Saturday, March 30, 2013

Is a Co-Worker Undermining Your Work? Blame the Boss, Study Says

Why does a seemingly 'normal' employee sabotage the work of his or her co-workers? New research from the University of Minnesota, the University of British Columbia, Clemson University and Georgia State University suggests that managers have a bigger role to play in getting everyone to 'play nice' than you might expect. The researchers found that envy alone isn't enough to get one employee to undermine another. Instead, it's a combination of envy and a sense of being 'out of the loop' that does the trick--and managers can surely do something about the latter.

The researchers conducted two studies to figure out when employees were most likely to sabotage each other.

Bad behavior in hospitals and on campus
In the first experiment, researchers conducted two surveys of 160 workers at an American hospital. The first survey asked about the workers' perceptions of envy, their connections with their colleagues, and their comfort level with acts that might be considered subversive. The second survey, taken eight months later, asked about specific things the workers might have done to make life more difficult for their colleagues. The results:

  • Envy isn't enough. Connections matter. People who felt envious were significantly more likely to act on those feelings when their relationships with their co-workers were weak.
  • Strong connections reduce sabotage. Those who felt envious but who had strong relationships with their co-workers were less likely to undermine other employees.
The second experiment was similar, but used 247 business school students as participants. The students are divided into work groups for the year, and these workgroups often become quite close. During a single semester, they answered a series of surveys designed to determine how close they were to the other students in their workgroup, how envious they were of others, and if they had done anything to sabotage other students in their group. The results:
  • Workplace culture is important. The researchers found that some workgroups were relatively tolerant of students who sabotaged others, while others didn't permit it. Not surprisingly, those workgroups that seemed to sanction sabotage saw a whole lot more of it. But someone who didn't feel any envy was extremely unlikely to sabotage someone else, even if they were disconnected from the group and the group turned a blind eye to bad behavior.
Karl Aquino, one of the study's co-authors and a professor at UBC Sauder School of Business, says that weak connections with one's co-workers can easily foster so-called 'moral disengagement:'
We often hear that people who feel envious of their colleagues try to bring them down by spreading negative rumors, withholding useful information, or secretly sabotaging their work... The match is not struck unless employees experience what psychologists call 'moral disengagement'-a way of thinking that allows people to rationalize or justify harming others.
The paper, titled A Social Context Model of Envy and Social Undermining, will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

Has a co-worker ever sabotaged or undermined your work? To what extent do you think your boss or your company's culture was played a role?