Business Psychology - Latest Findings




Article No. 285
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Encouraging Deviance

New research measures an impact supervisors do not want to have.

Imagine this scene: three supervisors are in a meeting with their manager. On the table in front of them are numerous individual attendance records loosely arranged into three piles.

“Gentlemen,” says the manager, “we have a problem. Human Resources has called my attention to a pattern of sick leave abuse in your three areas.” He picks up one of the stacks of paper and goes on. “Your people are using sick leave to give themselves three-day weekends. I don’t suppose this is a surprise to you. You have to get the work done even if you are short-handed. But if Human Resources knows, then upper management knows too, and they’ll be watching to see what happens next. Speak to your people. Let’s get this turned around.”

Each of the supervisors picks up a stack of attendance records and leaves. Each walks away thinking about his next actions.

Peter, one of the supervisors, decides to meet with his employees and instruct them to correct this problem. He won’t be mean about it. He’ll just tell them it has to change. The only problem Peter sees is one of personal embarrassment. He takes his share of Fridays and Mondays off, too, so he’s hoping no one points that out.

Franklin, the second supervisor, has the same problem. He likes to spend the extra time with his wife who has Fridays off. But he’s too embarrassed about upper management noticing the abuse to say anything to his employees. He’ll just hope for the best and say nothing to his people. He’ll also improve his attendance on Fridays.

Richard, the third supervisor, hasn’t used any sick leave in the last year. He’s so healthy that it annoys people if he mentions it, so he doesn’t mention it, and he won’t bring it up in the meeting he has planned for his people. He’s going to tell them to correct the abuse, and he’ll warn them that upper management is watching.

Three supervisors . . . three groups of employees . . . three different strategies . . . what do you suppose these employees will do?

According to research conducted by Brian Dineen, from the University of Kentucky, the third supervisor, Richard, will get the best response from his employees. They will significantly reduce their abuse of sick leave.

Franklin’s employees (he was second) won’t change. They won’t reduce their abuse of sick leave, but they won’t increase it either.

Peter’s employees (the first supervisor) will significantly increase their abuse of sick leave, and upper management is likely to notice that right away.

Professor Dineen studies employee conduct. He studies deviant behavior, like employee theft and sick leave abuse, and he studies good employee conduct, instances of behavior he calls employee citizenship behaviors. In his most recent research, Dineen examined two features of supervision that he believed would impact employee conduct. He was hoping to measure their effects.

The first feature he called supervisory guidance, and it refers to supervisory efforts to encourage good conduct and discourage bad conduct. Peter and Richard, supervisors 1 and 3, used guidance when they spoke to their employees.

The second supervisory feature he examined he labeled integrity which he defined as a matching of a supervisor’s words and deeds. Peter, the supervisor who discouraged sick leave abuse while abusing it himself lacked integrity, while Richard, the supervisor who did not use sick leave, had integrity.

Dineen found that employees react strongly to supervisory guidance depending upon their beliefs about the integrity of their supervisor. If they believe their supervisor has high integrity, then they react positively to supervisory guidance and their behavior improves. If employees believe their supervisor has low integrity (his words don’t match his deeds), then they react negatively to supervisory guidance and their behavior worsens. In Dineen’s study, when guidance was used and integrity was low, deviant behaviors significantly increased and employee citizenship behaviors decreased. Curiously, in Dineen’s sample, supervisors with low integrity fared best if they just kept quiet and offered no supervisory guidance at all. At least the conduct of their employees didn’t worsen.

The obvious lesson from this research is that supervisors are well served by a reputation for high integrity. It is especially useful when supervisors must offer guidance to encourage good conduct. A second, less obvious lesson is to avoid triggering employee rebellions by giving supervisory guidance without corresponding integrity. That will keep a bad situation from becoming a calamity. Now you know.

Reference: Dineen, Brian R., Roy Lewicki, and Edward Tomlinson (2006) Supervisory Guidance and Behavioral Integrity: Relationships With Employee Citizenship and Deviant Behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91 (3), 622-635. www.businesspsych.org

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