Who's in the Driver's Seat? Exploring Firm-Level vs. CEO-Level Effects on Problemistic Search

Songcui Hu, Richard J. Gentry, Timothy J. Quigley, Steven Boivie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


The Behavioral Theory of the Firm suggests that performance below an aspiration triggers problemistic search that can lead to organizational change and risk-taking. This compelling perspective has spawned considerable empirical examination of diverse strategic outcomes as firms’ responses to performance feedback. However, empirical studies have provided inconsistent evidence of problemistic search effects on various organizational search outcomes. This empirical controversy is likely attributed to the fact that most research has considered problemistic search as a firm-level and relatively routinized process with a high degree of automaticity in firms’ responses to performance feedback while overlooking the role of managerial agency. Rather than viewing problemistic search as an automatic firm-level process, we believe that behavioral responses are shaped, at least partially, by top executives, notably CEOs. To this end, we first examine whether problemistic search effects vary across a range of organizational change and risk outcomes. We then explore whether the relative size of firm and CEO effects varies across different search outcomes. Using a multilevel approach, we show not only the heterogeneity in problemistic search effects on different organizational outcomes but also heterogeneity in the relative size of firm and CEO effects on these outcomes. While firm effects are substantial in directing some strategic decisions, as proposed by the problemistic search model, CEO effects are large for certain organizational outcomes, such as changes in resource allocation. This study serves as a jumping-off point for future theorizing and empirical work on problemistic search that incorporate the role of managerial agency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1187-1212
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Management
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2023


  • CEO effect
  • hierarchical linear modeling
  • managerial agency
  • organizational change
  • problemistic search
  • risk taking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Finance
  • Strategy and Management


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