

  3. Transparency and Problem Solving: Does Privacy Improve Problem Solving in Networked Search?

    by Ethan S. Bernstein

    If you wanted to design an organizational structure to optimize problem-solving prowess, how would you do it? Would you design perfect transparency (everyone observing everyone), or would you include boundaries for individual or sub-team privacy? In a set of problem-solving lab experiments involving a Clue-like mystery game, Professor Bernstein and his colleagues asked individuals in 16-person organizations to solve problems, recording both their activities and their performance (individually and collectively). Different 16-person organizations solved the same problems but under different degrees of transparency and with varying success. In the end, boundaries played an important role in performance. For example, transparency benefited fact-finding but hindered the process of accurately interpreting those facts develop correct theories/answers.

    Professor Bernstein continues to explore how the structure of communication networks can affect the balance between innovative and imitative thinking. Understanding this dynamic is the first step in balancing the need for the system to share information rapidly so that individuals have all the information necessary to solve the problem, and the need to preserve a diversity of theories among participants in order to make the interpretation of information effective.

  4. Transparency and Creative Knowledge Work

    by Ethan S. Bernstein

    We have assumed that taking down walls in high-value, high-talent workplaces like architectural firms, biotech laboratories, and health-care operations will improve output by generating more interdisciplinary collaboration. The results above, however, suggest there may be hidden costs to interdisciplinary transparency. When observed, human beings tend to try to meet the expectations of those observing them, and yet in these creative, knowledge-intensive environments, it may be the most unexpected, weird-looking idea that solves a dilemma or saves a life. What is the net effect? Do these environments work the same or differently than the manufacturing and problem-solving environments above?

  5. Transparency and “Flat” Self-Governed Organizations

    by Ethan S. Bernstein

    An increasing number of organizations, including several recently in the press, are adopting “flat,” manager-less, self-governed organizational structures. When hierarchy is flattened and bureaucracy is dissolved, peer observation can become far more important as a governing constraint. 

    Does transparency, in the absence of hierarchy, yield organizations that operate innovatively, effectively, and efficiently, or does it recreate the worst of high-school cliques within adult organizations? When implemented correctly, these organizations can be highly successful, but initial research suggests that “correctly” involves some degree of well-designed boundaries to transparency.

  6. Transparency and Labor Scheduling

    by Ethan S. Bernstein

    Fundamentally, organizations consume inputs and, through a set of processes, produce outputs. Historically, organizational transparency meant observing the inputs and the outputs. Technological advances in workplace transparency have significantly enhanced management’s ability to look into the black box of the “processes” by instrumenting intermediate work activity, often under the rubric of what Ben Waber has termed “people analytics” (Waber, 2013). As managers adopt tools to more closely observe activity (rather than outcomes), they drive deeper into what was previously considered private.

    What are managers doing with all of that data? That’s the key question. That debate is getting particularly hot in the area of labor scheduling, where Professor Bernstein and his colleagues are increasingly conducting a multi-organization research study. Our preliminary results suggest that the success of scheduling systems depends upon whether it serves as a tool for or against the workers. In many ways, data-driven scheduling software is attractive to retailers because it gives them unprecedented transparency. But the ultimate success of these systems depends on this same transparency being available to employees as well. Additional field experiments on this topic are currently underway.

    Keywords: Labor Scheduling; transparency;

  7. Transparency and Service Operations

    by Ethan S. Bernstein

    In modern organizations, customer service associates find themselves being watched by both customers and managers. How much does observation of customer service associates by managers (who do not have direct contact with the customer) improve or reduce levels of customer service? How much does observation by customers (who do not have direct contact with organizational leadership and policies) improve or reduce levels of customer service? Research is currently in-progress to investigate both of these questions.