Years do what days cannot

Jia Li joins Vlerick as a Professor of Organisational Behaviour

“My expertise is in organisational behaviour, more specifically in teamwork and team leadership. Organisations increasingly rely on teams to perform tasks, whether it is making strategic decisions by top management teams or innovation by R&D teams. So, I study how to build teams with people from different cultural and professional backgrounds, and how to ensure these teams can work together to deliver a high-quality performance, while having satisfaction. My research looks at team members as well as team leaders, focusing on how they can both be effective.” Meet Jia Li, who was recently appointed Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour.

web-insights-jia-li
  • Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour
  • Formerly an Assistant Professor at the University of Göttingen (Germany) and at Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands)
  • Specialised in longitudinal research and teaching on teamwork and team leadership
  • Nature person with a Eurasian mindset and a passion for photography and painting

Team dynamics and change

Research on teams mostly takes a static perspective, for example through one-time questionnaires or by observing teams over a very short time span. But teams can last for several weeks, months, or even years. “If you want to understand how people in teams interact, you should really follow them over a longer period of time”, says Jia enthusiastically, as she introduces her specialty, i.e. longitudinal research. Can she give an example of the insights this type of research can provide? Jia explains: “A large part of my work is about how teams develop over time and how they cope with team membership change – new people joining the team, team members being replaced, and people leaving the team. In the face of such changes, how are teams brought back on track to focus on the task at hand again? Team membership change is quite a new topic that hasn’t been studied much, although the composition of teams changes all the time.”

Teaming up with robots

Another research topic she is excited about ties in with one of the School’s strategic research themes: human-robot teaming or human-machine interaction. Due to staff shortages, service organisations, such as nursing homes, residential care homes and hospitals are turning to social robots to help them deal with the needs of the elderly and the sick. “Again, there is still very little research on how these robots and humans can work together effectively. That’s why I’m teaming up with scholars from the Netherlands, China and the US, in order to dig deeper into this important and topical issue.”

Walk the talk

So far, Jia’s entire career has been in academia, researching and teaching at renowned universities in the Netherlands and Germany – Göttingen University, for example, is linked to no fewer than 47 Nobel Prize Laureates. But she wants to broaden her scope. “My research is about management. I want to develop theories and put them to the test in close collaboration with practitioners. And that’s something I know I will be able to do at Vlerick, which is what motivated me to apply and to come here.”

But there are other reasons why she decided to join us. “Vlerick really walks the talk. If you look at the School’s diversity and inclusion efforts, at how it takes care of students and staff, then it’s clear that management and faculty practice what they preach and teach about leadership and social responsibility, which is quite unique. Now that’s an organisation I want to work for.” She pauses before adding: “And finally, the atmosphere appealed to me. I found my future colleagues to be very authentic and genuinely supportive of each other.”

Jia recalls how her feelings about Vlerick were confirmed during the Integration Day back in August: “Universities and business schools typically organise a city trip or some other outing to welcome new faculty and staff, but Vlerick actually chose to give something back to the community. We were all divided into small groups and sent to care homes and hospitals to help. How special is that? That’s when I knew I’d made the right choice.”  

Meaningful research and internationalisation

At Vlerick, Jia wants to continue to do meaningful, high-quality research. “Because as a School we want to grow and continually improve, teaching our students evidence-based practices. High-quality scientific research and publications are crucial to realising that goal. In the longer term I want to develop a very strong line of research focusing on teamwork and leadership. And I will mobilise my resources and my network to achieve that goal.”   

On a personal note, she adds: “I must admit that when I applied, I felt a little apprehensive, wondering whether I’d fit in as one of the few, if not the only Asian-looking faculty member. Of course, I needn’t have worried. I understand that internationalisation is one of the School’s strategic priorities. I’d like to think of myself as almost Eurasian, as I spent half of my life living in Europe and the other half living in Asia. So, my mindset is half European, half Asian, and I can speak both cultural languages.”

Never assume

Jia considers herself fortunate to be a global citizen. But the journey hasn’t always been easy. “When I came to the Netherlands after my studies in China, I felt as if I’d landed on another planet. Everything was so different and it took me some time to get used to things. But once I’d overcome the first hurdles, it was such an enriching experience. One thing I’ve learned is to never make an assumption about people or situations, because your own cultural preconceptions will likely affect your interpretation, and things could be just the opposite of what you thought they were. If you don’t understand something, always ask – politely. Make sure you have as much information as possible before jumping to conclusions. That’s probably the biggest lesson learned on this intercultural journey.”

How to win the Nobel prize?

A second piece of advice Jia has is to be focused and persistent. “My motto is: years do what days cannot. I’ve written this on the first page of my doctoral thesis and I’ve added it to all of my application letters”, she says. “You see, I want to do longitudinal research. There is so much novel knowledge that can be generated with this approach, but it is very time consuming and pains taking, which is why many shy away from it.” And she continues: “Persistence is also needed if you want to become a good scientist. Especially ground-breaking research takes a long time to be seen and recognised, so, you’ll need focus and persistence in equal measure. There is a joke that goes like this: ‘How can you get a Nobel Prize? You have to live long enough.’ If research is too novel, people may not immediately accept or appreciate it. That’s why you have to try and fail, try again and fail again … persist.”

If she is not in front of her computer, then you will probably find her in the park or in the woods. Jia is very much a nature person, and she also has an artistic mind. “My friends often jokingly say that I may have made the wrong career choice, as I seem to have more talent with arts than with science – well, they are too kind and generous with compliments. Had I not been a scientist I’d have made a photographer or painter.”

Profile 

  • Associate Professor at Vlerick Business School
  • Member of the editorial review board at the Asia Pacific Journal of Management
  • Research fellow at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, the Netherlands (2020 - )
  • Assistant professor at the School of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands (2015-2019)
  • Assistant professor at the Faculty of Biology and Psychology, Georg-August-University Göttingen, Germany (2011-2014)
  • PhD in Organisational Behaviour at the School of Business and Economics, Maastricht University, the Netherlands (2006-2011)

Get in touch!

Jia Li

Jia Li

Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour