Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Triggering bad behaviour at work

Last week, we learned that the border between good and evil is not a fixed line, but rather something that can move towards the one direction or the other, depending on the situation and on the system an individual is in. This certainly applies to many life domains, for example to the domain of work. Employers of course want to make sure that their employees only show “good” behaviour at work and thus there is an increasing demand for instruments assessing integrity or work engagement. They hope that this will make desirable behaviour at work more likely. But what if such “good” or “bad” behaviour does not exclusively depend on the person, but also to a certain extent on external circumstances?

In their study, George C. Banks, Christopher E. Whelpley and In-Sue Oh from Virginia Commonwealth University, and KangHyun Shin from Ajou University wanted to find out what factors lead to bad behaviour at work, called counterproductive work behaviour. This is behaviour that goes against the goals of an organisation and can be for example stealing or taking extensively long breaks. The researchers asked employees of a South Korean bank to rate their levels of emotional exhaustion (e.g. frustration caused by their work) and to indicate their engagement at work (e.g. to what extent they care about the organisation’s fate). Employees’ supervisors were asked to rate counterproductive work behaviours within the organisation. The researchers found higher emotional exhaustion to be related to lower organisational commitment which in turn lead to counterproductive work behaviour.

Their interpretation is that counterproductive work behaviour is intrinisically rewarding because it invokes feelings like pleasure, personal gain or thrill-seeking. Normally, our emotion regulation system prevents us from rewarding ourselves in this way. But when we are emotionally exhausted, there may be not enough resources for such a regulation process.

The original article was published in the International Journal of Stress Management. There is a summary of the study on the Occupational Digest blog.

The conclusion that can be drawn from this study is simple: avoid emotional exhaustion in your employees. When it comes to the question of how we can achieve this in practice, things become a bit more complex. The authors suggest that companies remove or reduce the causes of emotional exhaustion, such as role conflict, role ambiguity, word overload, lack of social support and autonomy. Also, stress management intervention programmes like for example relaxation techniques or exercise have, according to the authors, been shown to improve employees’ handling of stress at work.

This means that apart from only selecting employees that score relatively high on integrity and engagement scales, employers can do more to prevent their employees from behaving in ways that are detrimental for the company’s goals. They can create an environment that helps their employees maintain a positive attitude towards their work.

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